I remember the first time seeing gay people on screen. My personal coming out coincided with (what I call) the rainbow wave of television and film that came out when I was in my late teens in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Will & Grace and Brokeback Mountain seemed like beacons of hope towards society accepting gay people as it showed how members of the LGBT community can have the exact same experiences. That’s fine for a white, cisgender man like myself, but what about the people that the media doesn’t shine a light on? Sam Feder’s Disclosure is an incredibly expansive look at the history of trans representation on screen. What we don’t expect, however, is hearing how trans people saw those representations and how it made them feel. It’s a doc that angers you but wrenches your heart with immediate optimism.
When Feder was researching and planning Disclosure, the one thing he knew he wanted was as many trans people on set as possible. Many characters in the doc mention that as they went through their transition, they themselves didn’t know any trans people. In order to rectify that, Feder sought out to have as many trans people as he could, and the result was something wholly unique.
“It was a no brainer for me. When I was trying to get my start I was aware of being the only trans person on set. You’re so distracted. You can’t get to your job. Even in the best case scenario, you’re thinking, ‘Which bathroom am I going to use?’ or ‘Who is going to shit on me today?’ Maybe someone will say something transphobic to you and they won’t realize that they are being transphobic. As I started directing, I’ve always worked with queer and trans people. When I realized that the experience that I needed my crew to have on the film, I knew there weren’t going to be many trans people. I tried. At first, I would ask friends, ‘Who is your favorite trans DP or gaffer?’ and we got a lot. Our DP, Ava Benjamin Shorr, is brilliant and kind and I will work with her as long as I can. She was my first hire.
Feder took it one step further. If he and his team had trouble finding someone with the correct experience for the job, he hired a non-trans person and they mentored a trans person who needed that experience. The next time a call went out for a lighting designer or a set dresser, a trans artist would now be more qualified for the job, and that is something Feder is particularly proud of.
“What was so cool about that was that there was clearly a relationship building, too. It wasn’t just a mentorship. Trans people were sharing their life experience. Their role as the non-trans person, who might be lighting the set or working on the design, was getting informed by the experience of a trans person. That’s something you can’t learn necessarily. You have to live that experience as a trans person. It was really this bidirectional mentorship in a lot of ways of non-trans people learning a certain perspective of a lifetime of being a trans person. Production was really unique.”
Characters talk about a lot of films in Disclosure (The Crying Game, Dressed to Kill, and Ace Venture: Pet Detective just to name some films in the last 40 years), but Feder goes back to show us clips from movies going as far back as 1914. It never feels like homework or like medicine. It’s so fascinating to see these images.
“Even though I know in a very intellectual way that we have always been part of every culture in every society, in my bones, I don’t know sometimes. Am I real? Have we existed? If back then this was the model for storytelling, clearly people have seen us. Whether if it’s a joke is a whole other story, but to know that that was part of storytelling is very reaffirming. We are part of the social fabric.”
One of the most striking things about the film is the ease and trust that is evident with Feder’s characters. They share such personal, painful moments and the tone feels spontaneous but careful. Candis Cayne speaks about having a joyous party for the premiere of Dirty Sexy Money and post-production lowered her voice to indicate to the audience that she is trans. Emmy nominee shares her experience watching the finale of 1991’s Soapdish where Cathy Moriarty’s character is outed as trans. In one of the most heartbreaking moments, Jen Richards (who is fantastic in last year’s Mrs. Fletcher) speaks about not seeing herself the way she deserves to be seen and how that connects to issues with her own mother.
“Jen and I have been friends for a very long time. We are very comfortable with each other and we have a lot of shorthand. When she talks about her mom, that is an example of someone having that kind of moment in real time. She had never shared that story out loud. We have such a trust between us that it went there really easily. We held that moment and that is one of my favorite moments in the film. I could tell it was the first time that she was sharing it. When I saw her going there, you could feel it in the room. It was all trans people in front of the curtain, and you’re there with her. I remember when she finished her experience of it, we were all just really quiet. She just grabbed her tea and we all sat there and took it in. There is such an intimacy that’s organic when you’re not parachuting into a community. Even with people that hadn’t met before, I spent a lot of time on the phone or met for coffee to develop a common language and trust to have people open up on set.”
