Arts & Entertainment
6 min

Hot Docs: Girl Inside

Love across the spectrum

A JOURNEY TO SELF THAT ISN'T SOLITARY. The illuminating documentary follows Madison over her three-year transition, focussing on her relationships.

Premiering at Hot Docs is Girl Inside, the new documentary by partners Maya Gallus and Justine Pimlott, the compelling story of three years in the life of a young Toronto trans woman named Madison. Madison is articulate, thoughtful and self-aware — excellent qualities for a stimulating interview subject. But what makes Girl Inside so original is Madison’s kin: There’s a grandmother who enthusiastically schools her in how to be a lady — the old-fashioned way; there’s a close friend from her past who ends up becoming something much more; plus there’s the rest of her family of Maritimers who struggle to various degrees with a beloved son becoming a beloved daughter.

Madison is a bookish girl with a casually glamorous air, a Linux wiz with flowing locks and a wispy frame. Director Gallus met Madison through a mentorship program at Trans Youth Toronto, where she heard the stories of many young trans people. “What [they were] going through seemed quite different to me from what an older person transitioning was going through,” says Gallus, “because [younger people] are dealing with family, parental acceptance, siblings, dating, what is their sexual orientation — all kinds of questions coming up.”

The film shows how Madison must constantly negotiate her gender identity with her loved ones, the daily compromises between how others perceive her and how she perceives herself. The fact that her family was struggling to be supportive — instead of simply rejecting her — piqued Gallus’s interest in Madison as a potential documentary subject, and her scene-stealing grandmother Vivien “sealed the deal.”

Gallus says she was interested in positive family support, “which I hope becomes more the norm.

“I liked the idea of exploring someone going through transition, but the conflict being more internal than external, about their sense of self.”

Vivien is a gloriously witty and warm old bird with a schmancy British accent and a yen for apple martinis (Madison prefers tea). She and Madison are very close, with the elder’s love for the younger undiminished by her major renovation. But there is tension between the octogenarian’s ideas of what it means to be a proper lady, and those of the hip, twentysomething transsexual. Vivien tenaciously sniffs out any lingering masculine traces in the way her granddaughter appears or behaves, innocently remarking that, other than a bumpy nose and unattractive feet, Madison looks great. Madison takes it in stride.

“She was mature enough to understand that people don’t just [click],” says Gallus, “that there is a process for everybody.” Their frank tête-à-têtes are models of openness, especially when Vivien poses touchy questions — about passing, for example — that have bruised many an ego. Vivien believes that if Madison is to be treated by others as a woman, she must act like the popularly accepted ideal of one (Vivien doesn’t believe that being a woman might be a matter of opinion).

Over dips in the pool, hair dates and road trips (including one to visit her mother in Florida, where Madison must dress “conservatively”), we learn that, despite her strict sense of feminine decorum, Vivien’s understanding of her own gender identity has been thrown into question by Madison. This leads to some very refreshing moments of grandmotherly self-scrutiny, some of which are sparked by Madison’s staunch heterosexuality. Madison begins a serious romantic relationship with Cameron, a lovely sensitive lad who had been a very close friend of hers when she was male, but who sees her as the woman she is. The relationship sends off-kilter Vivien’s implicit misconception of transsexuality as an extension of being gay. “In your situation,” she asks, “what is straight and what is gay?”

Gallus and Pimlott, whose credits together include Fag Hags, Punch Like A Girl and Laugh In The Dark, worked hard to earn Madison’s trust — and it shows. The documentary is suffused with empathy and respect for their subject, and Gallus attributes this closeness to several factors. “We’re queer, so we weren’t just the CBC coming in to do this story on transsexuality.

“We weren’t doing a freak show — the fact that I wanted to follow her over a long period of time — we didn’t jump in, go for the jugular and leave. We cared about Madison so much. We’re a couple who work so closely so sometimes it was just the two of us, there’s an intimacy that evolves from that [and] the fact that we’re women.”

