Monday, June 18, 2007

2007 FRAMELINE31: RED WITHOUT BLUE—The Evening Class Interview With Directors Brooke Sebold and Benita Sills, and Subjects Clair and Mark Farley

This entry is dedicated to Jesse Hawthorne Ficks whose sensitive write-up of Red Without Blue for Release Print encouraged me to catch the film at Frameline31.

Red Without Blue revitalizes the personal documentary with its unflinching candor and heartfelt honesty. As Jesse Hawthorne Ficks has noted in his Release Print review (available in PDF format at the film's website), this documentary astonishingly achieves an exploration of its difficult subject matter without veering into exploitation. It likewise meditates on a family's varying perspectives on their own memory of themselves, reminding viewers that communication between family members is essential to reaching a consensual definition of "family" and that such a communicative venture is fundamentally an act of healing and growth.

As the film's website synopsizes, Red Without Blue "is an artistic and groundbreaking portrayal of gender, identity, and the unswerving bond of twinship despite transformation. An honest portrayal of a family in turmoil, RWB follows a pair of identical twins as one transitions from male to female. Captured over a period of three years, the film documents the twins and their parents, examining the Farley's struggle to redefine their family. …Through its portrayal of these articulate and independent twins, each haunted by the painful experiences of their adolescence, the film questions normative standards of gender and identity—as Mark and Clair reassert their indescribable bond as identical twins. Through the power of the Farleys' voices, we hear the story of a family's redemption from a dark past, and ultimately, its revival to the present. Red Without Blue … provides a heartbreaking, but ultimately optimistic look at the tribulations of growing up gay and transgender in rural Montana and maintaining strong family bonds in the face of adversity."

Winner of seven (that's right, count 'em, seven) festival awards—including the Audience Choice Award for Best Documentary Feature at 2007 Slamdance—Red Without Blue now pitches its woo with Frameline31 audiences, selling out its first screening at the Victoria Theatre. For Frameline31 participants who couldn't make it into that screening, there's a second chance come Wednesday, June 20, 2:15PM at the Castro Theatre. For those nowhere near the Bay Area, Red Without Blue will be broadcast on the Sundance Channel on Monday, June 25, 2007 at 9:00PM ET/PT.

My thanks to Bill McLeod who reserved space in the LGBT Center for me to meet with the Red Without Blue team (minus Todd Sills) late last week. Brooke Sebold (Co-Director / Co-Editor / Co-Cinematographer) has been writing, editing and producing films in the Bay Area for the last four years. As Associate Editor for Citizen Film, Brooke worked on a number of award-winning documentaries currently screening in festivals and museums around the world. Presently, Brooke works as an editor at Al Gore's new cable television station, Current TV. Brooke studied film at Brown University, and holds a degree in Visual Arts with a focus in Film Production.

Benita Sills (Co-Director / Co-Editor) has been working in the documentary film industry for six years. After producing educational documentaries at CBS News Productions in New York, she moved to San Francisco and worked for two established documentary film production companies: The Working Group and Citizen Film. Currently, Benita has recently returned from Paris, France, where she worked as a freelance editor.

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Michael Guillén: Beginning with the title Red Without Blue—a reference to how your mother distinguished the two of you by color when you were twin infants—clearly this was at first intended to be Mark's story, and yet—as you've outlined on the film's website—by film's end the entire family had become involved to express their individual perspectives. So the title is something of a misnomer, isn't it? Why did you stick with this title? Couldn't it just as easily have been Blue Without Red?

Benita Sills: To tell you the truth, we were open to changing the title throughout. We just couldn't come up with anything as catchy. So it kind of just stuck because it was nice and symbolic, it was simple, it was easy to remember and ultimately it was reflective of at least one of the central themes of the film. Of course the title does not encapsulate all that the film deals with.

Brooke Sebold: For me, the draw to the project was just how Mark and Clair's relationship had changed. I think one of the large catalysts for the change was [Alex's] decision to become Clair. Certainly I would hope that's not all the film is but for me that was the one thing that kind of drew me to it. And I liked the idea: red without blue, Mark without Alex, the evolution. This is their story. This is how it happened.

