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How Documentaries Like ‘No Ordinary Man’ Reframe Trans History to Undo Past Harm

With a dearth of archival footage to pull from, filmmakers Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt explain to IndieWire how they got creative to honor subjects history would rather erase.

Billy Tipton

Billy Tipton, subject of “No Ordinary Man”

TIFF/Oscilliscope

Transgender people have existed since the beginning of time, but you wouldn’t know it from most of the media available to us. As a recent swell of documentaries attempts to fill in the gaps, filmmakers have the tough task of working with very little archival footage or historical research. As is often the case with LGBTQ history, what little documentation does exist is often filtered through a mainstream media lens that is inaccurate at best and traumatizing at worst. Add into the mix the problem that language around trans and queer identity is constantly evolving. How do you tell the story of a trans person whose life was only recorded in tabloids and who probably never even heard the word “transgender”?

As trans narratives continue to captivate filmmakers’ imaginations, such questions are being addressed in ever more creative ways. HBO’s excellent four-part docuseries “The Lady and the Dale” used whimsical paper cut-out animation to illustrate its mysterious central character; the forthcoming feature documentary “My Name is Pauli Murray” enlisted trans academics to contextualize the non-binary legal scholar’s shifting relationship to gender identity with nuance and care.

In grappling with issues of representation, a compelling meta-narrative runs through “No Ordinary Man,” which uses trans-masculine actors to imagine and recreate key moments in the life of its subject. The film chronicles the life of jazz pianist and bandleader Billy Tipton, who toured and recorded throughout the middle of the twentieth century. Only after Tipton’s 1981 death was it revealed that he was assigned female at birth, a violent outing that was news to his family. With only some audio recordings and a few brief home movies to work from, filmmakers Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt knew they’d have to get creative from the start.

Marquise Vilson in “No Ordinary Man”

TIFF/Oscilloscope

“We knew there weren’t any moving images of him and that anything that we were going to create was essentially going to be the first moving images attached to Billy Tipton’s name,” said Chin-Yee during a recent phone interview. “His image has been harmed enough by media and we didn’t want to be part of that legacy. So that’s where we came up with the idea of — let’s have those conversations and be really transparent about the process that we’re going through and trying to represent him on screen.”

In addition to the traditional talking heads that appear onscreen, (trans thinkers and writers Susan Stryker, C. Riley Snorton, Zackary Drucker, and Thomas Page McBee all feature), the film asks various trans-masculine actors to read for the role of Billy Tipton, using the audition process to get into his psyche in the way only actors can. Here’s where Marquise Vilson and Scott Turner-Schofield — pioneers in their own right — enter into frame.

“We can then really have a live and dynamic conversation about, ‘how would you interpret Billy’s life? If you were in his shoes from your own experience as a trans masculine person—,'” said Chin-Yee. “‘What would you be thinking when you walked into this moment, this biographical moment in his life?'”

It’s an inspired choice that elevates the filmmaking from typical biography to something more ambitious, and ultimately more expansive in terms of where it takes documentary filmmaking as an art form.

“It opens the storytelling apparatus up to a new set of questions,” added Joynt. “So instead of our project being about the life and legacy of Billy Tipton — even though yes, that is how it gets taken up in a variety of ways — it’s also about what does it mean to be trying to tell stories in this way? Who is most impacted by these pursuits toward a kind of archival or historical trace and what can we do in the contemporary moment?”

Of course, it goes without saying that such complex conversations would be far less dynamic without the guidance of two trans creators at the helm — Joynt and the film’s co-writer Amos Mac. Their presence in the room is particularly resonant when interviewing Billy Jr., Tipton’s only son who stood by him after his death. Much of the rare archival footage in the film shows a young Billy Jr., newly in mourning, fielding invasive questions about his late father from tabloid talk show hosts like Sally Jesse Raphael.

“All of the ways in which he’s internalized the representation of trans people as liars and deceivers, he was rightfully wary of re-engaging,” said Joynt. “The moment where I out myself to him on camera felt like the only way forward toward a conversation about an understanding of trans-ness and its relation to his father’s history as one of celebration and adoration. … I was taken aback by the quick knowledge that Amos and I were without a doubt the first trans masculine people — with the exception of his father — that Billy Jr. had ever knowingly encountered.”

It’s an arresting and intimate moment to witness, and one which could be only delivered by the unique vehicle of this immersive and tenderly crafted film.

“I started making movies in part in response to what I felt was a lack of moving image representation about trans and queer and gender nonconforming subjects,” said Joynt. “I am less and less invested in a single narrative storytelling style around trans and queer subjects. There’s such a dynamic opportunity when we build conversations on screen and off and reckon with some of the more complex questions about how we approach trans history.”

Oscilloscope will release “No Ordinary Man” in theaters on Friday, July 16. 

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