How Martin Scorsese Helped Tender Trans Romance ‘Port Authority’ Get to Cannes

Filmmaker Danielle Lessovitz had some illustrious help getting the first film starring a transgender woman of color at Cannes.
Leyna Bloom in "Port Authority"
Leyna Bloom in "Port Authority"
MK2 Films

In “Port Authority,” a gritty New York-set coming of age drama with a tender romance at its heart, for once it’s not the trans character who is hiding something. Wye (Leyna Bloom) has never made a secret of her gender identity; instead, as she points out to her paramour Paul (Fionn Whitehead), it is he who made an assumption about who she was. “You gotta look around you,” she tells him. The rest of the film, which premiered in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section to raves, is more interested in what Paul is hiding, and whether he could ever be accepted into Wye’s world of queer balls and familial houses. When she challenges him to name which ball category he would walk, he answers: “White boy realness.”

The phrase is a challenge, both to Paul and the viewer. Ball categories are aspirational and performative by their very nature. What does it mean to perform whiteness or aspire to boy-ness as someone whose body is actually read that way by the world? The challenge is clear in the film’s final scene, and it’s a question that writer/director Danielle Lessovitz clearly gave a lot of thought.

“We need to have conversations, especially as white allies,” Lessovitz told IndieWire by phone from Cannes, where the film premiered on Saturday. “How do we tell these stories that are important to us and relevant to us? How do we do it in a way that’s consistent with the deeper humanity that runs through all of us? And we need to have a middle ground where we’re not working in a space that’s commercial or fetishistic and sort of wanting to exploit or profit off of the beautiful cultural contributions of a class of marginalized people.”

As a white filmmaker who is also queer, Lessovitz acknowledged the ways her point of view naturally colors the film.

“I wanna represent my perspective as best as I can while honoring and asking permission at every single step,” she said. “How can I acknowledge my own privilege in the story and force an audience to also acknowledge their privilege, but enter the space in a loving respectful way, to honor the cultural contributions of this community?”

“Port Authority” begins with Paul’s arrival at the titular bus station, where he first catches sight of Wye dancing with her friends. Though it is set in New York, Lessovitz eschews the classic panoramic city shots for the more mundane details of the city that someone adrift like Paul might experience. The technique extends to close-ups of Paul and Wye, keeping the film intimate in scope and the focus on their interior lives. It’s a defiant departure from the ways trans bodies and people of color have been exploited by the camera before.

As much as I would love the film to have amazing wide shots of people dancing and get the audience feeling it, I’m not gonna do that because that’s not the point of the film. To not bring attention to it because of these cultural contributions, or being very close up, we’re trying to not show the body but to be in the body. To not package or to not objectify these bodies as they’ve been done so often.”

“Port Authority” is Lessovitz’s second trip to Cannes; she co-wrote “Mobile Homes,” a Directors’ Fortnight premiere from 2017 directed by Vladimir de Fontenay and starring Imogen Poots. “Port Authority” is her directorial debut, and it arrived at the Croisette with a very pedigreed executive producer in tow — Martin Scorsese.

“To feel like you have one of the most if not the most important American auteurs opening up his wisdom and his mentorship to you is surreal,” Lessovitz said. “He was always ahead of his time in terms of the language he was expressing in cinema, and he continues to be ahead of his time in terms of opening up new spaces in cinema, new spaces in perspective, new spaces for visual language. He’s just continuing what he’s always done.”

In many ways Scorsese’s films invented the ideal “white boy realness” that Paul is so desperate to emulate. It is the masculinity of “Mean Streets” or “Taxi Driver” that he fails to uphold; the comparatively small crimes he witnesses weigh on him immensely. But “Port Authority” has much more in common with Larry Clark’s “Kids.” Scorsese may be the last name you’d expect to see attached to a gritty trans romance, but Lessovitz praised the filmmaker’s openness to learning.

“I think he, just like a lot of people in his generation, is coming to terms with this kind of revolution in gender and gender identity,” she said. “Younger generations can be way more aware than older generations, but here we have someone who is just keeping wanting to learn, excited and open, trying to understand what’s happening in the world, and trying to be a part of making sure that cinema gives space to it.”

Lessovitz teaches filmmaking at Rutgers, and says her students ten years her junior have a much more sophisticated language around gender identity. Still, labels fall short to describe her own gender.

“My relationship to myself is one of being quite genderless and finding gender to be a sort of weird thing for me, because I don’t necessarily feel one way or another,” Lessovitz said. “The language we have would be non-binary, but that’s sort of also binary, ’cause there’s a binary. Finding the language for these things is so hard, but that’s why we have cinema.”

“Port Authority” premiered in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.

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