Sam Berliner – A Filmmaker Blazing Trails In The Trans Film World And Beyond (And Making You Want to
Thank you to Ali Naro for this heart-felt review of my work!
Float Directed by Sam Berliner 2015
Dating Sucks: A Genderqueer Misadventure, Starring – Sam Berliner, Jon Cooney, Darcy Allder, Carol Queen, Claire Discenza, Joe D’Emilio, Kai West, Directed by Sam Berliner 2013
Genderbusters, Starring – Sarah Wodin-Schwartz, Darcy Allder, Elenore Toczynski, Carson Rader, Directed by Sam Berliner 2010
Perception Directed by Sam Berliner 2010
Being honest about one’s life isn’t a trait found often in the world. People never really tell you the truth when you ask them, “How are you doing?” You usually get back a, “Oh, I’m fine.” Even when the person is anything but fine. People go on social media to post how great their life is, how great their relationship with their significant other is, how wonderful and rewarding being a parent is. But how often do you actually see the truth that their life isn’t great, their relationship struggles to stay alive, and being a parent has many downsides no one dares to admit because they don’t want to get labelled a bad parent? I’m finding honesty harder and harder to locate in this ever increasing PR/commercialized/incorporated world of ours. I certainly can’t find it on social media, and all news stations/publications have their own agenda, so nope, can’t find it there, and it’s even becoming rare to find it in art, the one place where we should be completely honest with ourselves since we put ourselves in our art, whether we want to or mean to or not. So it was a refreshingly rare treat when I got to turn on Sam Berliner’s films this week and got a good dose of honesty about Sam’s life and what it’s been like for him being a trans person in this modern world of its-okay-to-be-who-you-are-today, because Sam proves it may be okay, but it still sucks, but don’t worry, it can be fun and full of laughter too.
I should have known that I was going to be a huge fan of Sam’s work because the very first time I ever came into contact with Sam, he immediately felt like a kindred spirit to me, because he calmed me down and made me feel like everything was going to be okay and all he was doing was sitting next to me on a bus. I met Sam on a shuttle bus from an airport in Fort Lauderdale, Florida on our way to a hotel. It was after midnight and I was beyond exhausted, but not from staying up late, because thanks to decades of insomnia, I’m an expert on staying up late. Instead I was completely and utterly exhausted because socially phobic, rarely-gets-out-of-our-apartment me (I’m currently on day 5 of not once leaving our apartment and that’s a typical week for me) was scared out of my mind because I was on my way to attend the Pride of the Ocean Film Festival (the best damn film festival out there!) as a press representative and how in the world was I going to talk to a bunch of people I didn’t know and be around a bunch of people I had never met before for an entire week when on the rare days I do manage to actually get out of our apartment, it takes all the courage I have in the world and that’s usually just to walk to the grocery store that’s 5 minutes away and I don’t even have to muster up the courage for small talk anymore because the human cashiers have all been replaced by self-checkout computers. And now here I was going on a cruise ship for free thanks to getting an invite because of this website that I work on at home in my pajamas when I can fight enough through my damned, annoying as hell depression to even write in the first place. But now lifelong movie buff and socially phobic me was going to a film festival and being given the opportunity to not only watch a bunch of movies and write about them, but also meet the filmmakers in person and talk with them in person about their films. My poor heart and soul thought I would die from both the terror from having to fight through my social phobia to meet and talk with people, and the thrilling excitement that a lifelong dream was coming true, I was going to be surrounded by the people who make the very first thing I ever fell in love with – films. It was too amazing of an opportunity to pass up, even for someone as socially phobic as me, so I said yes and then chanted a whole bunch (I’m aNichiren Buddhist) to please give me a sign that it would be okay. And so when I then sat down next to Sam on the bus, having no idea who he was, after spending months stressing about a trip that most people would only be excited about, especially since it was basically a lifelong dream come true in so many aspects for me, I suddenly felt as calm as if I had taken a lorazepam, and so I realized this was my sign, because I hate taking lorazepam and only do so when I can’t stop a panic attack. So in other words, Sam’s got a soul so beautiful, he calms me down, and pretty much only my wife has ever been able to do that when I get in these states of pure terror and fear thanks to some pretty nasty PTSD that I have. And what Sam does with that beautiful soul as a filmmaker is what makes his films so magical and inspiring, because I’m pretty sure that if Sam’s films got enough exposure, they would probably help an entire generation of trans/genderqueer people love who they are.
