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Revolutionizing Representation in Documentary: The Making of 'Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen'

By Kristal Sotomayor

Actress/activist Lavern Cox, in Sam Feder's 'Disclosure.' Photo: Ava Benjamin-Shorr. Courtesy of Netflix

“When you are a member of a marginalized community, most film and television is not made with you in mind. And so, if you are a person of color, an LGBTQ person, a person who is an immigrant, a person with a disability, you develop a critical awareness because you understand that the images that you’re seeing are not your life.”

—Actress/activist Laverne Cox in Sam Feder’s Disclosure

When the history of cinema has failed to accurately portray our communities, how can we find a new path forward to right the decades of wrong? Disclosure, directed by Sam Feder, tackles the issues of Trans representation in film and television. The film interrogates how the projected images of Trans life have influenced the perception of Trans identity for both cisgender and Transgender audiences. In the making of Disclosure, Feder made sure to address issues of representation and diversity both on screen and behind the scenes.

In his keynote address at Getting Real ‘20, Feder discussed the three ways the production of Disclosure dismantled traditional documentary practice: empowering crews to become leaders, compensating protagonists, and centering the unseen and unacknowledged. “Our production model—having Trans people on all sides of the camera, our commitment to paying and training Trans people— is what makes it unique,” Feder explained. “That ethos is in every frame. It was not easy. But making a film is not easy. We get to choose where we put our energy, our action and intention. Disclosure is proof of what can happen when the content is reflected in the process.”

The making of Disclosure is a guide for inclusion and accountability of historically underrepresented and misrepresented communities; the crew consisted of mostly Trans-identifying makers and Fellows. “Over 120 Trans people contributed to Disclosure,” Feder noted at the beginning of the keynote. “In production, we prioritized hiring Trans people. When we didn't do that, we mentored a Trans person.” According to the Disclosure website, the nine Fellows were “provided a daily stipend, meals, networking opportunities with industry professionals, hands-on training and mentorship.”

A common issue with diversity initiatives is that, oftentimes, the environment is hostile toward those from underrepresented backgrounds because the host organizations generally do not address the underlying issues affecting the lack of diversity. The Disclosure Fellowship, however, was designed specifically to teach new skills, network, and experience a set where Trans lives are centered and valued. During the Queerdoc Breakout Session at Getting Real, Disclosure Fellow Nava Mau described her experience in the program as “my own personal film school.” At the time, Mau had just begun to work in the film industry and reflected on the experience as pivotal to her career. “Now that I have started to work in the studio system, I can see how necessary the Fellowship was, how unique it still is today, and reflect on the effect it has had on my personal journey and so many others as well.”

Ava Benjamin-Shorr, director of photography on Disclosure, explained in the Queerdoc Breakout Session that “unfortunately there is no comparison to the experience on set. I have never been on a film set that has actually had built into it a function that gives back to the community it is about, and I think that is probably the most credible thing I have been a part of and it is really awesome.”

On the set of Disclosure, Feder was able to integrate the Fellowship into the filmmaking process to support emerging mediamakers, explaining that the Fellowship was “not unidirectional.” Feder explained in his keynote that during breaks between filming interviews, he “would ask mentees if they had questions they wanted to include in the interviews. Some of the best stories came from those questions. There was this unnameable sense of being.” 

The Disclosure Fellows are now producing their own films and screening their work across the country. Of the Fellowship, Nava said in the Breakout Session, “Sometimes there were these little nuggets of information [I learned on set]. Ava does not even remember but there was a knowledge she had that I did not have, that she was able to impart. Sam did the same. I have said this to Sam: ‘You never know what your impact has been.’ You just have to do it and that has proven itself to me in so many different ways.”

The centering of Trans lives behind the camera also empowers those on screen to open up about their experiences and share their expertise. “There's a particular lens sensitivity that a storyteller can hold only if they have a deeply personal stake in that story,”  Feder explained in his keynote. “It is through that lens and those stories that we will start to see social change. When the lights went out and the AC would go off, it would get really hot and the set would get really quiet. We all would be a little nervous and excited. I would introduce the interviewee to the person behind the camera, all Trans, and their faces would relax a little bit as they took that in.”

