The Future Is Ours: Filmmakers Sam Feder and Yance Ford on Bringing Visibility to the Multitude of Trans Experiences

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Filmmakers Sam Feder (back row, sixth from right) and Yance Ford (right) the 2020 Sundance Film Festival premiere of Feder's film "Disclosure." © 2020 Dia Dipasupil/WireImage

At the Sundance Institute, we have stood with independent storytellers for nearly four decades, amplifying the voices of artists from a wide range of experiences and backgrounds. As leaders in the industry, we have a responsibility to amplify and support transgender voices and stories, to follow the lead of transgender advocates, and to create opportunities for transgender people.

Today, as we observe the 21st annual Transgender Day of Remembrance—and celebrate the resilience and importance of trans people in our communities every day—we want to underline that trans artists and trans stories will always have a place in the Sundance community: a place to cultivate their artistic craft, community, and most importantly, their joy.


Without a doubt, 2020 has been an unprecedented year, from the onset of a calamitous pandemic to the uprise of countless social justice movements to a disquieted election season, all of which have necessitated our attention and resilience. As transgender people know far too well, resilience continues to be required of us every day—in our personal lives, in our work environments, and especially in public spaces.

Over the last several years, we have observed an increase of transgender representation in the media. At the same time, we have also witnessed a decrease in the legislative protections for transgender Americans. This year alone in the United States, 34 transgender people have been violently killed, 28 of whom were Black and Latina transgender women. In the midst of a global pandemic, the epidemic of anti-trans violence has made 2020 the deadliest year for transgender people in the U.S.

In light of this, Transgender Day of Remembrance is that much more important this year. Launched in 1999 by Gwendolyn Smith, the day honors the transgender people whose lives have been lost to anti-transgender violence. However, it’s not just their lives that are lost—it is also their dreams, their hopes, their joy. To that end, the women of color–led organizations Forward Together and the Audre Lorde Project have reimagined Transgender Day of Remembrance as Transgender Day of Resilience to decenter death and also recognize daily acts of resistance as well as the power of trans, gender-nonconforming, and nonbinary communities of color.

To celebrate and honor the day, we wanted to spotlight two Sundance-supported documentary filmmakers who have devoted their careers to ensuring that the trans community is represented on screen, bringing visibility to the multitude of lived experiences and countering the harmful representations that have long been perpetuated in the industry. Below, hear what Yance Ford, director of the 2017’s Strong Island, and Sam Feder, director of 2020’s Disclosure: Trans Lives On Screen, had to say about the resilience of the trans community, the importance of hiring trans filmmakers to tell trans stories, and their hopes for the future of storytelling.


YANCE FORD, DIRECTOR OF STRONG ISLAND

© 2020 Nicholas Hunt/WireImage

Yance Ford is a Sundance Institute fellow and a Creative Capital Grantee who was featured in Filmmaker’s 25 New Faces of Independent Film. His film Strong Island premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, where it won a U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Storytelling. You can now find it streaming on Netflix.

MOI SANTOS: What does Trans Day of Resilience mean to you? How have you commemorated it in the past, and what are you planning to do this year?

YANCE FORD: Due to Covid-19, this year has been unlike any other, unlike anything I have experienced in my lifetime. What isn’t new is the violence directed at our community. It angers me that 34 trans and gender non-conforming have been victims of homicide; the majority were my Black and Latinx sisters. This year I’m going to spend Trans Day of Resilience using the platform I have to elevate activists who are doing work on the ground in my community of Jackson Heights, NY home to a large trans* community.

MS: What does resilience mean to you? And is there anyone who has helped you tap into your own resilience?

YF: My late mother used to encourage me and my siblings to “claim” the things we were working toward. Not the small stuff—bigger desires for life or personal growth or work. For her, claiming something was both a spiritual and practical act. That is how I define resilience. For me, that’s resilience, claiming something that you have as much a right to as anyone else, and working like what you want is yours already.

In my life, sometimes I have to claim radically simple things like my right to exist. Other times I claim projects that I want or work I would like to do. Sometimes it works out and other times not, and I believe that resilience is the courage to walk away from something, knowing that what is meant for you will ultimately come.

©2018 Sundance Institute | Photo by Jonathan Hickerson

MS: What are the biggest changes you’ve seen over the course of your career in terms of how transgender characters are portrayed onscreen?

YF: I spent the first chunk of my career in the documentary world where there were some representations of trans folks but less so of trans-masculine folk (check out 2001’s Southern Comfort and 2005’s The Aggressives). Regardless of where trans* folks show up in mainstream movies, there were too many tragic storylines. Those characters were often beaten up, humiliated, or wound up dead because they were trans.

As indie filmmaking became more accessible, depictions of trans folk became more nuanced, diverse, and real, but there is so much progress to be made. I celebrate the number of trans characters on screen today—real characters with real lives and story arcs like everyone else. And at the same time, I think trans creators should be the authors of this work.

MS: How do your previous, current, or upcoming projects fit into the conversation around transgender justice?

YF: I am currently working on a fiction project that is based on real events. The project asks important questions about justice for the trans* community. It also demands that the characters and by extension the audience grapple with their deeply held assumptions about what “justice” means.

©2019 Sundance Institute | Photo by Jonathan Hickerson

MS: How is your cinematic language shaped (or not shaped) by your transgender identity? Do any other identities overlap?

YF: My cinematic language has been shaped by my Blackness, my transgender identity, and my working-class upbringing. Growing up, I used to look at myself in the mirror and try to see the “real” me. It’s amazing how, in the absence of language, my own image told me the story of who I was: Black and trans.

Growing up, I used to look at myself in the mirror and try to see the ‘real’ me. It’s amazing how, in the absence of language, my own image told me the story of who I was: Black and trans.

