'Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Courtesy of Sundance
A thoughtfully crafted film that puts underheard voices first.
1/27/2020

Director Sam Feder delivers a thought-provoking and emotional exploration of trans identity in popular culture over the last century.

Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen from director Sam Feder is a thought-provoking and emotional exploration of trans identity in popular culture over the last century.

The film is academic, but not stuffy. It gets very personal without devolving into something salacious or exploitative, drawing upon over 1,000 film and television clips — from the 1997 French film Ma Vie en Rose to the popular FX drama Pose — and more than 100 oral histories with trans people who have careers in film and television like Lilly Wachowski and MJ Rodriguez. Behind the camera, the crew is almost exclusively trans, as well.

While Timothy Greenfield-Sanders tapped Janet Mock to be the lead interviewer and a producer on The Trans List (2016), that film didn’t have a trans director or a majority trans crew. The content of Disclosure and its visual language bares some resemblance to this predecessor and others, but it is a documentary made with the kind of intentionality that, for better or worse, is imminently rare and long overdue.

An essay of visual cultural criticism, Feder's doc combines television and film clips tackling common misrepresentations of trans people with personal stories from interviewees who work in media (actors, writers, directors, advocates) and explain how those misrepresentations have manifested in their lives.

It is easy to laud Disclosure for its trans representation in a world that systematically excludes them, and leave it at that. But attention must also be paid to how the doc offers innovative and entertaining storytelling with a lasting emotional effect. Feder, who has been a filmmaker for almost 20 years, has a subtle but steady hand. The movie is like a dress that looks simple yet is intricately constructed underneath. The medium close-ups of each interviewee from the waist up allow them a kind of personal space, where they can both be seen and feel protected from the gaze of the audience.

Laverne Cox is definitely the captain of the team of on-camera contributors and gets ample screen time. She demonstrates a thorough knowledge of trans history (and a longtime obsession with Barbra Streisand’s Yentl) and recalls growing up watching comedian Flip Wilson play the beloved character Geraldine with her mother in Mobile, Alabama. Cox exemplifies the way Feder seamlessly intertwines the wonky with first-person memories, putting both in context from a trans perspective.

The film walks a fine line between centering trans people and explaining the trans community to cis people, and sometimes the balance is off. But what keeps things on pace is the way the movie grounds pop culture references in the lived experiences of the contributors. For example, writer and speaker Zeke Smith speaks about loving Ace Ventura: Pet Detective as a kid and then later, when he was transitioning, watching it again with disgust. “My favorite movie as a kid ends with a room full of people throwing up at the sight of a trans person.” In the screening I attended, the audience was audibly disturbed by that admission.

The paradox of what it means to have a favorite movie or show that both acknowledges that trans people exist while also mocking or being suspect of that same existence is a relief to hear out loud, because it makes explicit something that has been dogging trans folks all their lives. Yet it also feels like there’s no clear way forward from this paradox. And that’s the middle distance Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen manages to straddle with care and precision. With any luck (and a savvy film buyer), this movie should usher in others like it, as more thoughtful and visible “for us by us” trans filmmaking is really only just getting started.

Production companies: Field of Vision, Bow & Arrow Entertainment, Gabbert/Libresco Projects
Cast: Laverne Cox, Alexandra Billings, Trace Lysette, Jen Richards, Lilly Wachowski, MJ Rodriguez, Angelica Ross, Ser Anzoategui, Chaz Bono,
 Sandra Caldwell, Candis Cayne,
 Zackary Drucker, Yance Ford
Director: Sam Feder
Producers: Amy Scholder, Sam Feder
Executive producers: Laverne Cox, Caroline Libresco, Laura Gabbert, Mona Sinha, Abigail E. Disney, Lynda Weinman, Charlotte Cook, Michael Sherman, Matthew Perniciaro
Director of photography: Ava Benjamin Shorr
Editor:
 Stacy Goldate
Music: Francesco Le Metre
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Premieres)

 

105 minutes