Trans Stories Have Their Moment at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival

This year's lineup is the most LGBTQ-inclusive in the festival's 18-year history.

This year, more films at the Tribeca Film Festival are shining a light on transgender stories than ever before, increasing visibility at the annual New York City event.

Returning for its 18th year, the festival will take over the Tribeca neighborhood and surrounding areas of lower Manhattan from April 24 through May 5.

While originally founded in the wake of the attacks on 9/11, Tribeca has become a home for independent, diverse, and innovative storytelling, with an expanded showcase of feature films and documentaries, short films as well as the addition of virtual and augmented reality experiences. This year, inclusion is one of the key trends, with 40% of the feature films directed by women, 29% by people of color, and 13% by LGBTQ people.

Chris Westlund

Subject: Andraya Yearwood practicing at local Cromwell High School track. Photographer: Chris Westlund

Andraya Yearwood in Changing the Game.

Additionally, more films than ever feature stories about the transgender community, with at least one scripted drama, Flawless, starring transgender model and actress Stav Strashko, and several documentaries—Changing the Game, Framing Agnes, Mack Wrestles, Seahorse, and XY Chelsea—centering trans people. Additionally, two other documentaries, For They Know Not What They Do and Gay Chorus Deep South, touch on issues faced by the transgender community. Overall, the festival’s 2019 lineup includes 14 LGBTQ-inclusive films, the most in its 18-year history.

“It’s very exciting to see more films featuring transgender stories and highlighting transgender storytellers, both in front of and behind the camera,” Alex Schmider, former associate director of trans representation at GLAAD, tells NewNowNext. Schmider is also the producer of Changing the Game, which explores the lives of three transgender athletes—Mack, Andraya, and Sarah Rose—attempting to compete at their best in their respective fields of wrestling, skiing and track, despite facing daily adversity from fans and competitors alike.

“For [the film] to be included in such a rich lineup at Tribeca is extraordinary,” he continues, “and indicates an active appreciation for stories about typically underrepresented people that cut across difference and convey commonality in seeking understanding, inclusion, and acceptance.” (Mack is also the subject of the short Mack Wrestles, which goes behinds the scenes of his life as transgender athlete and wrestler.)

Danny Burrows

STILL FROM SEAHORSE. Freddy with a scan of the baby he is carrying.

Freddy McConnell in Seahorse.

Meanwhile, Seahorse director Jeanie Finlay says Tribeca audiences are “always so discerning and passionate about film, so I’m excited for the film to be born in NYC.” Her film follows Freddy McConnell, a transgender man who gets pregnant in order to become a parent. Finlay adds: “I’d really like Seahorse to be a conversation starter and for people to feel moved by the intimacy, honesty, and complexity of Freddy’s journey.”

Although Tribeca seems to have a higher number of projects focused on trans content, it typically follows behind the Sundance Film Festival. According to Nick Adams, director of transgender representation at GLAAD, Sundance has historically “been the leader overall in LGBTQ representation on the festival circuit.” Over the past five years, he notes, the major festival lineups typically only include one to five “significant” trans projects. But, as he notes, “Tribeca has gone out of [its] way this year to highlight LGBTQ-inclusive programming overall.”

In addition to the previously mentioned feature films and shorts, Lucy Mukerjee, a senior programmer at the Tribeca Film Festival dedicated to championing underrepresented voices, says “you can find gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, and intersex stories across all the sections of the festival.”

This includes Tribeca’s first LGBTQ shorts program and Tribeca Celebrates Pride, an event on May 4 marking the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. The day’s programming features a number of forums and panels, with Pose actress Angelica Ross and HRC National Press Secretary and trans activist Sarah McBride among the noted speakers.

While queer inclusion continues to increase at Tribeca, there are still many strides to be made. Nearly everyone who NewNowNext asked about the programming slate echoes Shmider’s comment that “not all visibility is good visibility.”

“Not all representation is positive or productive,” Schmider says, adding that sometimes, “well-intentioned allies, even from within the community, tell stories that simply don’t reflect the reality of our lives, or accidentally fall into harmful tropes.”

In the past, festivals have programmed controversial projects—such as Girl, the 2018 Belgian film directed by Lukas Dhont, which screened at 2018 Cannes Film Festival, Telluride, and the Toronto International Film Festival. The film was largely criticized as “trans trauma porn.” It’s an example that could have been avoided if festivals had consulted with GLAAD, the National Center for Trans Equality, or transgender filmmakers, Adams notes.

Mukerjee, too, adds that programmers “have to be vigilant and selective, vetting the films we receive and taking the time to understand the origin of the work before we endorse it."

The other way to address this issue is by eliminating disparities behind the camera, where the transgender community has been breaking ground in recent years, with the likes of Silas Howard and Janet Mock directing episodes of scripted TV, and Our Lady J and Zackary Drucker writing on award-winning series like Pose and Transparent.

While GLAAD and the Time’s Up initiative, 5050by2020, issued an open letter to increase parity in industry roles, transgender people remain largely underrepresented. Part of the success of Changing the Game, Schmider notes, is director Michael Barnett’s willingness to involve himself and transgender triathlete Chris Mosier “to collaborate and contribute as producers throughout the entirety of the filmmaking process, enthusiastically inviting feedback, engaging in difficult conversations, and listening and learning on a daily basis.”

“We’ve already seen that this increase in media attention has led to the hiring of more transgender actors and crew members,” Mukerjee says, nodding to the “transgender tipping point,” a phrase Time magazine coined in a 2014 cover story about actress and trans activist Laverne Cox. “Hopefully, that will extend to more trans people in key creative and decision-making roles so that the trans stories we see in the next 10 years will actually be told from the transgender perspective, and as a result will be more purposeful and meaningful, avoiding the tropes that cisgender people have imposed on their narrative.”

For showtimes and ticket information on the films and events noted above, visit the Tribeca Film Festival’s website.