Joaquín, a transman living in rural 1990s New England, is eight months pregnant. After encountering a mysterious spirit in the forest, Joaquín goes into labor early. Is this spirit haunting or guiding Joaquín as he awaits his midwife?
Hi Elliot thank you for talking to TNC, how have you been holding up during these very strange times?
It's been surreal, though I feel very very lucky. I have an amazing home, partner and dogs and I've been getting steady teaching work for the year. The week before and during the election was very hard and I held a lot of emotional space for my students with the unknowns of the results, but teaching was also very grounding. I think we have a lot of work to do, especially as artists and educators.
Has this time offered you any new creative inspiration?
I've found myself going inward in a way that I have not in a long time, which feels like a real privilege in light of the pandemic. I teach from home this year because of Covid, so I have the space to carve out more time for my own work than I usually do. Though I have not "produced" anything, I have allowed myself to be in a creative space to watch films, read, and just observe and listen. I do feel a film manifesting, but it's still early. My mom was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer's and lives with my dad in Australia. It's been impossible to see them because of Covid. I think I'm going to start documenting this process without having any expectations as to the results. There's a bittersweet parallel between my mother, who gave birth to me, and what she is experiencing and how I am now trying to bring a small person/s into this world.
You have twice been the recipient of the Princess Grace Award, does getting this type of recognition for your films add any additional pressure on you?
Maybe a bit from myself, but I don't feel it from others. What I have noticed is how so much more competitive grants are for LGBTQ people than they were just 10 years ago. Though I think this is a really good sign because it means that more LGBTQ people are making work. I just wish the United States would get it together and create more funding opportunities!
Congratulations on having Light On A Path, Follow selected for this year's Fringe! Queer Film Festival, what does it mean to be part of such an amazing line up fo short films?
I was really honoured to be invited to show my work in this festival and it happened in such a cool way! My film had shown at the Edinburgh International Film Festival a few months ago and one of the curators really liked it and recommended it to Fringe. I feel really blessed and am so excited that this film is getting shown.
"That's why I wanted to make this a ghost story - where the main character is haunted yet guided by this mysterious spirit."
Light On A Path, Follow is a very personal film, as a filmmaker how important is it for you to use your own lived experiences to create your films?
This film was personal but also felt very shared, especially between the two actors, Vick Quezada and Lucia Leandro Gimeno, and myself - we all identify as trans and we had really beautiful and generative conversations about the story and what it meant for us to all work together - each of our own experiences helped shaped this film. But I believe that this film was also greatly shaped by the DP Jess Bennett and the editor Yvette Choy and really so much of the crew. That's why it was so important to me who worked on this, because everyone had a part in it that is reflected in the final cut.
Can you tell me a little bit about Light On A Path, Follow, how did this film come about?
I've been interested in representations of queer and trans pregnancy for the last 15 years. I made an experimental short film (Well Dressed) in graduate school, but could find very little on the subject back then when conducting research. It's exciting to start seeing more nuanced stories of trans pregnancy in the news and media. I've often aligned the desire to go on testosterone with the desire to be pregnant. There's a very powerful thing that happens when you put something into your body and it then has the potential to change so rapidly - it's magical. And for a trans person to have been on T and then come off of it and then get pregnant, that's so powerful.
What was the inspiration behind your screenplay?
I wanted to tell a story of an older trans person who decides on their own to be pregnant in the mid 1990s. They have to tap into so much inner strength in order to make that decision, but they (as any pregnant person) only have so much control. That's why I wanted to make this a ghost story - where the main character is haunted yet guided by this mysterious spirit. The spirit represents our (tr)ancestors, those who guide us from the past or perhaps the future. It makes me think about how we think about community. How even if somebody is "alone", they are still in community with themselves and the beings they are bringing into the world, as well as in community with spirits around them.
Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently on this film?
I wish I had more time to work on the dialogue and with my actors, both in pre-production and on set.
I wore so many hats during this film and was also teaching full time and working for a non-profit so my energy was spread thin. It really all comes down to resources, when you bring folks on and don't have a ton of money, you are bound to take on a ton of work as a director - more logistical work than you want and sometimes that logistical work unfortunately might take priority over the creative work. It was a challenge to balance at times.
