In The Queer And Now w/Genderbusters Director Sam Berliner
And now, a word from our editor: In an effort to steer BelowTheBelt in a more interactive, community discussion-oriented direction (and, frankly, increase readership), I'm reaching out to other queer artists and writers to like, talk about stuff.
Today my metaphorical "guest" is Sam Berliner, director of Genderbusters.
TCMV: I think it's best we get the awkward "ask the artist their inspiration" part out of the way and move on, eyes averted, as if nothing happened. Where did Genderbusters come from? Was it born solely out of creative expression and/or is it a response to the current gender environment in our culture?
SB: Genderbusters is my first year film for my Cinema MFA program at San Francisco State University that I completed this past May 2010. My classmates and I were all required to make 5 minute 16mm films in order to continue onto the second year of the program. I knew I wanted to make something about gender, something with a positive spin, and something that would spark direct action and education. I went through a number of different ideas before finally coming up with gender superheroes. (One of the earlier incarnations was on an airplane where the flight attendant speech was altered to say something along the lines of "the gender road in life can be bumpy and difficult so please be careful when opening overhead bins as the contents may have shifted throughout the flight." Haha. Yes, clearly that one found its way to the trash pretty quickly.) Seriously though, it was and will continue to be my core driving passion to create films in which people of all genders, bodies, sexual orientations, and the beautiful combinations of all of those things are able to properly represent themselves on the screen. My goal as a filmmaker is to create a positive voice for the trans, genderqueer, androgynous & gender-fluid folks not yet represented on screen, document our history, serve as a call to action to be recognized and respected by society at large, and force our culture to evolve.
TCMV: How did you assemble your cast and crew? Did you hold auditions? Were they friends/classmates of yours? How does a queer filmmaker begin the process of putting together a project like this?
SB: I assembled my crew from my classmates and my colleagues in the Bay Area. I have lived here since 2005, have worked on many projects over the years, and met some fabulous people who share my passion for telling these kinds of stories. I feel very lucky as a queer/trans filmmaker to have the wonderful connections that I do to a network of other queer/trans filmmakers all with different skills and passions that they bring to each new project. In terms of casting, it was extremely important to me to have the actors playing the parts actually inhabit those identities in their real lives. I was not interested in actors "acting" genderqueer or trans. I wanted folks with those identities to be able to authentically represent themselves on the screen. So I asked friends of mine, both from "real life" and YouTube, to be a part of the project, and taught them about acting and how to work on a film set as we went.
TCMV: How much of the film was the result of collaborative input and how much was your vision as the director?
SB: The film's core is my vision as writer and director but I could not have done it without the help of many people, most directly, my classmates and professors in my program at SF State. The film went through copious revisions every step of the way from script-writing to editing to color correction. So in this way, as well as through the work of my amazing crew on set, I was able to hone my vision for the project and make it come alive. It was a beautiful, if incredibly painstaking and detail-oriented process. But I love every step of it and that's why I know I am in the right profession. A fun example of my vision coming through the process is the Genderbusters logo which I doodled in my notebook in class one day. It is the letter G busting through a 3-dimensional box (the gender box) with pointy triangle-edged "busting" power. I had asked my friend to design the logo and brought my doodle to him and he said "that's it!" So all he had to do was bring it into Illustrator and clean it up so I could bring it to the screen printing shop to be put onto our T-shirts! (Which *achem* are for sale. Check out the website for more information: www.wix.com/berliner/genderbusters.)
TCMV: Student films are a very voluntary labor. Do you know how much it would have cost to make Genderbusters if you were to compensate cast/crew and rent equipment/locales?
SB: It definitely would have cost a lot of money if Genderbusters were not a student film. As it is, the film was costly in terms of shooting on film (stock, shipping, developing, telecine, color correction, travel to LA), renting lights in addition to the equipment we got from school, all kinds of other costs like craft services and reimbursing people for transportation, not to mention post-production costs like making DigiBeta tapes to screen at festivals, DVD duplication for sale, post office costs etc. Whew! We were lucky enough to get some food donated, some equipment from school, and the kindness of people’s hearts to work for food and a copy of the film. The costs would have been considerable had it not been a student production and there would have been much more emphasis on fundraising, grant writing and fiscal sponsorship.
TCMV: The film utilizes a lot of color. Bright, vibrant, primary colors. Was this purely an aesthetic decision or was it intended to symbolize diversity and inclusion, you know, like that thing the LGBT community uses as its logo, with all the colors and everything, you know what I'm talking about, right?
SB: Interesting that you bring the film's colors back to the LGBTQ rainbow aesthetic! I actually hadn't thought of that! The reason behind the color pallet is that I wanted the film to look like a comic book for the superheroes (which my friend has coined "super-queeros") with the brightest, punchiest colors possible. This informed the costumes, the set decoration, and the film stock-- we shot on Fuji 160T which is extra colorful.
TCMV: Were there any comic books in particular you used for inspiration in creating the look and feel of Genderbusters? Would you say the Genderbusters are more like The Avengers or the Justice League (alternatively, The Runaways or Teen Titans, if you're going for more of a "youth" vibe)?
SB: I was inspired specifically in terms of color schemes and camera movement by the Pixar film “The Incredibles.” The film’s rich primary colors in the costumes/set decoration and quick tension-building movements/cuts were quite the high standard and kept pushing me to be more creative and fun with the look of the film.
TCMV: Many of the scenes in the film depict real-life situations many queers encounter in the binary world. Did you, the cast or crew draw on personal experiences while filming them? Are there any other "like real life" situations that you wish you could have depicted in the film?
