Q&A with Annalise Ophelian, director of MAJOR!
MAJOR! is a film documenting the life and legacy of transgender elder and pioneering activist Miss Major, a prominent and enduring figure within the LGBTQI movement since the 1960s. We caught up with the film's director, Annalise Ophelian, to find out about its production.
Can you tell us why you wanted to make this documentary?
As a queer person, I feel acutely aware of how indebted I am to women like Miss Major, who really blazed the path for the gay rights movement even as they continued to be marginalized and discriminated against within our own communities. So this project was really about gratitude, and also wanting to document this incredible history of intersectional social justice struggle.
How did you approach Major about making the film?
The idea came about quite organically, and actually she approached me about working together on the film. She had participated in my first feature, Diagnosing Difference, and we had a really good experience working together. My partner StormMiguel Florez, who is also the co-producer and editor on MAJOR!, started working as the Administrative Director for TGIJP and I started spending more time in the office. And Miss Major and I would talk, and she said “you know, people keep telling me I need to have a movie about my life, let’s do it.”
Getting funding for any GLBTIQ film is challenging, and when it’s a person of colour and transgender the barriers are even higher. Can you tell us how you managed to get this film completed?
Like so many social justice media projects we scraped and scraped to get by. We had a Kickstarter campaign at the beginning of production that over 500 people contributed to, and we received funding from Horizons Foundation, Trans Justice Funding Project, and Astraea Global Arts Fund. But we were turned down for every dime of mainstream film funding we applied for, and we’re currently struggling to raise money to implement our community engagement program. We got the film completed, like so many film projects, by going into debt, selling furniture and gear, anything we could do. We’re currently selling “Miss Major Taught Me” t-shirts and movie posters on our website and at festivals we attend, cobbling the funding together really. Unlike places like Australia, Canada, and the UK, the US has very little government arts funding, and what there is can be very hard to access.
At the heart of Major is a social justice framework that puts the subjects at the centre of the story. Can you talk on how you will use this film to achieve social justice and what you hope it can achieve?
I was very interested in shifting the lens of traditional documentaries about trans people made by cisgender people. So from the beginning this has been a highly collaborative project involving direct participation, feedback, and leadership from Miss Major, everyone who appears on screen who reviewed their cut for accuracy, and a trans POC Community Advisory Board who gave us feedback at every stage of production with regard to accountability toward trans communities of colour. So a part of what we’re hoping to do is model a new way of making documentary film that centres the participants as experts in their own experience, and de-colonizes the filmmaking process. I think it’s also revolutionary to have so many trans women, and especially trans women of colour, telling their own stories on screen. We also want to increase awareness of the impact of the Prison Industrial Complex on trans lives, and to broaden our understanding of pivotal moments in LGBTIQ and social justice history like Stonewall and Attica.
The film will be screening at the Queer Film Festival this month in Sydney. How important is it for you to know the film will reach an Australian audience?
We’ve had a lot of early interest in the film and previewed sections of the work in progress with some HIV health care and prison abolition groups working with trans communities there with wonderful response. While the women in the film are talking about experiences of violence and discrimination that are specific to the United States, they’re sadly also global, and it feels important to make these trans-national connections right now. We’re thrilled to be premiering with Queer Screen.
The film represents a group of people who are so often marginalised, or played for tragic drama. How did you ensure that this film represented them with diginity?
I think there’s a real pull to amplify the drama in media, it’s the influence of reality TV and “trauma porn,” this material about awful injustices that is consumed for entertainment by neo-liberal audiences who can nod and say “how horrible” and then comfortably go on living their lives. When I look at the women of trans experience in my community, I’m overwhelmed by the optimism, strength, joy, intelligence, the sheer creativity of survivalism. In the face of so much violence and so much loss, fiercely insisting on respect and dignity is a form of resistance, resilience is a form of resistance.
What did Miss Major think of the film?
She sits in the theatre and watches it all the way through every festival she attends! She’s told me she feels like she’s watching the truth, and that it’s nice to see all those memories and parts of her life up on screen. It’s been a really positive experience. And of course, I never get tired of seeing her get a standing ovation. There’s a saying, “give us our roses while we’re still here,” and I think this film is serving that purpose, after over four decades of fighting for others it’s wonderful to see her getting so much attention and love.
Thanks to actress Laverne Cox, and Caitlyn Jenner, Jill Soloway (creator of Transparent) and countless others, more people can say they know of someone who doesn’t identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. Despite the increase in visibility, the representations of transgender people on screens large and small have a long way to go. What do you think needs to change?
More than anything I think we need media created by trans people, with trans folks as show runners, writers, directors, producers, trans actors being cast in trans roles. Look at something like the Herstory web series by Jen Richards, this revolutionary series. And of course this also extends to ending the ridiculous practice of casting cisgender actors as trans characters, I think history is going to look back on this very poorly. I also think it’s important that we don’t lift one group up at the cost of others – so it can’t just be white folks who get to be producers and directors and stars, intersectionality needs to be spoken all the time. I think women like Laverne Cox and Janet Mock have critically important messages about this.
Do you think it is more important for characters from marginalised communities to be represented in media more often or is it more important that those portrayals be positive and accurate?
It’s far more important that these representations be accurate. Inaccurate and inauthentic media representations only contribute to marginalisation, of any group. I think this will only happen when trans people are in roles of creative leadership, are in positions of leadership in media. I think there’s a long history of cisgender “fascination” with trans bodies and trans stories that have contributed to the marginalization of trans people through stereotyping and misinformation that has been incredibly damaging. I think cis actors playing trans roles is an extension of this, no matter how well-intentioned this casting may be it’s still rooted in basic assumptions that trans people aren’t who they tell us they are.
What are you working on next?
We’re currently in post-production on a series of web shorts called the MAJORettes, which we hope to launch in November that feature material that didn’t make it into the film. And my partner StormMiguel Florez is directing a doc about the secret codes and language of Albuquerque Latina dyke culture in the 1980s, I’m shooting and co-producing that starting this month.
Buy tickets to MAJOR! now: http://tix.queerscreen.org.au/session_mgff.asp?sn=MAJOR%21&s=214