'The Pearl': Hot Docs Review

The Pearl Still - Publicity - H 2016
Courtesy of Hot Docs

The Pearl Still - Publicity - H 2016

The real 'Transparent.'

Jessica Dimmock and Christopher LaMarca's documentary profiles four transgender women in the Pacific Northwest.

The transgender community has experienced no shortage of media attention lately, but Jessica Dimmock and Christopher LaMarca's documentary, which intimately examines the lives of four transgender women in the Pacific Northwest, is a powerful addition to the growing body of cinematic work on the subject. Recently showcased at Toronto's Hot Docs festival, The Pearl should easily attract wider exposure, especially on cable and public television.

The subjects, ranging in age from their forties to their seventies, are a disparate lot who share one thing in common, which is having finally embraced their true identities after many years of hiding. Amy, 72, whose wife of 46 years died three years ago, uses the house they shared as a shelter for trans women with no other place to go, supporting them on her small pension. She travels to Thailand for gender reassignment surgery, and is clearly thrilled by the results.

"Nice and empty between my legs," she observes after the operation. "I don't have that stupid dingle-dangle."

Nina, 67, is a retired architect married for 35 years whose wife and children have no idea of her other identity. Hiding her women's clothing in a locked box in her garage, she only dares to put it on in a deserted parking late at night.

There there's siblings Jodi, 49, and Krystal, 47, whose story is so unbelievable a screenwriter would be reluctant to create it. The two brothers had shared a trailer together for many years, with Jodi finally coming out to her sibling even though afraid that she would lose her sole remaining family member by doing so. Instead, Krystal, a Gulf War veteran, tells her that she, too, is transgender. Krystal subsequently decides to fully disclose her new identity to the community, including her VA doctors, while Jodi is too fearful to follow her example.

The Pearl is being described as "immersive," meaning that it attempts to fully immerse the viewer in the lives of its subjects while providing no external narration, talking heads, etc. The filmmakers certainly achieve their goal, with often moving results. But the approach has its drawbacks, with the lengthy scenes featuring the four women going about their lives, including such mundane activities as going for a swim, sometimes resulting in tedium. It turns out that watching someone display their vacation photos is as boring on film as it is in real life.

Still, there are many powerful moments, and one can't help but empathize with the four women as they experience their travails and triumphs. Their courage is often astonishing, as is their outlook, such as the sage advice delivered by one the subjects, comparing transgender people to oysters, which gives the film its title: "You gotta find that pearl and forget the shell."

Venue: Hot Docs

Production: Dimmock LaMarca LLC

Directors/directors of photography: Jessica Dimmock, Christopher LaMarca

Producers: Jessica Dimmock, Kate Barry

Executive producers: Dan Cogan, Jenny Raskin, John Hoffman, Alice Van Couvering

Editor: Fiona Otway

Composers: Grey McMurray, Caleb Burnhans, Julianna Barwick

Not rated, 94 minutes