See, lots of people everywhere, but what a great group of people they were. And I made so many amazing friends and professional connections thanks to me taking a chance on me and sharing a shuttle bus with Sam that let me know it was all going to be okay.
Float was the very first film of Sam’s that I got to watch at that best damn film festival out there or better known as Pride of the Ocean. And I remember thinking that Float was aptly titled for a film festival on a cruise ship, because all I kept thinking while we were on the cruise ship for that whole week was for the ship to please keep on floating. Hey, I saw Titanic. I had no interest in being king of the world. Being royalty on a sinking ship doesn’t necessarily get you a lifeboat. Anyway, after spending some time with Sam on the cruise ship for a few days and seeing what a truly amazing person he was, it was no wonder he calmed me down right away when I sat next to him on that bus, because he just has a calming spirit (a lot like my wife and maybe my wife should pass me off to Sam when she needs a break from me?), but then after seeing Float, it all made sense because he is a filmmaker who made a truly beautiful movie from his heart and soul that had such a calming effect on me that I actually relaxed for a moment while I was on the cruise. Swimming pools, soon-to-be movie stars, the breathtaking blue waters of Haiti, Jamaica and Mexico; none of those things calmed me on the cruise quite like Float did.
Float is simply a visual film, no dialogue or storyline or any kind of typical storytelling is done in this short film. It is just naked trans and genderqueer bodies swimming underwater. It is such a beautiful visual that it can’t really be further explained in words. Float is a movie you have to see to understand the immense amount of beauty in the film and the incredible impact it has on the viewer. And if you can see it on a movie screen or really big TV, then all the better. Sam explained after screening the film that the movie was inspired by a pool party he had attended where the guests were trans and genderqueer, and how rare it is that they could just be themselves at a pool party in varying stages of undress without fear or ridicule from others about their bodies because everyone was just like them. I’m like every other woman in the world when it comes to wearing a bathing suit in public and just worry that I don’t look good enough, so I had never thought before what that kind of immense pressure and fear must be like to have a body that doesn’t fit in with gender “norms” when all you’re trying to do is go to a pool party and have some fun.
Float is less than 4 minutes long, but I haven’t stopped thinking about the short movie since I saw it on the cruise and when I saw it again for the first time this week since the cruise, I could see why. This is such a groundbreaking movie because it’s such a simple, yet groundbreaking idea — simply showing naked bodies of people who don’t fit in with society’s “norms”. I feel like this film should be distributed in schools across the country so the next generation never has to fear their bodies and what others think of them, no matter if they are transgender or cisgender, because I think this film will help ALL bodies and especially the human souls inside them. Maybe we could finally have a generation of people who actually love their bodies instead of fearing them. Float has certainly helped me start accepting my body even as I have begun to explore exactly what my gender identity is.
One of the beautiful images in the short film Float.
Next in Sam’s film library is Dating Sucks: A Genderqueer Misadventure and it reminded me how very lucky I have been when it comes to love. Everything else in my life, not so lucky, but with love, I hit the jackpot on my first date with a woman. Okay, so I had a premonition about where and when I would find her, so I think I had an advantage most people don’t have when it comes to dating, so I am extremely appreciative of the gift that is my wife, and Dating Sucks reminded me why I am so lucky and appreciative of her, because the title means what it says – dating sucks!
Sam’s partially animated film takes us on Sam’s incredibly honest, funny and painful quest to not only find a date, but to figure out what Sam’s attractions are exactly to even know what kind of a date he wants to find in the first place. Because Sam isn’t just a guy looking for love. Nope, Sam is a trans guy who is looking for love, who liked guys when he was a girl, but then decided to like girls when he was a girl, but now that he is a guy who is transitioning, who is the right person for him? A cisgender guy? A trans guy? A guy with a dick? But Sam doesn’t have a penis, so will that matter? And what if he decides to date a girl instead? He doesn’t have boobs, so will that make him straight? But he doesn’t have a penis, so will that make him a dyke? So many questions. So much confusion. I guess choice really is a burden because when I was growing up you had two choices with your sexuality – straight or gay; and since no one wanted to be gay because your life was then hell on Earth, we all chose straight. We also had two choices with gender – male or female. If you were born male, you were male. If you were born female, you were female. So that was it – you could be gay or straight, or male or female. No choices to make there. It sucked not having choices, but after watching Sam’s short film about dating as a trans man/possibly gay/but maybe he still likes girls too person, I saw that having so many choices can be just as hard as having no choices at all (although thank goodness we have choices now and it is a wonderful advancement in our society).
