INTERVIEW WITH FILMMAKER SAM BERLINER
Morty: When did you first realize you wanted to become a filmmaker?
Sam: I was taking a Music in Film class at Smith College and our final project was to make a music video, so we learned the basics of video production and editing. I shot my piece with a humungous camcorder recording onto a VHS tape (you know, the big kind that you have to balance on your shoulder?) and I couldn’t get enough of it. I’d even go back to the editing lab at night after dinner to keep working. My friends kept asking, “Where are you going? Let’s hang out.” I couldn’t help it; I’d fallen in love with filmmaking.
Morty: Who are some of your favorite filmmakers?
Sam: I am a huge fan of Jamie Babbit’s But I’m A Cheerleader, Harry Dodge and Silas Howard’s By Hook or By Crook, Sabine Bernardi’s Romeos, Chris Vargas and Greg Youman’s webseries Falling In Love With Chris And Greg, Rhys Ernst’s The Drive North (can’t wait to see The Thing), and Luke Woodward’s Enough Man. I am super-into Trans New Wave filmmakers, as this is my goal with my own work. Basically Trans New Wave films move past traditional coming out or transition nuts and bolts stories to films with characters that embody their sexual orientations and gender identities without calling attention to it, nodding to an audience who already understands the implied history and experience, and giving the film the freedom to focus on the story. It is revolutionary! So exciting!
Morty: You’ve been in San Francisco for many years, is there a kind of trans filmmaker scene there?
Sam: San Francisco is definitely a great place to be a filmmaker and there’s absolutely a lot of gender-bending work being done. I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of a great community with folks like Jen Gilomen and Lynn Breedlove’s short film Godspeed and J Aguilar and Meliza Bañales’ Getting Off. It’s also just a great venue for work with the San Francisco Transgender Film Festival (formerly Tranny Fest) in the Fall and Frameline’s always-packed Trans Shorts screening in June.
Morty: You’re in film school now, can you tell us what its done for you for both career options and artistic vision?
Sam: I am in my third year of an MFA Cinema program at San Francisco State University. It has been an equally rewarding and challenging experience and, most notably, has helped me find my artistic voice. The program has definitely pushed me to grow both personally and as a filmmaker. When I started I was pretty sure I was only going to make documentaries but I have learned how exciting hybrid forms are, especially incorporating animation and experimental techniques, which is what I am doing in my thesis film. I have been lucky enough to be surrounded by supportive colleagues and professors who encourage me to push my work (that delves into alternative genders and sexualities) farther, and I think that can be rare! I feel like I have really come into my own and it is very exciting!
In terms of career options, film school has helped me broaden my filmmaking community; I’ve met so many talented and passionate folks who I will definitely continue to work with. It is inspiring. Film school has also given me the confidence I need to not only get my work out there but also take that self-assurance (as well as plenty of practice taking criticism) into other career paths like teaching and freelance opportunities.
Morty: You’re also teaching now. How is your gender identity affecting your work as a teacher, if at all?
Sam: Wow, what an interesting question! You know, teaching is the one major place right now where I am not sure how to handle my openness around my gender identity. It has never been my intention to be stealth, and I am pretty much out everywhere else, yet when I teach that seems to be the appropriate thing to do, however much I dislike it, because the point of the class is learning film production not the details of my gender identity. (I just wonder how they read me! I want to know!!) Ideally I could be out all the time, but especially with youth that gets tricky. At this point teaching college students, my rule of thumb is if they ask, I will talk about it, and if they don’t ask, I won’t bring it up. Eventually, if they want to know about my work, it is inevitable that I will out myself because I don’t want to hide who I am. Some day I would hope that there would be a universal understanding and acceptance of trans folks and I could be out all the time. Until then, I guess I’ll have to play it by ear.
Morty: You continue to do a lot of YouTube videos…what does it mean for you to make a presence on YouTube discussing your gender identity?