Guillén: Granted, the title is a good starting reference and I took it as such; but, when you first heard about the project, Clair, did you have any objection to the title?

Clair Farley: A little bit because I feel it does insinuate a little bit once you understand the story that I am no longer a part of Mark's life or that there's a disconnect or something. Whereas I feel that the film project, the story in general, is about our evolution to Mark accepting and our becoming closer as people. I feel it was a good title but—maybe if they were going for an understanding or pointing at the gender thing—it might have made more sense to call it Blue Without Pink.

Guillén: [Laughter.] I'm sure there will be a million alternative titles all along the color spectrum. Talk about your decision to put cameras in the hands of Mark and Clair.

Brooke Sebold: I met Mark when I first moved to San Francisco pretty fortuitously and Mark is a visual artist and we were both really inspired by films where the subject picks up the camera and tells his or her own story. In deciding to make a really intimate documentary, we figured because we were roommates I would have a sense of intimacy that most documentary filmmakers don't have; but, it is Mark's story, it's the Farley Family story, and Mark is a willing participant and he wanted to pick up a camera because he's a visual artist; he's got a great eye. So it worked. It might not have worked had he not been able to pick up a camera. We were just really lucky that he wanted to participate in that way. Ultimately, Mark was able to get footage that—as close as we were—I never would have been able to get. Him and David in bed, I wasn't in that room; I wasn't privy to that conversation. It adds an element of really getting a chance to immerse yourself in their story. I don't know that any documentary filmmaker would be able to create that intimacy without the subject's willing participation.

Guillén: Clair, whenabouts was the camera put in your hands?

Clair Farley: I did a few shots. I mean, a lot of the footage I took ended up being cut. [Laughter.] I did a lot of shooting out the window on the drive to California.

Mark Farley: There's a really funny line that's probably going to make it for the extras. We had the camera all set up in the car and were about to take off to L.A. for Clair's electrolysis. All you can see is the mic and the dashboard and Clair's like, "Is this damn thing on?" [Laughter.] I feel that some of those moments—obviously, Clair in surgery or Clair having electrolysis—were moments that only I could film in a sense because it would be obtrusive and almost a violation for anyone else to come in with the camera and document that.

Guillén: And you had negotiated this with Clair? You knew, Clair, that Mark was going to film you in the hospital?

Clair Farley: Yeah.

Brooke Sebold: From the beginning our main intention was: how do you make a film that is a personal story but not our personal story as filmmakers? How do you do that without being exploitive? That was learning where our boundaries are. As close as I am to Clair, I would never have felt comfortable being in the operating room with her showing her surgery. Mark was. So luckily we were able to get some of that footage that, as a filmmaker, I wouldn't have felt comfortable getting.

Guillén: That personal access is just one of the things that makes this film splendidly unique. Several reviews have actually commented on the fact that this film respectfully handles a subject matter that—in the wrong hands—could have come across inappropriately sensationalized. You humanized the focus and allowed an appropriate eloquence.

Brooke Sebold: Thank you.

Guillén: You ended up with over 200 hours of footage. How did you approach an editing strategy to shape this down to feature length?

Benita Sills: We started out just by cutting the scenes together. Wherever there was something happening, we put the scene together. Then we started seeing the arcs develop. We realized the family had undergone a big transformation and we saw arcs in each character and how they had gone from rejection to acceptance—Mark's own life in San Francisco and his relationship with David and Clair going through her transition—the challenge of weaving that stuff together in with the story that had taken place in the past. Actually, we thought maybe the whole film [would] be just their story as children. Up until we had really started filming the present day, we didn't realize that so much was still happening in the present. We saw the possibility of creating a story that both took place in the past and the present/future.

Guillén: The weave between past and present/future is a true adventure in healing.

