America in Transition – a film by André Pérez
I caught up with filmmaker André Pérez to talk about the documentary America in Transition.
Over the years, you’ve recorded a lot of stories from Trans people. Why were these four stories the ones you selected for this series?
Between founding the Trans Oral History Project, working at Storycorps, and being a community leader in Chicago, I’ve interviewed more than a hundred trans people.
When I started this project, I spoke with leaders from a dozen people-of-color-led groups to talk about which trans stories we felt were missing from mainstream consciousness. Together we brainstormed about 30 story ideas, including trans immigrants, trans southerners, and queer trans people. We set out to build relationships, and these are the folks who stuck with the project.
We know that we are just beginning to scratch the surface of stories from our community, which is why we are looking for institutional partners to support and participate in future seasons featuring trans artists, trans people of faith, and trans families.
There was a quote in the story of Nina and Greta, which was something like – If we want a better future, we have to build it ourselves. That seemed to be a common theme across the four films, that you were showcasing agents of age, people who were building a better future for themselves. In a way, it’s the epitome of the American dream?
When Zackary Drucker from Transparent reviewed the series and said “America in Transition is a compelling and powerful portrait of trans people surviving in a world built for their exclusion,” I was so touched because that’s how I see the heart of the series.
If we look at history, “The American dream” only sort of existed for white, property-owning men. I am more interested in exposing the contradictions between who we imagine ourselves to be and who we are. America in Transition flips the typical script that places trans people’s conflict as being with our bodies, insisting instead that our conflict is with our society. America is what is changing, because we have been here all along.
You’ve talked about a lack of role models when you were growing up. What are the messages that you hope that these four stories give to young kids trying to figure out and navigate their identity?
Every five years the trans community is doubling right now because trans people of all ages are coming out all the time. I wanted to show the realness of what it’s like to navigate complexities in our communities–coming out to parents, falling in love, and forging our own families. At the same time, I wanted to show that trans people are more than the sum of our problems, which is why it was important to me to show trans people celebrating, falling in love, and finding our voices. I have faith that the kinds of issues our characters face will not be issues by time trans kids grow up, and I’m excited to see how trans youth will create things I can’t even dream of yet.
Who are some of your documentary influences or inspirations?
The stories are a mix of character-driven and informative. I picked people whose stories seemed likely to touch on issues that are broadly important to the community such as immigration, HIV criminalization, and civil rights in the South. As a documentarian, my duty is to create a portrait that honours the people who have shared their lives with me, in a way that conveys some truth that is meaningful to others.
I’m inspired by how OJ, Made in America (2016) tells the story of OJ, but in doing so, it’s really the story of race relations in America. I’m inspired by how The Interrupters (2012) went beyond hyperbolic headlines about violence in Chicago to show how community leaders were doing incredible, transformative work. I love interactive documentaries that are more about creating dynamic conversations within communities such as Question Bridge, which explores black masculinity through a web of online videos and installations.
What were some of the challenges you encountered in creating this series?
A barrier we faced was the idea that an entity has somehow met their quota of trans stories. As more people of color and women find success in the media landscape, I hope more space opens up to tell a wider range of stories from all of our communities. So many of our stories have yet to be told, and we are the right ones to do it.
As a latinx person with citizenship privilege, it was important to me to support undocumented trans immigrants. Creating an episode about immigration proved to be extremely difficult because the climate around immigrants has become so hostile that several people pulled out in fear of government retribution. Even the episode we filmed faced challenged because the immigration courts and detention facilities are so secretive that even journalists don’t have access to know what’s really going on inside.
What do you hope that people feel when watching America in Transition?
I hope they laugh at least once, cry at least once, and leave with a feeling of being just a little in love.