SB: In writing the script I brainstormed the most common awkward binary dilemmas that I, and those in my community, have experienced as non-gender-normative folks. Specifically, I drew from the work I have done on the YouTube collaborative channel that I was a part of for two years called GenderqueerChat. (www.youtube.com/genderqueerchat.) On the channel, we discuss a different topic every week as genderqueer people and over the years we have created a significant body of work. I went back through the videos and pulled out the most poignant experiences. Throughout the semester, I whittled the list down to 3 since the film had to be 5 minutes. But there are many more dilemmas to be explored. In fact, people have come up to me and said "I needed the Genderbusters the other day when..." The best stories are when people remember the tag line for the film, "there's a hero in all of us," and take it upon themselves to resolve the awkward situations. Real life action sparked from film is my goal and it is phenomenal when people feel inspired and confident to do so. -- During rehearsals and filming it was very natural for the actors to draw from personal experiences to inform their performances since they inhabit the identities in their real lives as queer/trans folks.
TCMV: True or false: the increasing visibility of gender variant persyns on youtube can serve as a response to the misrepresentation of the community in other media?
SB: Tricky question. I would hope to say true but I think that the YouTube community is rather insular, which is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, being somewhat insular ensures it as a safe space for those who need it. On the other hand, it means the messages of growth and diversity within the gender community are not getting out there into the public where they need to be seen in order to help facilitate social change around these issues. I think that being on YouTube one can certainly respond to and criticize the misrepresentations that are out there, but as a limited medium it can only reach so many people. That being said, of course there are some exceptions. For example the It Gets Better project has breached the gap between the folks who frequent YouTube as well as the public in general. I even heard a story about it on NPR! I would hope that more uses of YouTube could breach this gap moving forward.
TCMV: What could/should be done, in your opinion, to help the gender community breach that gap from "corner of the internet" to mainstream media the same way that the "It Gets Better" project has? Do you believe that the continued circulation of your film and projects like it can help?
SB: I think that the gender community can continue to breach the gap to the mainstream by continuing to make films, blogs, artwork, books, music etc. Movements take a long time to gain momentum and infiltrate the rest of society and there’s a lot of really fantastic work being done that is slowly getting these messages out there. The more the better! And I think it’s working! On NPR they said the word transgender and had a whole story about transgendered little girls and the Gender Odyssey conference in Seattle, on a DVD jacket I saw the words non-normative gender, Obama even said the word transgender in an address to the entire country! I think we all just have to have the strength and bravery to be and express ourselves and in time the culture will shift.
TCMV: Unlike other superheroes, the Genderbusters lack an archnemesis. Did you ever consider having a villain for them to thwart? Would you make the gender binary wear a cape?
SB: Great question! Yes, I considered having an archnemesis for the Genderbusters to fight, a personified version of the Binary like the Binary Police or a Binary Machine, but none of the ideas were working as well as a general sense of the Binary’s infiltration of society. I tried to work this idea subtly into the film through art direction in the wardrobe: Those within the confines of the binary wear drab, muted colors, the characters in need of the Genderbusters wear somewhat more colorful clothes, and the Genderbusters themselves wear ridiculously bright colorful costumes.
TCMV: Are there plans for a sequel or full-length feature? Can I be in it?
SB: While I think that Genderbusters has a lot of potential to be made into a series or a feature length film, I am letting it have its own life as a short project for now and focusing on getting it out there. Perhaps in the future I will revisit the concept and expand it, in which case I’ll contact you :), but that’s where things are at for now. More immediate is the need for real life Genderbusters and what we all can do to push the Gender Evolution Revolution forwards in our own lives. A couple of my friends were even talking about starting up a real group with direct actions!
TCMV: I can't get this image of Genderbuster flash mobs placing stickers on single gender bathrooms and wreaking chaos in the clothing departments of the local Macy's out of my head. I imagine this isn't what your friends were thinking of when they said "direct actions". But now that I've put this idea in our readers' heads, would you endorse this sort of behavior in achieving the Gender Evolution Revolution? For those who haven't seen Genderbusters, what can people do to push forward the Gender Evolution Revolution?
SB: Haha! Ok, no wrecking havoc per se, more like gender-neutral bathroom stickers, flyers for gender related rights, that kind of thing. In the film, there’s a Here’s Five Things You Can Do to Join the Gender Revolution section. Here are the suggestions: “Start a direct action group of gender revolutionaries in your area and lobby against transphobic legislation. Visit Camp Trans to protest the exclusion of trans women from the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. Make art- create alternatives to popular culture like zines and films that reflect who you are! Organize a trans march in your area- make it inclusive to all genders and allies.”
TCMV: I'd never be able to wipe the egg on my face if I didn't ask: do you have any advice to parlay to aspiring queer filmmakers looking to tackle similar projects? Is there anything they can learn from your experience or little-known resources you'd wish to point them towards?
SB: Here is some advice that I would give to aspiring queer filmmakers: (1) Express your unique self. We need so many more stories of queer/gender-variant folks out there! (2) Partner with friends/community resources. Start a film group where a bunch of friends get together at a coffee shop and workshop ideas and even potentially work on each other’s projects. In terms of monetary help, you could get financial contributions if you have a fiscal sponsor (an organization you partner with so that when people donate to your project is it tax deductable) so see what your local LGBT center is willing to do. (3) Use the internet to your advantage! Start a Facebook page for your film group, a website, there is so much networking that can be done online. (4) Take advantage of your local community college film classes, production, editing, theory, history, it’s all really important and idea-inspiring stuff! Plus the classes are inexpensive. (5) Watch as many queer and gender-bendy films you can get your hands on. Go to art events, film festivals, book readings, plays. Get out and support your community and not only will people support you back but you can find inspiration in their work and potential collaborators.
Please visit the Genderbusters website and the facebook group. There are DVDs and T-shirts for sale.