Brooke Sebold: I would just like to add that we are all first-time filmmakers so I would say that a lot of those 200 hours are unusable. Also, we wanted to get the family comfortable with the camera being on, which meant that the camera had to be on all the time. So there was a lot of self-editing even as you're filming when nothing is happening or [wasn't] going to go anywhere. Also, we had to let go of some stuff that I really loved but you just have to do it. You have to have the audience on board and not getting bored, being interested all the time, and that's not going to happen if you have a three-hour film.

Guillén: You sustained interest by creating a visually-layered film between the archival footage and home movies with the one-on-one interview footage and with the situational verité footage.

Brooke Sebold: For me that was one of the largest inspirations—home movies and what they mean—you have this idyllic happy picture of the perfect family and that's not necessarily representative of what's going on. There's this false nature to home movies in just how perfect they are and if you can juxtapose that with what's actually going on in that family.

Guillén: No doubt you're aware that the found footage of home movies has become a separate field of archival research in film studies? Last year at Frameline's Persistent Vision Conference I met Lynne Kirste, Special Collections Curator at L.A.'s Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, who informed me that they have one of the largest collections of Asian-American home movies, among other minority ethnic groups, in their collections. Here in San Francisco, Stephen Parr at Oddball Cinema+Video has likewise amassed an ongoing notable collection of home movies. What can be mined from them is phenomenal.

Benita Sills: Really? I had no idea.

Guillén: Mark, in Regina Marler's Advocate article, you stated: "The filming … became part of a healing process. We came together as a family on camera in Montana. Watching the footage from this trip, back in San Francisco, I heard things from both my mother and sister that I had never heard. The film gave us a tool to communicate with each other as well as to hear ourselves." That's not only a powerful personal statement but a catalyzing recommendation for an alternate form of communication between family members. What becomes the bass thrum of this film is your family's efforts to heal. For me that is the true remarkable story of this film. Where is your family now in that regard? What have been the rewards and the drawbacks of making your family's story so visible?

Mark Farley: To start with, my Mom is continually growing. Our relationship with her has gotten much stronger since the film has been completed. She wants to be a part of the Q&As.

Guillén: The glamour!!

Mark Farley: [Laughs.] She was trying to blog last night and she called up Clair and said, "I want to blog but I don't know how!"

Clair Farley: We just had a screening in Hawaii and the first thing she said was, "I want to set the record straight. I do consider Clair and Mark my children."

Guillén: I am so glad to hear that because that was a disturbing comment she made when she addressed the camera and said, "I don't think of them as my children. They're just young people I know." Regina Marler nailed it in her Advocate piece when she wrote: "After decades of shock filmmaking, only honesty like this can still startle us." It felt like a gut punch. So I'm relieved to hear she's moved past that position.

Mark Farley: Yeah, I feel she has. She's been able to spend so much more time with both of us, and with Clair, and realized how important we are in her life. Like I said in that statement, the film has really allowed all of us to voice our opinions and our story and where we were coming from, not only in the past but now we have the opportunity to speak about the present, hopefully where our relationships are going.

Guillén: So there have been no drawbacks to the increased visibility?

Clair Farley: Not really. With the visibility of any film, there's the idea of having a story represent—let's say the transgender community—when it's just one story of one individual. With any film—and I'm not saying this film is doing this—there is the possible drawback that it won't be signified that this is a voice, or an experience. I feel the film does a great job of exploring the experience of transgender people, but I try to remind people when I speak to them about the film that this is my experience of the transition and others have their own way.

Mark Farley: I also think any visibility is positive. [Addressing Clair] Your individual story of being trans—even though it might be different from someone else's—at least they're knowing that there are other people out there who have been through struggles and [come] out of it. In my own story, I feel like creating visibility for gay men who aren't necessarily identified with every other gay man. There are individuals out there in every subculture. I'm very happy that this film gave me a voice and gave David a voice and Clair a voice as well because we're all very different people.

Guillén: And that's what makes it fun, huh? Another one of the film's many provocative moments—picked up on by the Variety review—is your mother's description of her relationship with her female friend. Gayness—being the big insecure amoeba that it is—seems hesitant to accept the sovereignty of your mother's words that she is not gay. How do you see their relationship? Do you have any thoughts on why the homophilic is so offputting to the homosexual?