Another step toward equity within the filmmaking practice was that Disclosure compensated the 34 creative consultants that appeared on screen. Interviewees included directors, producers, actors, activists, and writers such as Candis Cayne, Sandra Caldwell, Mj Rodriguez, Yance Ford and Lilly Wachowski, to name a few. As Feder described, “In every step of making Disclosure, the values and intentions we held onto was a radical transformation we want to see for Trans people both on and off the screen. We committed to paying everyone, including often compensating protagonists for their time and expertise. It took years for some of our backers to understand the necessity of this.”

A common notion in documentary filmmaking is that the “subjects” (an already colonizing term) of a film should not be compensated for their time because of ethical concerns. “We were told that funders can’t fund a documentary that pays the characters,” Feder explained during his keynote. “When I have asked both directors and funders, I've been told that paying protagonists threatens the integrity of the film. And I think the question hidden in that answer is, whose lives do we value? When we decide the distribution of our funds, whose access, power, and possibility is protected or denied? I felt 100% confident that anything our cast was going to say would not become compromised by compensating them for their time and expertise.”

The longstanding practice of not compensating protagonists has been a subject of debate within the industry for decades. One film in particular that has been criticized is Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning, which documents ball culture in mid-to-late 1980s New York and follows a cast of the Black and Latinx gay and Trans communities. In Disclosure, the film is referenced as both a crucial insight into the community and as an example of highly extractive storytelling practice. The film is often criticized for the director’s failure to compensate protagonists, many of whom are low income, and for practicing “parachute filmmaking,” when a privileged filmmaker enters an underrepresented community to tell a story with little or no accountability. By referencing Paris Is Burning in Disclosure, Feder makes the stark contrast between the production ethics of this seminal documentary and that of Disclosure’s modern investigation into Trans representation. While the practice of extractive filmmaking has long been called into question, it is still common and well-funded within the documentary industry.

From Jennie Livingston's 'Paris Is Burning.'

“Trans people and all marginalized people are so often explained by and talked about by experts,” Feder explained in his keynote. “Who is more of an expert in life than the one who was living it? Trans people and all marginalized people are constantly asked to volunteer their time to educate the rest of us. We, as directors, might not make money off our films, but we gain cultural capital. We explained this in detail in our fundraising efforts and, eventually, we found the right partners to make Disclosure. We raised the money to offer honorariums for our cast.”

In the documentary industry, we often think our craft can bring a more accurate and nuanced perspective on a topic or issue than fiction ever can. In Disclosure, Feder touches on the issue of Trans misrepresentation in Hollywood fictional movies. He cites the harmful stereotypes of Trans people in films and the portrayal of Trans people by cisgender actors as propagating Transphobia and violence. As much as some want to distinguish Hollywood from documentary, Hollywood directly informs global cinema as a whole. The stories and stereotypes from Hollywood films impact documentary filmmaking because the issues in the zeitgeist inform what documentary stories are “fundable.” Documentary is also a construction of a filmmaker’s perspective, which is often impacted by Hollywood images. In fact, during the Queerdoc Breakout Session, Feder stated, “When I originally started this film, I did not want to focus on Hollywood. I thought it was going to be more about documentaries.” 

One could posit that traumatic, extractive documentary practices can produce a similarly negative impact on Trans representation as what is seen in Hollywood. The Hollywood film Boys Don’t Cry is based on the documentary The Brandon Teena Story. The films tell the story of a young Trans man in Nebraska who falls victim to a brutal hate crime. On the films, Cox states in Disclosure, “I hear people say, ‘But it’s based on a true story.’ But why is this the kind of story that gets told over and over again?” It is important to reevaluate the systems of values within the documentary industry to provide equity to the communities represented. The thoughtfulness and intentionality behind Disclosure paves a new way to transform documentaries.

“For Trans and non-Trans people alike, seeing Trans people tell this story, hold it, and ground it in a context, contend with the violence and shame and hate we have all internalized about Trans people,” Feder maintained in his keynote. “Seeing it outside of ourselves can allow you to move past it in a way you have not been able to before. The images that Trans people have often seen in isolation, alone or with people that did not feel understood by them, are now shared and community. The experiences were being mirrored and validated... Getting there can only be done within a process in which access and power are challenged, opening the door for transformative possibilities and, once that door is opened, molecules begin to shift. We start to really see ourselves in the world differently and until we live in a world of equitable access and power, I think a framework of equitable documentary power includes compensation across the room, empowering people onset, and who is in leadership.”

