Meet the filmmakers putting trans people in front of the camera and behind it

The Trans Film Mentorship partners emerging trans film workers with productions like “Sort Of” for paid work experience on set

A particular crown jewel of last year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) was Luis De Filippis’s buzzy drama Something You Said Last Night, winner of the festival’s Changemaker Award given to a film with a strong social message. The film follows Ren (an excellent Carmen Madonia in her breakout role), a young trans woman who accompanies her family on a summer vacation where various interpersonal conflicts rear their heads. As I wrote in my review from TIFF, it’s a quiet film not about coming out or proving a point, but simply about living as a trans person. 

It’s obviously grounded in the lived experience of the real trans people who made it. In addition to Madonia’s visible on-screen presence and De Filippis as a director, much of the film’s behind-the-camera production crew was populated with emerging trans talent via the Trans Film Mentorship, a fledgling program founded by De Filippis that works to pair emerging trans and non-binary filmmakers behind the scenes with paid opportunities on set. 

De Filippis says it was actually the early stages of producing the film that spurred her to take a hard look at the lack of opportunities for trans filmmaking talent. 

“When I started looking for my crew for Something You Said Last Night, I came up against the reality that it actually is quite hard to find trans talent,” De Filippis told Xtra in an interview at TIFF. 

“There’s been a lot of discussions about representation in front of the camera, but not so much behind the camera. But to me, that’s just as important. Like, it’s important to change the stories we’re telling, 100 percent. But it’s also important to change how we’re telling those stories.”

Filmmaker Luis De Fillipis speaks during the Trans Filmmakers Summit

Credit: Trans Film Mentorship

Trans representation onscreen has risen over the past decade. While much of it has come at a glacial pace, trans representation onscreen—portrayed by actual trans people—has improved from the years of Friends and Dallas Buyers Club. The likes of Daniel Sea on the original The L Word in the ’00s paved the way for the current generation of trans talent ranging from Laverne Cox to Leo Sheng to Yasmin Finney. 

The 2022 GLAAD Studio Responsibility Index, which measures LGBTQ2S+ representation in major studio films, recorded a trans character for the very first time, Anybodys in West Side Story. And the organization’s equivalent report on TV has regularly seen the number of trans characters on streaming and broadcast TV increase over the past decade, with the number recorded nearly doubling from 17 to 32 over the past five years


Mentoring the next generation

But how do you cultivate the next generation of trans filmmakers when barriers still exist to accessing opportunities? De Filippis, a graduate of Toronto Metropolitan University, moved a steady path through short films and the festival circuit to land her feature at TIFF. Her short film For Nonna Anna, about a trans woman caring for her aging grandmother, premiered at the festival in 2017 and won a special jury prize at Sundance in 2018. 

She says her trans film predecessors set the stage for her to tell trans stories in honest and realistic ways, but that her generation is still largely the vanguards of trans storytelling. 

“I don’t think I would be where I am today if I didn’t have my support system of amazing filmmakers who are also telling their stories and getting them out there. We support each other,” she says. 

She approached Canadian director and curriculum designer Gabrielle Zilkha about developing a program to give paid opportunities working on the set to emerging trans talent. From there, Cinereach in the U.S. and CBC in Canada came on board as development partners with the program, with the goal of fostering the next generation of trans film talent.

Zilkha says her job was formulating the idea into something that could actually be pulled off. 

“My role was really to help home in on what their goals were,” Zilkha says. “What are realistic objectives for this type of program, or this kind of mentorship?”

Speakers pose following the 2022 Trans Filmmakers Summit at TIFF

Credit: Lito Howse/Xtra

Zilkha says it was important for De Filippis and the program’s founders that participants be paid and be doing real work. De Filippis notes that while many mentorship or internship programs for diverse talent are simply about learning, this one is also about actively contributing to the production and getting that credit.

“I think what’s really special about this program is that it’s not a shadowing program. They are intrinsic members of the crew. So they’re making active choices that later they will see onscreen,” she says.

In addition to systemic disadvantages around accessing post-secondary education that trans people face, Zilkha points out that many trans folks are already under financial strain from accessing gender-affirming care and services and therefore can’t necessarily take the unpaid opportunities that already exist. 

According to the Human Rights Campaign, the total costs of trans-specific care for one person in the U.S. are often estimated between USD $25,000 and $75,000. And while many aspects of care are covered by Canadian healthcare, there are also many that aren’t.

But, the Trans Filmmakers Mentorship founders argue, that shouldn’t preclude them from career-development opportunities and mentorship. 

“For many, transitioning is a financially crippling procedure or process that within their lives, that often really dictates their labour market,” Zilkha says. 

Ts Madison speaks during the 2022 Trans Filmmaker Summit

Credit: Lito Howse/Xtra

Both Zilkha and De Filippis hope the program can be a career boost for its participants, and if the first wave is an indicator, that hope should be realized. Participants from the Something You Said Last Night set have gone on to work in other sections of the industry including makeup artist Ms. Myles Bryan-Murray, who worked on the set of LIDO TV, and, according to De Filippis, is “fully booked” since working on the set. 

Expanding to other productions

After launching successfully with De Filippis’s film, the program expanded with the second season of CBC’s critically acclaimed series Sort Of last year, created by Bilal Baig and Fab Filippo. Zilkha says more than 100 applicants applied for five paid on-set positions for the acclaimed series. 

In an email statement to Xtra, Sort Of co-creator and star Bilal Baig praised the program’s impact on the series production.

“It was a deeply profound pleasure to have mentees working on our set,” Baig said. “Supporting the artistic growth and development of trans BIPOC artists means everything to me, and we were so lucky to be able to hold space for this program and continue to investigate what more we can do to combat systemic barriers to access work in this industry and bring new exciting energy into the sector too.”

And at TIFF in 2022, organizers took it a step further in presenting the Trans Filmmakers Summit, an afternoon of panel discussions with trans actors and filmmakers alongside awarding the inaugural Trans Barrier Breaker Award to Ts Madison. The event’s capacity filled up quickly, demonstrating to organizers that there is a hunger for more networking and collaboration between trans filmmakers and the industry.

 “If we’re not making space for ourselves, no one’s gonna make space for us,” De Filippis says. 

She hopes that future initiatives from the Trans Filmmakers Mentorship will continue to develop a new generation of talent, and that will play out in the kinds of movies and shows made in the coming years. She says that trans joy to her, and the kind of trans joy she wants to foster more of, is being together in community. 

“When I’m in a room with my friends, when I’m in a room full of dolls, and we have shorthand with each other, we have that, like, those inside jokes, and we can, like, riff off each other so quickly,” De Filippis says. “And it’s the cis people in the room that have no idea what we’re talking about. And we don’t even, like, apologize for it or even slow down for them. We’re like, ‘If you want to stay with us, you got to catch up.’ To me, that’s trans joy.”

Senior editor Mel Woods is an English-speaking Vancouver-based writer and audio producer and a former associate editor with HuffPost Canada. A proud prairie queer and ranch dressing expert, their work has also appeared in Vice, Slate, the Tyee, the CBC, the Globe and Mail and the Walrus.

Read More About:
Culture, TV & Film, Feature, Trans, Non-binary

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