Clair Farley: They moved to Hawaii together. That was my biggest understanding of how close they were. At the time Mom said—and Jennifer said as well—that they can't imagine their lives without one another. For me, I've always looked for a relationship—which I feel like I have with Mark—outside of family that is that connected and that strong. I think we all strive for that kind of connection with others. To label that as being sexual is presumptuous and ignorant. Relationships have so many different forms. The fact that they make each other happy … I'm just so happy.

Guillén: Happy for them. Perhaps it's just because I'm an older gay male but companionship has come to mean much more to me than sex, which some of my brethren criticize me for; but, I think it's important to put out there that there are many ways to love and still be within the queer umbrella without queer having to be a sexual determination.

Brooke Sebold: Jenny's one of the most honest people I have ever known. She's very candid. I think her relationship with Jennifer is that they're soul mates and they'll be together forever; but, Jennifer's not interested in having a sexual relationship. Jenny would be interested….

Clair Farley: She's definitely a lot more fluid in her sexuality.

Brooke Sebold: Jenny's had relationships with women and she doesn't keep that a secret but this relationship is more on a spectrum; it is more a relationship based on the limitations of what they're dealing with; but, it doesn't take away from what the relationship is. They're soul mates. They live together and they'll be together forever.

Guillén: Why I think it's poignant within the context of the film is because all of you are seeking companionship—Mark, Clair, your mom, your dad—it's such a varied, difficult process for everyone. I was upset with things I had read that demeaned the nature of your Mom's relationship with Jennifer by not distinguishing between the homophilic and the homosexual. I thought it was plain unfair. You have to grant people their sovereignty in how they understand themselves and their feelings for others. A person is lucky if they find anyone in this world and a loving friendship is nothing to be slighted. And it's not—as some folks insist on believing—a confused state before a sexual choice is made. Some people choose to remain friends and commit themselves to that energy.

Benita Sills: Thanks for that perspective actually. Because we had a little bit of a hard time with people's reaction to that scene. To the point where I was thinking maybe we made a mistake in even including Jennifer in the film. But I really appreciate your perspective because it helps me validate that we didn't make a mistake in portraying the family as we did.

Guillén: No, you did not make a mistake. People need to live and let live. The film has become a festival darling. How many awards have you won now?

Brooke Sebold: Seven.

Guillén: Seven!! Congratulations! Can you speak to the festival experience? What it's like traveling around with the film? Are there any particular audiences or festival experiences that have stood out for you?

Benita Sills: Y'know, I'll tell you, it's done well at mainstream festivals and at queer festivals. We knew that it would be well-received at queer festivals but we're glad to learn that it does have a mainstream appeal. It's almost been like 50-50 I think with the festivals and we've tried to split our time traveling because, y'know, there's three directors. The other director [Todd Sills] right now is at a festival. Todd and I were just in Seattle and Portland.

Brooke Sebold: I was in Toronto and New York.

Benita Sills: So we kind of spread out.

Brooke Sebold: [Mark and Clair] were in Hawaii and Portland.

Benita Sills: They come along too, although we can't ask them to come to all the festivals.

Brooke Sebold: But it's been the experience of a lifetime. We were talking earlier about how it kind of feels like a calling now. You go up there and people have a response to the film. It's just very exciting to have put something into the world that's really going to help people. The reception has been incredible. I went to Toronto and there was a line of 400 people outside the theater and I thought they were going to some other movie and then to see they're holding Red Without Blue tickets; it's just incredible. I honestly feel like it almost builds this community for me where I go into a place that I might not be comfortable with and—all of a sudden by the time you leave—you have friends and there's this connection with what you've done, people want to know more. It's really exciting.

Mark Farley: People are hollering your name!

Brooke Sebold: In Toronto, that was exciting. We got the best reception ever in Toronto.

Mark Farley: Your mom was there, right?

Brooke Sebold: We won the audience choice award and my mom screamed, "I love you, Brooke Sebold!" [Laughter.] There were too many other people shouting and I couldn't hear her in the noise. It is such a great community there.

