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'Southern Comfort,' Looking First at the Real Person Within

Documentary* Gender identity is treated with compassion in this HBO presentation of a project that won a top prize at the Sundance Film Festival.

April 19, 2002|JOHN CLARK | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Southern Comfort," a documentary that won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival two years ago, opens on Robert, a craggy-looking middle-aged man with a pipe in his mouth, sitting behind the wheel of his pickup truck. He lives in a trailer in rural Alabama. We are introduced to his sons and friends, to their girlfriends, to his girlfriend.

Then the bottom falls out: Robert is dying of ovarian cancer, and all but one of these people is transsexual.

Robert's image, and his back story, create a sort of gender vertigo for viewers during the first 10 minutes or so of the film, which HBO is showing through the month.

"I didn't want to announce that these people were transgender, because they are people first," says the film's director, Kate Davis, explaining her mind-reeling approach. "Their gender identity is only one part of their whole selves ... but gender somehow clouds all of these other aspects of themselves. It's so all-important to society, and it's really hard for these people." "Southern Comfort" takes one of the first things one notices when meeting someone for the first time--boy or girl--and stands the notion on its head. Before Robert's gender transition to a male, he was married and gave birth to two children, but the sons featured most prominently in the film are part of his adoptive transgender family. His new love, Lola Cola, made a transition from a man to a woman, which makes their relationship that of a biological male and a biological female, only the roles are reversed.

The film deals with the transgender community's own phobias about entering into a relationship with another transgender person. It also addresses the audience's natural curiosity about what "transition" actually means. In Robert's case, he had his breasts removed and took hormones, but he didn't have what's referred to in the community as "bottom surgery"--a reconstruction of his genitalia.

Despite all of this seeming weirdness, "Southern Comfort" isn't some sort of freak show. Robert's plight transcends the gender confusion and the more general objection, "Why should we care about this guy?"

Transgender people are one of the few minorities left that can be safely ridiculed (they are a staple of "The Jerry Springer Show") and, more significant, discriminated against. Because Robert was a transsexual, many doctors refused to treat him and several hospitals declined to admit him for emergency treatment.

More to the point, though, the film is ultimately about love and life rather than something twisted, "unnatural."

Davis met Robert at True Spirit, a female-to-male conference in Maryland, while she was doing a documentary about transgender people for A&E. She was struck immediately by his story--"this cowboy with ovarian cancer and the irony of that"--and by his charisma. She got up the nerve to call and ask if he would be interested in her making a film about him and he said yes, because he had nothing to lose and he hoped that it might make audiences view transgender people differently.

Time was of the essence because at this point Robert's health was rapidly declining. So Davis went to Alabama and began shooting with a digital camera, which was light and small enough to allow her mobility and a kind of invisibility (at one point Cola turns to the camera and says without irony that she wishes she could capture this moment on tape). Davis slept in Robert's trailer, putting herself in the position on occasion of having to care for him. As she is the first to admit, she crossed the line--she became his friend, she put down the camera. This is heresy in documentary circles.

Caretaker First, Filmmaker Second

"Robert would nearly stumble, fall over, drop a drink, get up in the middle of the night every hour," she says. "It was important for me to remember first to be a caretaker, second to be a filmmaker. I think the friendship was critical in terms of the subjects' willingness to open up, right down to Lola and Robert making out on the couch. If that closeness is genuine, how could I not extend myself as a friend or help them? It's much more important than the film."

This trust was important for other reasons. With the exception of Cola, who's self-employed, the other characters have a lot to lose, because the film essentially outs them. According to Cola, they are "preparing to be fired," including Stephanie, who isn't transgender but is married to someone who is. This puts Davis squarely on the spot.

"I feel that it was their decision to begin with," she says. "Had I tried to convince them, I think I would be saddled with moral doubt and an uncomfortable weight of responsibility if anything happens to any of them."

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