The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Disclosure.
How did you shape the story of the documentary?
Sam Feder: It’s such a dance, when telling any story. Early on I knew that I was very passionate about two things: I wanted to get across the point that trans people have always been here (we’re not brand new!), and also that “visibility” was not going to be the goal of the film. And so, the question became, how do you tell a history of an evolution of representation that is sort of very cut and dry (you know, you just show the images of how things were, and how they progressed to where they are now, and you talk about them)? It was really important to me to have a higher level of nuance in the conversation. So on one hand, the film is about trans representation, but it’s also about historical erasure. It’s about racism and transphobia and transmisogyny and it’s about so many other things than just what we’re seeing. So even though I knew the message I wanted to get across, figuring out how to get there took years of thought and discussion.
Amy Scholder: I entered the project when Sam was doing research, and when he was really forming the idea of how and what to make this film about. I had seen Sam’s previous film, Kate Bornstein is a Queer & Pleasant Danger, and I loved it. I in my past life I’ve been a book publisher and have a long relationship with Kate Borenstein and with LGBTQ storytellers, so when I heard about this project I could see how important it was to tell this history and to tell it now, as our world was changing, but not fast enough and not necessarily in the ways that we wanted to see it change. There was a backlash developing against change. So, Sam and I joined forces and one of the things I loved in our process early on was talking about how to make a film that centered trans stories, histories, and voices, while also putting trans people behind the camera. We started to imagine how we would produce this film together, and it was really important to us that we create a production model that felt true to the kinds of models that we wanted to see in the future, and felt true to this story. And that meant developing a production model that prioritized hiring trans people. We only interviewed trans people in front of the camera, but we also prioritized hiring trans people behind the camera. And when we couldn’t find a trans person to fit the job, we were committed to a fellowship program— we had budget line items to pay reasonable day rates to all of our trans crew, and also a small stipend for a fellowship program so that we could help to bring new trans storytellers into the industry. That was a challenging model, certainly, but by sticking to our ideals I think we achieved a level of intimacy that not only enabled this film to speak to so many people, but also wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.
I just thought that was a beautiful metaphor to describe what we were trying to do with this film
Can you discuss how you designed the look of the interviews?
SF: We spent a lot of time thinking about the look of the interviews, and planning them, and we had a team that helped us execute the vision. As with any decision when you’re making a film, there were a lot of factors that played into it. We knew the film was going to include a lot of archival imagery. So it would cover a wide range emotionally, and also just the look of the footage was going to change so much: one of our earliest clips is from 1901, and we have one from 2018. So we are going from black and white celluloid to full-color HD, and we were going between lots of different aspect ratios. So I knew there was going to be a lot of visual information the viewer was going to be taking in. That really leant itself to thinking about how we could make the interviews, which were going to be so idea-heavy, also be something of a visual resting place so that we’re not looking behind the subject to see what’s on their kitchen counter, or to see what kind of plant they have, but instead we’re really focused on them and the ideas they have. And we also thought that choosing the layers of white texture, and using a shallow depth of field, would allow us to really foreground the speaker. And my director of photography, Ava Benjamin Shorr, when she and I first met, she was like, “what do you think about shooting in anamorphic?” And my response was basically, “why are you even asking? I don’t know.” And she asked me to think about how on the one hand we had all this variable archival— so it will hold all that range, if we shot anamorphic. But also, anamorphic, that aspect ratio is really how big, epic Hollywood stories have always been told. And I just thought that was a beautiful metaphor to describe what we were trying to do with this film.
Recently, a prominent celebrity announced on social media that she was going to play a trans man. The announcement was pretty egregiously done. And not long after that, she apologized, rescinded the role, and Disclosure came up in the aftermath. Can you talk about the impact the film had in that?
SF: I think it all happened really quickly: maybe 24 hours or 48 hours elapsed between the announcement and the apology. And we started getting all of these emails saying, “congratulations,” and “good job!” And I don’t know what we really did, you know? I think having something in the world to point to made the turn around really quick. I think for people like Nick Adams and Alex Schmider (who work at GLAAD), it was helpful to have the film to reference when they were contacting the person’s reps. They were able to reference something specifically, which really sped up the education process, and helped them explain what the objection was. I think that window was really shortened because of Disclosure. And so many people who went on social media were able to have the film as a reference. And so that’s really exciting. And we know people have been doing this work for so many years. So it’s just about timing… people have been pushing back for so many years. Not only the folks at GLAAD, but also other activists like Jen Richards and of course Laverne. So I think Disclosure takes a lot of these ideas that have been part of the discourse, puts them in context in an entertaining way, with narrative, with emotion, with some laughter… and that just leads to faster conversations and education, which is really exciting.
AS: What was exciting to me as well is that there was in our film a kind of educational aspect— I mean, we don’t know whether the person who apologized actually sat down and watched Disclosure; I certainly hope she did! But certainly the conversations around her taking the role that she eventually had to decline, going on socials and entering in conversations she wasn’t really prepared to have…I think that the fact that it could be resolved so quickly was a big change to how these things normally go. The normal flow of “cancel culture” was interrupted, where someone doesn’t know what they don’t know, or says something offensive (whether knowingly or not knowingly), and then the response to that is so overwhelming and virulent that it turns into a cancel culture moment that doesn’t actually lead to any growth. And it was refreshing to me that we could provide something that could make that turnaround time much faster. So instead of that end-message being a negative around one person’s conduct and ignorance, it became, “thank you for listening to a community that you didn’t understand and thought you could speak to or about,” and, “thank you for changing your mind and listening and talking about taking steps to become an ally.” I loved that, and certainly that’s the goal I want to defend.