[EDITOR’S NOTE: indieWIRE is profiling the Narrative and Documentary Competition filmmakers who are screening their films at the Los Angeles Film Festival as world premieres.]
Screening in the Documentary Competition at the Los Angeles Film Festival, PJ Raval and Jay Hodges‘ “Trinidad” follows Dr. Marci Bowers, a former patient of Dr. Stanley Biber, who had begun conducting genital-reassignment surgeries in Trinidad, Colorado in 1969. Bowers took over Biber’s practice after his death, enhancing the procedure to “near perfection.” “Trinidad” details Bowers and two of her patients, both at different stages of their sexual transformation from male to female. indieWIRE talked to both Hodges and Raval about the film, and their hopes for LAFF.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking?
PJ Raval: Unlike some filmmakers, I was never a little kid dreaming about making films one day. I wandered into filmmaking. In college I was a photography art major and as a requirement I took a history of film class and one of the films we watched was Maya Deren‘s “Atland“. I found Maya Deren’s work really amazing, so incredibly expressive. That film in particular made me want to pick up a film camera and experiment with visual storytelling. So I took a class with French filmmaker Babette Mangolte and if you can imagine every possible thing went wrong and I definitely thought I’d never make a film again! But several years later I decided to go to graduate school in film. And here I am years later. I still love Maya Deren’s work.
Jay Hodges: I was a voracious reader growing up, which lead to studying literature in college and then working in publishing in New York for several years. When I moved back to Austin I began working for the Cinematexas Film Festival and during this time I started getting interested in filmmaking. But I didn’t really know where to start and was intimidated by the whole filmmaking process because I better understood storytelling through words. With writing you can work on your own, but there are lots of other elements that need to come together to make a film. Then something clicked and I decided I wanted to make a documentary. So I took a few production classes and worked on other people’s films doing whatever needed to be done until I felt I had learned enough to make my own film. Of course, I’m still learning, but it was this naivete that initially got me started.
What was the inspiration for this film?
PJ and Jay: We actually first learned about Trinidad at a friend’s dinner party, from a woman who had just passed through this small town in Colorado that was known as “the sex change capital of the world.” She said it was a town filled with cowboys and transsexuals, that it had lots of women’s clothing stores that carried things like size 12 pumps, and that it was a place where people arrived men and left women. We along with everyone at the table just couldn’t believe this was true. We assumed sex change operations occurred in larger metropolitan areas but small town America? Colorado? So the image of Trinidad stuck with us for several days. Eventually we did a little research and ended up calling Marci Bowers who was the new surgeon doing the surgey. She agreed to talk to us more, suggesting we do it face to face in Trinidad. That became our first step towards making this documentary.
Please elaborate on your approach to making the film…
PJ and Jay: There are a lot of films that look at transgender issues but only focus on the physical aspects of “before and after”. And though there are aspects of that in “Trinidad,” we didn’t want to sensationalize the experiences of these three women. We wanted to look at who they were as individuals in this small town and their everyday concerns, things like acceptance, sense of self, and the need to be who you are – challenges everyone faces. Ultimately we wanted people to see aspects of themselves in Marci, Sabrina, and Laura.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making the film?
PJ and Jay: It can be really challenging shooting a film in a town that you don’t live in. It’s not as easy as just picking up the camera and running across town – you have to really plan for it and especially in a documentary where the story is unfolding you might find yourself one morning waking up, on the phone with one of the characters in your film, then suddenly having to jump on a plane to meet them that evening. We ended up spreading out the shooting over two and a half years and this worked to our advantage. During that time we formed great friendships with Marci, Sabrina and Laura, the three women in our film. They really opened up to us and let us into their lives. As their lives moved forward our story unfolded. It made for a much more intimate film.
What are your goals for the Los Angeles Film Festival?
PJ and Jay: “Trinidad” has been roughly four years in the making. We’re really excited to finally share the film with an audience. Everyone has the need to express who they are, and hope the world accepts it. We hope audiences can walk away from “Trinidad” with a new confidence. As Sabrina so eloquently states, “When people look at me I hope they think, ‘If she has the guts to be who she is, then I should have the guts to be who I am.'”
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