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5 min

She’s a Boy I Knew

East Van filmmaker premieres at VIFF

NON-DISPARAGING IMAGES OF TRANS FOLKS: Gwen Haworth says there were no stories of successful transitions when she was coming out as trans. She hopes her new film will help fill that void. Credit: Xtra West Files

At the age when most small children are thinking about their first day of school and how to ride a bike, Gwen Haworth (who at the time was a young boy named Steven) knew that her gender identity was awry.

It was a secret she kept to herself for more than two decades.

“I’ve been aware of this since I was four,” says Haworth. “That meant 23 years of keeping this secret hidden, 23 years of self-hate and internalized transphobia.”

The frustration in her words is palpable, but the softness in her spirit resonates peace above and beyond all other emotions.

Know this: this is no queer tragedy. In fact, Haworth’s story is inspiring and worth celebrating, and even comes complete with a happy ending.

The ‘ending’ however is really just another beginning —Haworth’s anticipated film debut called She’s a Boy I Knew: Gwen’s DIY feature transgender documentary.

Haworth’s first- and second-person account of her evolutionary journey pre- and post-transition is something that should be required viewing in every school, at every PFLAG meeting, heck, at every prenatal class out there.

Haworth, now an East Van-based dyke filmmaker, takes on a host of brave topics in front of the camera, asking difficult questions not just of herself, but also of her parents, her siblings, her ex-wife (whom she married while still identifying as a man) and her dearest friends. The candor and bravery of her family members results in both touching and deeply honest vignettes that will resonate with all who watch it.

Celebrated Canadian director Anne Wheeler of Better Than Chocolate and Bye Bye Blues fame, had these words of praise for Gwen’s film: “The fact that you made this journey, and documented it ‘enroute’ amazes me. It is a genius piece of exploration and a tribute to love enduring beyond question.”

Haworth relates Wheeler’s words with obvious pride and excitement. But, she says, she’s still only partway through her mission: to finally see a loving, non-disparaging full-length documentary film about trans folks appear on the big screen.

No doubt She’s a Boy I Knew will bring her one step closer to completing her mission when it opens at the Vancouver International Film Festival Oct 4.

As Haworth tells it, being trapped in the wrong body was incredibly difficult, but having no access to stories of successful transitions — either on screen or in print — meant the process of transitioning was far more difficult and confusing for her and her family than it needed to be.

“When I came out, people important to me didn’t really know what it meant to be a transsexual. There were a lot of things to learn, yet there wasn’t anything out there to watch that we were aware of. There wasn’t anything that showed a family experience, to see other people like them going through the difficult questions but still being able to be there for each other through hard times.

“The suicide rate in the trans community is really high,” she notes, “and a large part of that is through isolation and depression because of not having those people to fall back on. I hope that by showing my family’s experience, that would give other people something to dialogue from.”

As a result, the award-winning filmmaker decided to make She’s a Boy I Knew her thesis project while finishing up her Master’s of Fine Arts at the University of British Columbia.

The timing — beginning filming mere months after her fourth surgery and ‘official’ transition from male to female — was a conscious decision on her part.

“If I had made it five years later, people would have forgotten a lot more, pain would have felt more distant, it wouldn’t have been truthful to the emotion of that time. I really wanted this film to be that resource tool that wasn’t there for any of us, and they understood that.”

Haworth has succeeded in spades. Her film is a moving, oftentimes humorous and deeply courageous documentation of her and her family’s evolution through her transition.

“So much of my life has been about this moment… all the hiding, the fear, the feeling that people wouldn’t accept me. I cried so much making this film, I gushed buckets and buckets. I’ve learned to love and appreciate these people so much more from hearing their words and learning more about them in the process.”

She says she’s both thrilled and nervous about the upcoming premiere, an event that will bring much of her friends and family together in one room.

“I’ll either be bawling or throwing up in the bathroom,” she laughs. “That is going to be an extremely intense moment for me. It’ll be scary and exciting.”

More queer picks at the VIFF

The Walker
Oct 7, 9, 10.

Paul Schrader’s The Walker is a fascinating indicator of the political climate in America. Woody Harrelson plays a proudly superficial, openly gay descendant of corrupt Southern aristocrats, serving as a “non-sexual escort” to Washington wives — a “walker.”

His attempts to do the right thing in the wake of a politically sensitive murder place him in increasingly shark-ridden waters, forcing him to confront both his limitations and his father issues.

Schrader’s favourite motif from Bresson’s Pickpocket — in which a morally ambiguous male protagonist (think Richard Gere in American Gigolo) is redeemed by a kiss through prison bars — turns up here with Harrelson being kissed, through a lattice, by an Arab-American conceptual artist whose work refracts Abu Ghraib torture images through the lens of queer SM porn.

Too bad their relationship seems more about earning Schrader liberal brownie points than exploring real human emotions; it’s never credible.

Still, much in the film works — lovely design, sharp dialogue, and a strangely underused but stellar cast (Willem Defoe, Lily Tomlin, Lauren Bacall, Ned Beatty, and Kristin Scott Thomas). If you’re like me, you’ll sit eagerly waiting to see where blame for all the evil in America will ultimately be placed. (Care to guess?)

—Allan MacInnis

***

For the Bible Tells Me So
Sep 27, 30.

The premise may sound overdone at first glance (rightwing Christians’ tired ol’ hatred of gays) but this film is well-worth viewing. A glimpse into the lives of families who believe that homosexuality is wrong — aye, here’s the rub — yet contain queer family members themselves. Winner of Best Documentary Audience Award at the Seattle Film Festival.

***

Breakfast with Scot
Oct 3, 4, 11.

Eric, a former major league hockey player, and Sam, a corporate lawyer, have been together for four years. They suddenly receive temporary custody of a young child. To their surprise and disdain, the extremely effeminate child proves to be more fey than they are.

The film recently made headlines due to its endorsement from the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team, which let the director use their logos and official jerseys — much to the chagrin of a couple of rightwing fanatics who kicked up a fuss.

***

Hollywood Chinese
Oct 10.

Three-time Sundance award-winning gay director Arthur Dong (Coming Out Under Fire, Forbidden City U.S.A.) offers a poignant historical perspective of racism in the movie industry. Interviews with actors from early cinema (white actors who were hired to play Chinese roles in the ’30s and ’40s), along with stars from contemporary cinema including Joan Chen (the charming queer love story Saving Face) Tsai Chin (Memoirs of a Geisha), and author Amy Tan (The Joy Luck Club.)

***

Shorts:

Obbah — a Girl’s Elder Brother
Oct 1, 2.

In one hour-long take, Kim Jongguk’s first-time film shows the tensions between a man and his wife when they run into the husband’s ex-lover. At times painfully slow, the piece is perhaps best approached as performance art.

Wolf Lake
Oct 7, 8.

A tale by Canadian poet Elizabeth Bachinsky of a young woman who recalls her ordeal at Wolf Lake. Directed by Michael V Smith and starring local queer poet/performance artist Amber Dawn.

No Bikini
Oct 8, 9.

Inspired by an Ivan E Coyote story about how a defining moment at age seven impacted the rest of her life.

Also of note: queer director Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park and A Walk Into the Sea: Danny Williams and the Warhol Factory. Check www.viff.org for additional details, dates and times.

—Denise Sheppard