—Yance Ford

That looking, a kind of deep concentration on a thing until you see it for what it is, has informed the way I make images. Meaning and understanding accumulate over time. The time I spend conceiving and then making an image is key to that image aligning with my intention and what I want to convey.

MS: Who are your favorite up-and-coming voices (artists, writers, actors, political figures, etc.) in the trans community? Is there anyone you want to shout out?

YF: I am a huge fan of the photographer Texas Isiah, who just shot a series of photos for British Vogue, and the ACLU attorney Chase Strangio. Every one of the 244 LGBTQ+ candidates who won elections earlier this month. Brooklyn-based West Dakota, Fran Tirado, and everyone involved in organizing the Brooklyn Liberation march and action for Black lives.

MS: What is your hope for the future of storytelling? And for the future of the film industry? How do you hope to see transgender people represented on screen in the next five years?

YF: Five years can be the development and production cycle of a fiction or documentary film. In order for the future of storytelling to include trans voices in a meaningful way, people with power have to make inclusive decisions now. Support emerging voices.

The sooner that cis creators admit that their imaginations are not enough to tell trans stories and instead partner with trans creators, the better.

—Yance Ford

Greenlight projects. Use The Google to find trans content creators (it’s not that hard) and hire us to tell our stories. The sooner that cis creators admit that their imaginations are not enough to tell trans stories and instead partner with trans creators, the better.

MS: What are you working on next?

YF: I’m in post on a feature doc, developing a few scripted and doc projects, and trying to find time to sleep.

MS: What can the public do to support transgender people and the arts?

YF: Public arts funding needs to make up for lost time and historical lack of support for trans artists by establishing targeted funding sources for trans artists. No one has to reinvent the wheel. Arts organizations simply need to support trans artists with the same funding and support that they give white cis artists.


SAM FEDER, DIRECTOR OF DISCLOSURE

© 2020 Dia Dipasupil/WireImage

Sam Feder has created several award-winning documentaries that center the intersections of race, class, sexuality, and conflict within the queer and trans community. Sam’s most recent feature, Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen, premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, and you can now find it streaming on Netflix. You can also find out more about Feder’s campaign with GLAAD, which spotlights trans crew members who worked on Disclosure, here.

MOI SANTOS: What does Trans Day of Resilience mean to you? How have you commemorated it in the past, and what are you planning to do this year?

SAM FEDER: Leading up to TDOR, our Disclosure social media team created a campaign spotlighting our trans crew. We prioritized hiring trans people, and when we couldn't do that, a non-trans person mentored a trans filmmaker, offering on-the-job training, networking, and mentorship.

In the past, I’ve spent TDOR with loved ones at events organized by friends, like Jazzmun Clayton (who is featured in Disclosure). She hosts events in Los Angeles that memorialize and uplift the trans community. This year I’ll gather with a small group of friends in a socially distanced way.

MS: What does resilience mean to you? And is there anyone who has helped you tap into your own resilience?

SF: To me, resilience means that we will be undone again and again. And it will forever change us. But each time we put ourselves back together, we get the chance to see the world in a new way, which often inspires creative ways to thrive. Kate Bornstein reminds us to do whatever it takes to make life worth living—just don’t be mean. That is a vital reminder I keep close to me.

MS: What are the biggest changes you’ve seen over the course of your career in terms of how transgender characters are portrayed onscreen?

SF: Those feel like unrelated questions to my experience. But I can say that programmers have told me, “I don’t know how to program a trans film.” Funders and distributors have said, “We supported a trans film five years ago; we don’t want to oversaturate our market.”

In the past, most of the films that get attention outside the queer and trans festival and distribution markets are reductive narratives about someone’s transition, usually directed by a cis person, or trauma-based stories that aim to make the viewer feel good for feeling bad. Both tell you a lot about the people in decision-making positions.

—Sam Feder

In the past, most of the films that get attention outside the queer and trans festival and distribution markets are reductive narratives about someone’s transition, usually directed by a cis person, or trauma-based stories that aim to make the viewer feel good for feeling bad. Both tell you a lot about the people in decision-making positions.

©2020 Sundance Institute | Photo by Jovelle Tamayo

MS: How do your previous, current, or upcoming projects fit into the conversations around transgender justice?

SF: All my work has explored issues within trans justice. Boy I Am was about how some lesbian communities reject the inclusion of trans men, accusing these guys of betraying feminism and taking the easy way out. No More Lies is about how the media pressures trans people to fulfill their prurient desires about trans stories. Kate Bornstein Is a Queer and Pleasant Danger is about being able to see a queer/trans elder in the world, sharing experiences from illness to healing to love and loss to shared memory and reinvention.

MS: How is your cinematic language shaped (or not shaped) by your transgender identity? Do any other identities overlap?

SF: My work is informed by an anti-racist, abolitionist, feminist lens. For a long time I’ve questioned the utility of using a hegemonic format to tell trans stories. Ultimately, I think we need to look at and tell our stories outside of that format, to create a new language and framework that will impact our implicit biases in ways overt messaging cannot.

For example, while Disclosure is conventional in format, I feature 31 trans people of various ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds to tell the story rather than rely on just a few perspectives. Social scientists will tell you that a multiplicity of voices will have a greater impact on changing implicit bias than watching a few “experts” tell you what to think about transphobic images.

Many of my favorite filmmakers are leading the way in creative possibilities that do not rely on conventional formats of storytelling. And that is something I hope to revisit soon as well.


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Lead photo:

Filmmakers Sam Feder (back row, sixth from right) and Yance Ford (right) the 2020 Sundance Film Festival premiere of Feder's film "Disclosure." © 2020 Dia Dipasupil/WireImage