Feder created such a safe environment for everyone to share their experiences and have the ability to also ask questions. The result is a beautiful tapestry of openness that pulls the viewer in. Disclosure is not your typical talking-heads documentary because there is so much more to offer in terms of emotion and heart.
“I approach Disclosure in the way that we sift through memory. The film is not chronological and it’s organized in a way that we get to know each other. When we meet a new person or get excited to get to know someone, we don’t sit down and ask about their birth and have them catch us up to speed. Or a new romantic partner. You find out through story and the past and the present fold in on itself and that’s how you understand how someone navigates themselves out in the world. I wanted to have all this data and the archival clips. I collected over 600 television clips and 400 film clips and years at different libraries and museums and I wanted the theory and analysis that Jenn could bring, and Laverne could bring and Brian could bring. I knew the stories would change how you feel. Those stories can shift molecules.”
The film came out earlier this year, and I keep seeing it pop up on social media. The reaction is such a positive thing from audiences, but Feder is receiving a positive and impactful response from people inside the industry as well as outside of it.
“We are excited about the industry impact and hearing that actors and A-list celebrities are seeing it. Ryan Reynolds said that this is how he is going to see everything and participate. He started a fellowship program inspired by ours. Hearing that is thrilling and exciting to know that this film could impact how Hollywood makes media whether it is including trans people or outside the trans experience. Outside of the industry, I heard from a friend who is a lawyer at the ACLU who is in the film and one his colleagues—who is not trans—watched the film as she was preparing an argument for one of her trans clients. To know that it is educating people who could represent life or death situations is one of my biggest goals. Lawyers would now be prepared to explain to a jury or judge about the bias they might have about their client because of the images we’ve taken in our entire lives. I was hoping that Disclosure could be this sort of town square or a meeting place that we all have in common.”
The last image of the film is from Syfy’s The Magicians, and even though we don’t see dialogue from these characters, there is a readiness to what we see (it doesn’t hurt that we see the stunning Candis Cayne on horseback). They are standing in front of a closed door ready for battle and Feder wanted to leave us with a call to action. What are you going to do?
“It was hard to figure out how to end it because I didn’t want to end it on one person. I wanted to end it on an emotional note and there were so many different types of endings. If we finished with a story, it would still just be on one person. This is so much here about community and generation. I was looking for groups. This clip was perfect because it’s Candis leading a group into the future. It’s looking forward and it provides the space of fantasy and creativity and wonder. I resist when people say trans people are magical or superheroes or ‘you’re so brave’ that are meant to be compliments. Let us be human. Let’s have that be the starting point. There is that moment where I worried that I was saying we are these magical creatures, but I thought it was a beautiful image. It didn’t speak to the overt messages in the sense because people sometimes don’t know it’s Candis. It is a call to action. She is leading this group to the future and it is the emotional sentiment that I wanted to land on. Are we in this together or not? Are you with us? Are you going to follow our lead?”
In order to live, we as people have to be seen and acknowledged. Roger Ebert once famously said that movies generate empathy: “For me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. If it’s a great movie, it lets you understand a little bit more about what it’s like to be a different gender, a different race, a different age, a different economic class, a different nationality, a different profession, different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us. And that, to me, is the most noble thing that good movies can do and it’s a reason to encourage them and to support them and to go to them.”
Feder’s film introduces a history of trans representation to an audience that may not know the difference between what is offensive and what is permissible. It is a powerful and simple request to acknowledge the worth of people who are so rarely portrayed properly on screen. It has the potential to not just change how the industry works but also how we treat one another. Disclosure deserves your attention, and it deserves to, at least, be shortlisted for this year’s biggest prizes.
Disclosure is available to stream on Netflix.