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Movie Review

'Brandon' Documentary Reveals Heartland Climate of Hatred

March 12, 1999|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When 21-year-old Tenna Brandon, who called herself Brandon Teena, left Lincoln, Neb., in mid-November 1993 because too many people had discovered she was a woman and not a man, moving to nearby Falls City (pop. 1,769), she could scarcely have made a worse choice of a place to try to live as a male.

It is a community of high unemployment and incidence of spousal abuse, a drab little burg where, according to one resident, any known gay person arriving there would be immediately escorted out of town. How could it be expected to be hospitable to a young woman in a self-described "sexual identity crisis" who was said to have wanted a sex-change operation?

In "The Brandon Teena Story," a devastatingly calm, revealing, step-by-step tracing of the last several weeks of Brandon's life, documentarians Susan Muska and Greta Olafsdottir don't tell us who or what it was that drew Brandon to Falls City; she could expect to be relatively safe only in the country's largest and most cosmopolitan cities. We don't know if she longed to go to San Francisco, for example, but as an individual known to forge checks in desperation, she clearly couldn't afford to go very far away.

Those who spoke of Brandon to the filmmakers say two things. First, the women Brandon dated as a male all praise her for being considerate, for treating them "like a lady." And second, when Brandon's physical gender was inevitably revealed in Falls City, everyone, men and women alike, expressed outrage that Brandon was "living a lie," but it's clear that none of them would have accepted Brandon as a transsexual--a term, let alone a concept, surely little-known in the community.

Sophocles could not have come up with a greater sense of inevitability in Brandon's tragic fate. Craving love and acceptance, Brandon quickly started dating lovely Lisa Tisdel of Falls City. When Brandon's chronic forging exposed her gender, two young men, John Lotter and Tom Nissen, with whom she had been hanging out, were especially enraged, and they attempted to rape her on Christmas Eve as a culmination of trying to confront Lisa with the truth about her "boyfriend." Instead of fleeing town, Brandon naively sealed her fate by reporting them to the local sheriff, whose recorded interrogation of Brandon reveals him to be a man of crudeness and insensitivity, to put it mildly. The sheriff was slow to press charges.

When Brandon's accusations swiftly became public knowledge, the heterosexuality of the young men was ridiculed: Why did they want to have sex with a woman who had been successfully passing as a man? As ex-felons knowing what kind of prison terms they were facing if convicted of rape, Lotter and Nissen tracked Brandon down at the home of her friend Lisa Lambert, who lived 30 miles away outside the even tinier town of Humboldt. On New Year's Eve they shot Brandon fatally, also subjecting her to further abuse to make sure she really was dead. They also shot to death Lisa and her visitor, Philip LeVine. Only Lisa's 9-month-old son survived.

A social worker interviewed in the wake of Lotter's conviction (which followed Nissen's) sums it up best when she states that she does not feel that Falls City, with its climate of hatred and ignorance, is aware of its responsibility in Brandon's fate. What "The Brandon Teena Story," reinforced by the fate of Mathew Shepard in neighboring Wyoming, makes clear is that the rural heartland of America can be a frightening place for those who don't fit into an extremely narrow view of human sexuality.

* Unrated. Times guidelines: language, subject matter inappropriate for youngsters.

'The Brandon Teena Story'

A Zeigeist Films release of a Bless Bless production. Producers-directors-cinematog-raphers-editors Susan Muska and Greta Olafsdottir. Executive producer Jane Dekrone. Music Lorrie Morgan, Dinah Washington, April Stevens and the Brown Brothers.

Exclusively at the Nuart through Thursday, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 478-6379.

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