Once Madison signed on, she stayed committed to the project despite the hardships of being under the microscope. While she couldn’t make guarantees for how involved her family members would be, they were surprisingly open to the filmmakers and never asked that the camera be turned off, even in the most emotional scenes. “We really connected with Madison and had trust in each other, filmmakers and subject,” says Pimlott, the film’s producer. “How Madison felt about her relationship with us informed how open [her family] would be.” “They trusted her judgment,” adds Gallus.

Madison’s immediate family — except her easygoing and gung-ho sister — sees Madison’s sex change as the death of a son, rather than simply a transformation. They find adapting difficult despite wanting to be supportive. One moving sequence records Madison’s arrival at her father’s house in New Brunswick. He is an average Joe who tries to be relaxed about her transition. “Madison wants a vagina!” he playfully tells the dog. But the casual veneer soon cracks. Her brother, who is very nervous about the reunion, spends his birthday with friends, and Madison isn’t invited (he tries to be nice about it).

Less of a focus than Madison’s relationships are her hormone treatments and surgeries, which include a surprisingly gruelling tracheal shave — “Childbirth’s worse,” quips Vivien — and the genital reassignment operation that Madison has been saving up for over the course of filming. Girl Inside thus goes beyond typical “Trans 101” documentaries that focus on the fundamentals of transitioning — as important as this genre still is for mainstream audiences — and goes deeper into the life of one individual, with her own desires and opinions.

“The film isn’t so much about the transsexual experience, it’s about Madison,” says Gallus. “It is very much one person’s story.

“Even though it’s about transsexuality, it’s really about a family dealing with this person going through this change, and how do these people learn as they go and adapt and change, themselves.”

It is tragic that so much of the pain, confusion and intolerance that Madison and her family — and society in general — face over transsexuality is due to an overly rigid understanding of gender. Changing gender becomes equated with a kind of death. It is also remarkable how much of her family’s encouragement revolves around the fact that Madison “looks good” and passes as a “natural” woman. (What type of film would this be if she didn’t look as “real” as she does, or had less decorum, grace and discretion? Would there be a happy ending?)

When the doctor crassly jokes, “She’s a girl now” at the surgery’s end, you realize that Madison is still trapped by gender, if in a different way.

Girl Inside screens Sat, Apr 21 at 7pm at the Royal (608 College St) and Sun, Apr 29 at 7pm at Isabel Bader (93 Charles St W).

***

The feature-length doc Zoo is a visually lush and ethically provocative film about a group of men who gathered on a farm in Washington state to be together and to be with horses.

Robinson Devor’s surreal, metaphysical exploration was sparked when their rural erotic idyll was exposed by the media frenzy known as the Enumclaw Horse Sex incident, where one of these men, known as “Mr Hands,” died of a perforated colon after a bout of anal-penetration-by-stallion gone wrong.

Meditative and almost abstract at times, the film couldn’t be less sensationalistic. This restraint is admirable but occasionally frustrating, considering that viewers are understandably curious about the logistics of how a man goes about being fucked by a horse. But what Zoo lacks in nitty-gritty, it makes up for in a queasy sense of moral ambiguity, making it a riveting if troubling experience.

What is particularly provocative is the way the men talk about their “zoo” identities and experiences; it’s almost identical to how we have historically discussed queerness.

By tracing the men’s total devotion to (male) horses — feelings that go beyond lust — and their greater sense of companionship with animals than with other human beings, the film dismantles everything you thought you knew about the boundaries between human and animal. Is consent an issue when the animal is on top? Is a man, married with a wife and kid, being fucked by a horse queer? What sort of place is there in society for people who want to be animals?

Zoo (screening at Fri, Apr 20 at 9:45pm and Apr 22 at Isabel Bader) throws a monkey wrench into our understanding of sexual identity, deviancy and the intangibles that may or may not elevate human beings above other living creatures.