Sam: Over the years, the YouTube trans and gender-variant vlogging community has been enormously helpful to my process of figuring out my own gender. The honesty and openness that people have is inspiring. When I was questioning my gender and coming into my genderqueer identity I was on a collab channel called Genderqueerchat that is actually still going! This channel helped me immensely by forcing me to deeply examine my ideas around gender, one question and one week at a time. I learned so much through that process and the friends and community that came out of the channel. I was able to define my gender, examine the traditional and non-traditional trans narratives, unpack socially-constructed and biologically-informed concepts of masculinity and femininity, see male and female as fluid and malleable, and have really open dialogue around all kinds of gender issues. After the collab channel I used YouTube to document my first year on Testosterone, month by month, which is pretty standard for YouTube vlogging and something that I did mostly for myself. The videos that I make these days are about navigating the world as someone who is perceived to be male and the continuing evolution of my own gender identity, most recently about the surprising and exciting broadening of my definition of male.
Most importantly, and the reason I still have all of my videos up even though I am in a much different place now (not to mention the intense embarrassment at my former hairstyles— oh God, why???) is reaching folks who are isolated, need support, and do not see their stories reflected anywhere else. Through my work, including YouTube, I am trying to broaden the way our culture perceives and conceptualizes gender. I have received YouTube messages from people all over the U.S. and the world thanking me for putting into words what they have been feeling and unable to express, for giving them an example of a struggle and a success story following the #1 rule of being 100% true to oneself. It is unbelievably gratifying and touching and definitely the biggest reason I continue with the videos.
Morty: Do you consider yourself a “trans/genderqueer filmmaker” or does that feel too limiting?
Sam: Yes, I definitely proudly consider myself a trans/genderqueer filmmaker. (Sometimes it is fun to combine the terms into transgenderqueer!) I certainly have broader interests and stories to explore outside of gender analysis but for where I am in my life right now that is my primary focus. I also think this work is really important, not only being an out and open gender-variant artist, but also creating spaces and opportunities for other gender-variant folks to have their voices heard, to represent themselves and their stories on screen, and to push our culture to evolve.
Morty: Many of your films as of late are about gender – do you feel your gender identity has given you a lot to work with?
Sam: I would certainly say that the majority of my current work (within the past five years or so) examines gender in various ways and I am grateful that I have such a creative and rewarding outlet for my process through film.
Morty: Lastly, I’d love to know a little about the making of your film, Genderbusters. Can you tell us a little about the process of producing it and getting it distributed to festivals?
Sam: Sure! Genderbusters was my first-year film for my MFA program at SFSU. It is a 5 minute film shot on 16mm. It is about gender superheroes (or as my friend says super-queeros) who drive around getting gender-variant people out of binary-gender dilemmas. I wrote the script in the Fall semester, shot it over four days in January with an amazing crew, and edited it in the Spring semester. As I mentioned earlier, it is incredibly important to me to create opportunities where gender-variant folks can represent themselves on screen and Genderbusters was a really special shoot because we did just that! The cast and crew had a lot of gender-variant and queer folks. We even had a column in the contact list for preferred pronoun and were able to create a safe and respectful environment where we could all be ourselves. I think that really shows in the film!
As soon as I completed the film I just started submitting it to various festivals and then it snowballed! I am still amazed at how well Genderbusters has been received all over the world, playing at nearly 50 festivals including screenings in Australia, the UK, Belgium, Switzerland, India and Israel. A huge goal was to screen at Frameline: The San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival, the biggest and oldest LGBT festival in the world, and they screened the filmtwice! They also screened another short film of mine, an animation called Perception. Now both films have lives of their own and have been picked up by CFMDC (the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre) and FramelineVoices also picked up Perception!
Outside of festivals, it has been a really important goal of mine to get the films into the hands of youth and college-aged LGBTQ and gender-non-conforming folks in schools, support groups, LGBTQ centers and similar organizations, so that’s a big part of what I am working on now. The films have begun screening in alternative venues like college classes, fundraisers, Pride events and PFLAG groups. I also have done a handful of in-person speaking engagements with the films, which are super fun.
To order films or for more information about Sam, please check out the website: www.genderbusters.com or email Sam directly at email@example.com. You can also find it on Facebook under Genderbusters Film.