Sam is just so honest about his struggles with dating and all the confusion that went through his head and heart just trying to find love. When you don’t even know where to start because you have so many options and so many questions and no answers, it can be overwhelming, so it was refreshing to see a movie that shows you that yeah we’re here, we’re queer, so you just better get used to it already because we’re very occupied and stressed over here trying to figure out what to do next with all these sexuality and gender options, because we didn’t realize how burdensome choices could be!
A shot from Dating Sucks about all the different kinds of people Sam could date if only he could figure out who he wanted to date. If this is what dating with aplethora of choices looks like, I’m eternally grateful to be off the market. I didn’t know choice would involve math and I don’t do math, so that’s why I got me a scientist as a wife. She does math real good.
Sam’s film Genderbusters is the comic book film that I’ve been looking from Marvel or DC since they started making movies, because it’s got our community in it as the heroes! Genderbusters are a group of gender nonconforming people here to save the day for us mere mortals from having to choose which bathroom to use and from having to choose which gender to mark on your job application (see there’s that damn burden of choice again) and from your mom who keeps calling you by your old name and is trying to get you to wear a dress to a wedding.
Sam made Genderbusters way back in 2010 when basically no one and nothing was coming out of Hollywood about the trans community, and the debate about bathrooms being men’s or women’s only was barely on the radar. But Sam was there way back before anyone else was breaking down barriers, and he does it with honesty and humor to show the world what it’s like for genderqueer and trans people to live their everyday lives since gender comes up so much in our everyday world for so many things we just take for granted, like which bathroom to use or which gender to select on an application. Genderbusters are the heroes many people are looking for today, so too bad they are only in a movie because the world could use more superheroes like them. Then again, Sam was my Genderbuster superhero on that shuttle bus, so I guess they do exist and save the day.
Genderbusters saving the day!
The final film of Sam’s that I had the honor of viewing is probably one of the most honest and beautiful stories I have ever seen on film and it is less than 2 minutes long. In Perception, we see Sam only in animation as he reads a beautiful poem he wrote about beginning his physical transition from a female body to a masculine one. This is another film that you just have to sit down and watch because words can’t do it justice. Sam says it all in the film. All of his fears and hopes and dreams of transitioning are right there in black and white for us to see and hear and know that this is a person who wants to be the most authentic person they can be, and so few people have that as their goal. When I watch this film, I see me in many ways when I was coming out as a lesbian. All those fears and hopes and dreams I had after spending years of avoiding my authentic self. Would it all be worth it just to be me? I can definitely say that no matter how much pain and loss and heartache that came with my coming out to my true self, it was still worth it because spending a life pretending to be who you are not is much harder and full of more loss and tears than simply being exactly who you are.
And that is who Sam is in his films – just Sam. No pretenses. No glam life of an out and proud trans man living the dream everyday with nothing but roses and sunshine. He shows a life that is hard, but rewarding. A life that is confusing, but in time will start to make sense. A life that has so many downs, but so many ups too, because Sam is on a journey to just be Sam, and he’s not afraid to show you his warts and foibles and all, because maybe it will help you on your journey too. Sam’s films are certainly helping me on my journey. So thank you Sam for making such wonderful films. And thanks for helping me calm my fears on that airport shuttle bus, even though all you were doing was sitting next to me.
For more on Sam Berliner and Donut Films (and now aren’t you craving a donut or two too?) — check out Sam’s Vimeo page and Donut Film’s website. You can watch Perception on Vimeo. For more on Dating Sucks: A Genderqueer Misadventure, check out their website. And for more on Genderbusters, check out their website. Sam is also the festival director for Translations, a transgender film festival in Seattle, Washington. I’ve been wanting to go to that festival for years and I swear, one of these days, I’m going, be damned my social phobia.
P.S.: I’d like to add one more thing, because I can’t stop thinking that if I had the money, I would give a bunch of it to Sam so he could go out and make even more films, because I want more Genderbusters and I want more Dating Sucks: A Genderqueer Misadventure, and I imagine if more people saw his films, they’d be throwing money at Sam too, because these movies are just that good and the stories he tells need to be told. Hey Hollywood, if you’re looking to make some pretty fantastic trans-themed films, maybe you should toss some cash Sam’s way because I’m too poor to toss anyone cash. Hey, you never know, Hollywood just might listen.