“I think with the issue of transgender and sexual identity gets confused with attraction,” filmmaker Kimberly Reed told indieWIRE on Thursday. “I think it’s important to distinguish between the two…There’s an assumption that you’d only want to change genders because you don’t want to be gay.” Making the transition from a straight football playing All-American male to female lesbian is the stuff that makes headlines and draws sensational media attention. Reed recently appeared on “Oprah” spotlighting her story and the film she directed, “Prodigal Sons,” which had its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival in 2008 and made a long run on the festival circuit.
And yet, the transgender issue is only one component of “Prodigal Sons,” which opens this weekend in New York. In the doc, Reed returns to Montana’s capital, Helena, where she grew up alongside two siblings, hoping to find reconciliation with her estranged adopted brother, while at the same time seeing her high school friends for the first time since her physical transition from man to woman.
Unlike the experience of many people in a similar position, however, Reed’s encounter with high school friends was perhaps much more of a blasé occasion than might have been expected.
“I was [surprised] in some ways, but in some ways I’m not. I think I was building it up much more. I figured there would be some friction, but I’m not really surprised now looking back. First of all, Montanans are cool. It’s a purple state, and it’s not what people really think. People like to be left alone and in that way it doesn’t surprise me,” she said, carefully adding that her positive experience is probably the unfortunate exception compared to most transgender people.
Sibling rivalry is the other major cornerstone of “Prodigal Sons.” Growing up as Paul, Reed excelled in school, was popular socially and was a star athlete, causing friction with her brother, who suffers from a brain injury. “Mark always wanted to be that man I was and I didn’t want to be that man,” Reed said. Their relationship becomes the central storyline in the film after it’s revealed that Mark, who was adopted at an early age, is genetically the descendent of two behemoths of classic Hollywood royalty.
“Mark had this thing on the table, so it was the perfect setting to bring up all this history,” said Reed. “It’s all about history and rivalry, everyone is trying to impress everyone else, so it was a great setting for this to come together. A story of identity – both me and Mark finding a new identity.” Their relationship continues to take on further drama as the two travel overseas to meet Mark’s newfound connections to his hereditary past, and the initial focus on Reed’s identity fades as their difficult relationship boils to the surface.
“The trans issue really recedes three-quarters of the way through the film, so we felt we had to remind people about the transition,” Reed added.
Though “Prodigal Sons” is Reed’s directorial debut, growing up she took to the camera, frequently recruiting her brothers to star in makeshift film projects. For this film, she sites director Doug Block’s “51 Birch Street,” which also examines a complex family story, as a big influence as well as literature in paving the way to tackle a first person narration, which Reed acknowledges can be a prickly undertaking.
“In the film world, there’s a bias against first person narration and I think there’s a good reason for that because it’s often misused,” said Reed. “But when it’s used correctly, it can be terribly effective. ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ was also a big influence. It’s about racism, sexism, rape and told at a time when nobody could sort that stuff out. Harper Lee was genius showing all of this through the eyes of a naive girl.”
Influences aside, Reed’s story also makes for a compelling film. A straightforward doc about returning to her rural home to reconnect with her former football buddies after a long absence might have itself been sufficient, though she had the benefit – and burden – of sibling issues that are universal themes in any family, giving the feature greater vigor.
“As a filmmaker it’s great, but as a family member it’s not always good,” added Reed. Throughout its festival run, “Prodigal Sons” picked up a FIPRESCI Prize at the Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival as well as two nods at the Nashville Film Festival and a Special Jury award at the Florida Film Festival. But, probably no festival honor could probably match the media and cultural juggernaut of Oprah Winfrey who hosted Kimberly Reed for an hour-long show recently.
“What better news could you have as an independent filmmaker?” Reed said about being on the afternoon talk show. “It was great. They talked about me being transgendered a lot, which really only scratches the surface, but they do know their audience. They kept to a tight script. I had this whole speech in mind that I wanted to do talking about the New York City film community and spread that love, but of course I didn’t get a chance to do that. But it was amazing.”
Reed will be doing post-screening Q&As in New York as well as upcoming dates in the Bay Area, Washington, D.C., Boston and Los Angeles. More information is available on the film’s website.