Following Feder’s keynote, Laverne Cox joined him for a conversation about the lack of recognition for Trans mediamakers. The Emmys had taken place just a few weeks before the Getting Real conference. Cox was nominated for her fourth Emmy for her performance in the Netflix series Orange Is The New Black. While presenting the Emmy for Outstanding Writing in a Drama Series, Cox was censored for stating “I am living proof of the American dream that anyone in this country can lose the Emmy four years in the same category and yet somehow end up on this stage presenting an award to someone who probably didn’t…” and she was cut off when saying “vote for me.” She concluded with a quote from Langston Hughes: “What happens to an American dream deferred? Does it shrivel up like a raisin in the sun?”

Despite the unprecedented exposure of Trans stories in cinema, as Cox explained to Feder, “No openly Trans person has ever won an Academy Award. Now, there's two openly Transgender acting Primetime Emmy nominees and two Daytime Emmy nominees. I remember years ago, a non-Trans person who was playing a role in a film ended up winning an Academy Award. When asked ‘Why didn't you consider hiring a Trans person to play this part?’ the director said, ‘There were no Trans actors.’ I read this and I was like, What? There are so many of us now that people can't say that we don't exist anymore. Trans people have been acting for a long time; we document that in Disclosure. It's painful to look at our history, but it's also exciting to know that, in this moment, right now, we can make change. In this moment right now, we have an opportunity as artists to create a world anew in front of and behind the camera. Not only for Trans people but for people with disabilities, people of color, people of all gender identities.”

In a time, when the issue of diversity and inclusion is at the forefront, Disclosure is a guide for the future of documentary filmmaking. As Feder pointed out in the post-keynote conversation, “One of the main threads of Disclosure is about how visibility both opens possibilities and can be dangerous because we know when a marginalized community gets attention, backlash ensues. Especially because the murders of Black Trans women are reaching epidemic proportions.” Despite the negative reactions to more diversity, we must continue on. Cox explained, “It's a really exciting time. I think having an understanding of the past is crucial. How do I as an artist move into a new space and tell different stories and open more doors? Right now, we have an opportunity culturally to make ourselves over, to create a new personality collectively, energetically, so we can tap into a new way of being. I think that what this moment is calling for, this 2020 that is such a mess on so many levels, is that it is time to let go of the old ways of doing things because it's not working.”

With the endless possibilities to bring change to the documentary industry, there is still much work to be done. During his keynote address, Feder brought up the experience of a screening with grad students. Feder received the feedback that Disclosure did not depict Trans Asian representation. Feder admitted, “My first instinct was to defend the film, justify our choices, and point out the times that we did. I wanted to tell him how limited our resources were, that one film can’t do everything. The most problematic answer is to say that I could not find it. While that might be true, I actually don't think that is what his question was about. I believe my responsibility, in that moment, was to interrogate my instinctual answer and to see what my answer was hiding. I wanted to find an answer that would validate him rather than defend myself. An answer that would move the conversation forward so that I could do better next time, rather than sounding right this time.”

Disclosure moves the conversation forward on Trans representation and provides a blueprint to dismantle the errors in documentary filmmaking. One of the most important acknowledgments that Feder pointed out during Getting Real was that there is still more work to come—work that requires empathy and openness. As Feder described, “We are going to make mistakes. We are going to make choices that hurt people. But we get to choose how we deal with those mistakes. I was able to put into practice ideas and dreams I was cultivating and working on the mistakes [within the representation of Trans identity] that I have been wrestling with for the past 15 years in Disclosure.” With this acknowledgment, Feder invited the documentary industry to interrogate the misrepresentations of marginalized communities. As actress and writer Jen Richards states in Disclosure, “There is a one-word solution to almost all the problems in Trans media. We just need more and that way, the occasional clumsy representation wouldn’t matter as much because it wouldn’t be all that there is.”

Kristal Sotomayor is a non-binary Latinx freelance journalist, documentary filmmaker, and festival programmer based in Philadelphia. They serve as Programming Director for the Philadelphia Latino Film Festival and Co-Founder of ¡Presente! Media Collective. Kristal has written for ITVS, WHYY, AL DÍA and Autostraddle. They are a 2020 Documentary Magazine Editorial Fellow.