As part of our work on documentary we were asked to reflect on fictional, documentary and journalistic approaches to non- fiction. I looked at two different perspectives on the subject of transgenderism. They are both based on the same topic but each one illustrates a different documentary style.
I first looked at a Louis Theroux documentary because I like his work. He presents things as they are without needing to embellish the facts. He also remains impartial and allows the viewer to make up their own minds. For me, many of his documentaries, whilst often controversial, have a feeling of timelessness. If you look at some of his older documentaries they are still relevant today.
Louis Theroux: Transgender Kids provides an insightful and thought-provoking look into gender dysphoria. It was written and presented by Louis Theroux and, like most of his documentaries, was researched and documented over a period of time. The film was released in the UK in 2015 and caused some controversy, particularly among the transgender community who didn’t like the focus on such young children. However, I think this adds to the appeal. It makes the viewer feel uncomfortable at times but this is what provokes thought and question.
Louis Theroux travels to San Francisco where a group of pioneering medical professionals help children who say they were born in the wrong body transition from boy to girl or girl to boy at ever younger ages. He follows three families with children of different ages and in each case the filming takes place in their home surroundings. This is one of the reasons that the documentary remains true to life and, although the subject is something we may know little about, it gives credibility to the facts being presented. You can see that the interviewees are more relaxed and that they are at ease with Louis, and confident enough to let him into their homes.
The documentary opens with a scene that both surprises and intrigues the viewer. With Louis’ question: ” Do you think you are happier as Camille or Sebastian?”
Louis goes on to talk with Camille and her parents who respond, honestly and openly. In the space of a month, five-year old Sebastian changed his name to Camille and wanted to be seen as a girl.
Through a journalistic approach the documentary presents the unspoken truth about a section of society largely ignored and misunderstood. The question raised is what decision parents should make when choosing whether or not their child is too young to know if they want to be a boy or a girl.
In this film Louis Theroux shows his skill in creating a great rapport with the people he interviews and getting information from them that they thought would never be shared. He maintains fluid conversation, somehow always keeping the situation natural.
What I particularly like about this documentary is Louis Theroux’s unique angle on a highly controversial topic. He manages to present the facts in an impartial but sensitive way through his empathy with the people he interviews.
Louis Theroux remains calm throughout the documentary, he never raise his voice or interrupts. The tone of his voice is always on the same pitch and he questions without being probing or judgemental. He rarely shows much emotion but you can see that he empathises with his subjects. He also becomes part of the story as it unfolds, sharing intimate thoughts and feelings of all involved as well as in their daily activities. He observes, presents the facts but also participates in the documentary.
It is extremely touching when he shares his own thoughts: ‘When I was 14 and turning 15, that was probably the hardest year of my life, it really was’. It was clear he was touched by the challenges these young individuals were facing.
It is a long documentary but there is plenty to keep the viewer interested, moving at a steady pace and changing location from homes, to clinics, hospitals and stunning views of San Francisco.
There are a few scenes that may shock the viewer but they add authenticity and are presented in a way that makes these things almost normal. As they are for those involved.
the use of a forearm to create a phallus for a transitioning female to male
A boy of 14 has a puberty blocker implant to prevent his breasts from growing
The documentary continues with Louis visiting the families four months later. Filming over time shows change but also continuity. It is important to show the progress of these young people, the viewer has been given an insight into their lives and wants to know more..will there be a happy ending?
The documentary ends with Louis’ concluding, thought-provoking statement:
“The choice to transition involves the possibility of social rejection and a lifetime commitment to medication, but it is also a chance to exercise the most fundamental right we have – the right to be ourselves. In the end, the hardest part of the challenge may be knowing who it is we really are.”
In contrast to this I looked at a short documentary called ‘The Swimming Club’ by Cecilia Golding and Nick Finegan.
“The Swimming Club”, follows participants at Tags (‘Trans and Gender non-conforming Swimmers’ Group) in London. This documentary looks at transgenderism from a completely different angle. It is not about the physical process of transition but the cruelty and indifference of the spaces around them.
As one transgender male explains: “When I speak of my transition, I increasingly find it less interesting to talk about how I have changed but how the world around me did. Places that once felt comfortable – the bus stop, the gym, the beach – suddenly became places of fear. Where I had once been pleasantly invisible, I was now on show and up for discussion.”
All of the filming takes place in the same location both inside and out of the water. There are many close up shots which make you feel like you want to be there yourself. To dive under the water and feel the freedom it allows.
The documentary is extremely visual and with the blue colours of the water and surrounding pool area the viewer is lulled into the calming nature of this environment. The soothing music helps to enhance the atmosphere. The narration provides the story but the visuals create the true feeling and emotion of this documentary.
The voice over is narrated by various members of the club who say a little about themselves without going in to great detail. I feel that this gives us a really special and personal insight into how difficult it must be living in a world where you feel unaccepted.
I love the analogy of the safeness of the water: ” We all come from the womb, the first 9 months of our lives we’re encased in water.”
One of the swimmers in the club explains how the scrutiny of trans people’s bodies and their meaning quickly transforms into the language of oppression: “They say that we’re unnatural, that we’re perverted, that we’re not genuine people.”
The swimming club provides a place where transgender people can feel safe. A place where trans people – who are rarely allowed to enjoy their bodies – do so together. The ‘together’ is important, the sharing with others at the swimming club. Shame works by isolation and in this film we see Tags combatting it with the freedom, fun and laughter of community.
This is a short but powerful documentary. It is bitter-sweet because we see the joy and happiness in this place, yet we are reminded of the cruelty of others and the world in which we live. So often people who are ‘different’ are seen as a threat but this film puts everyone on to the same level. It is heart-warming, uplifting and endearing.
Here’s the full film, watch and enjoy!