Guillén: Clair, you've been to some of the screenings, right? You were at the Hawaii screening with your Mom? How did that go?

Clair Farley: It was really amazing to me having her do the Q&A. She was really into it. She was channeling Oprah. [Laughter.]

Guillén: Glamour is so contagious.

Clair Farley: Yeah, she loves that. She loves the spotlight. For me, it's given me a stage to be more open. I'm kind of a shy, reserved person offstage, but once I get onstage, I tend to really engage with the audience. I love to see people laugh and also help people or walk them through an understanding of these broader issues, not just in our family.

Guillén: I'm very glad to hear that, Clair, because your statement—"I really don't think that I was born in this world as a man or as a woman. I think the process of changing was the path I was born into"—profoundly moved me. As someone who has been a mythographer and an armchair anthropologist most of my adult life, having studied gynandrous myths throughout history and from various cultures, I was struck by how nearly ancient your impulse to transition seems, even as it is rendered eloquently contemporary. I applaud you for the initiating energy within you that has inspired such change among so many people around you and I do really hope that you continue to do that; you have a gift.

Clair Farley: Thank you.

Guillén: There's so much that has already been written on the film and the film's website is so thorough that I don't feel a great need to go into the back story of how the film was made and all that because you've outlined it so well on your website; but, I'm very curious to take a snapshot from the finish of the film to now, to find out what's happened with some of these stories that the film's introduced. I was touched by your friendship with Rachel. Are you still in touch with her?

Clair Farley: Yeah. Actually, she left me a message yesterday just saying that she's doing very well. After the film, we've continued to talk, at least a few times every other week or so. After my surgery, she was such a huge support with just the logistics of having a vagina. In a lot of ways I owe her quite a bit.

Guillén: Congratulations on your reassignment. How are you feeling?

Clair Farley: I'm good. It takes a long time to heal. You see Rachel several weeks after and she's all bubbly and running around and going to bars but my experience is a little different. [Laughter.] I don't know if she kind of gave a false impression for me, but I'm still in the process of healing. I'm really aware of that. Beyond being ecstatic about everything, still my main goal is taking care of myself.

Guillén: Well, again, congratulations on achieving your womanhood. Mark, are you still with David? Did he stay in Paris?

Mark Farley: No, he didn't. He came running back, so to speak.

Guillén: Once he heard those cameras whirring, eh?

Mark Farley: [Laughs.] No, I think he realized that he needed me in his life as much as I needed him. As much as he wanted his independence….

Guillén: I just wanted to slap him when he said that in Paris.

Clair Farley: Me too! [Laughter.]

Guillén: I did! I thought, "What is the matter with him?"

Mark Farley: [Laughs.] Yeah, he still can't watch that part.

Guillén: Well, good. He should squirm some. But seriously, I'm really glad to hear the two of you are still together. And you're still continuing your artwork? You're still painting?

Mark Farley: I am.

Guillén: Can we expect an exhibition any time soon?

Mark Farley: Yeah, I had a show a couple of months ago at this live/work space called TART. It's in the SOMA area off of Townsend. They want to represent me and I'm going to have a show with them again next year.

Clair Farley: And he just did a book too.

Mark Farley: Yeah, I just finished a book—Skipping Something—a documentation photography of a performance I did at that space. I'm also going to be jumping rope again in a music video by a local DJ.

Guillén: Not the two of you? Like you used to do as kids?

Clair Farley: He asked me, "Do you want to double dutch?" I said, "We're going to have to practice." [Laughter.]

Guillén: And how about you two? Any film projects coming up?

Benita Sills: I just moved back from Paris. Todd and I went and took an extended vacation in Paris for about six months. We laid off all filmmaking for a while and now we're back in San Francisco and the two of us are looking around for our next idea project. We have some ideas going but we want to get started on shooting either one of them or all three of them and see where our next project leads us.

Brooke Sebold: And I have been working at Current TV as a producer and editor there, which has been really great; but, I'm just about to leave and move to New York to go to film school. I want to try a narrative film.

Guillén: Well, good luck. And thank you all so much for taking the time to speak with me today.