What was the biggest challenge you faced making Light On A Path, Follow?
The making of this film was challenging in that all narrative films with small budgets are hard to make. But this limited budget also opened doors and the people who worked on this were extremely dedicated, regardless of how they identified. (Though most of the crew identified as trans or queer, which was a priority of ours). We were very intentional with who we brought on, we wanted a set that would be nourishing and healing for people to be a part of. We knew this film would not easily be legible to a lot of people, but we didn't make a film with the priority of it being "legible". We wanted to make a film that we had not yet seen.
Are you flexible when it comes to making your films or do you prefer to stick to a set plan of what you want on film?
I think flexibility is key - it's what elevates the work to what it wants to be. This film was very collaborative and it was important that I led with that, especially as a white transmasculine storyteller writing and directing a story about trans characters of colour. The actors brought so much to the story very early on and throughout production, they significantly shaped the characters. With collaborative work must come flexibility and I think that is what made this film really special.
Should filmmakers continue to push the boundaries of the films and stories they want to tell?
Yes yes yes! Always, this is where the real work happens and the critical conversations arise.
Trans filmmakers are still in the minority though this is changing, what do you think could be done to continue lifting up trans narrative and filmmakers?
I think we are in an exciting moment with trans filmmaking both in representation and who is behind the camera and/or writing the stories. It is crucial that trans people are telling their own stories. We are aware of the many problematic representations of trans and non-binary characters in the history of film – often as villains or liars or who endured extreme violence (Silence of the Lambs, The Crying Game, Boys Don’t Cry).
Now with mainstream media/film, there is an effort for a more “positive” representations of trans characters, but often through assimilation into traditional modes of storytelling where the narrative is about the person’s transition and often played by cis actors (Transparent, The Danish Girl). I’m specifically interested in conversation with other trans filmmakers and artists who are pushing beyond this surface trans visibility on screen, who often through fantasy, depict the spectral and/or trancestors as a way to visually engage with this idea of trans-temporality, such as Ester Martin Bergsmark, Tourmaline, and Wu Tsang.
"Get as much on set experience as possible and have a side gig that is flexible!"
Have you always had a passion for filmmaking?
Yes I have - since I was a small child, I would borrow my uncle's VHS camera during family reunions and shoot little films and remakes of "America's Funniest Home Videos" (this was the late 80s). I loved writing, directing and blocking these little films. I remember feeling so free and alive when I was making them! I was such a shy and introverted kid, largely due to my non-binary gender in the 80s and 90s in growing up in Virginia. I then pursued filmmaking in high school - I found abandoned film equipment in the art closet and used it to make my first super-8 narrative which then helped me get into Hampshire College, where I studied filmmaking in the late 90s.
How much has your style and your approach to your films changed since your debut?
My earlier work was much more experimental (specifically Through the Skin, my senior thesis at Hampshire.) I didn't learn narrative filmmaking at Hampshire, I actually got into it at the Maine Media Workshops after I graduated, where I worked as a teaching assistant. In graduate school at UC San Diego, I continued with a more experimental documentary approach but I think challenged myself with narrative work with my MFA thesis, Mainstay. Much of my older work involved my family in some way, whether having them act in my films or shooting in my family's old home. Light on a Path, Follow was my first narrative film that involved a professional crew and it taught me so much about directing and working intimately with a DP. Jess Bennett was the DP on our film and they were amazing. They worked on several films by Tourmaline and I really love their work. We worked very intuitively together. I had been on a lot of sets in Los Angeles from 2012-2017 and learned a ton about how sets were run and how different directors worked. It was really great to be able to take these experiences and apply it to my own process, but also not have to rely on a city to make a film, it was entirely produced and shot in rural Massachusetts.
As someone who teaches film production do you have any wise words or advice you would offer an emerging filmmaker?
Get as much on set experience as possible and have a side gig that is flexible! I think being in a film city (LA, NYC, Atlanta) is important, it helps you build contacts and create professional relationships that could last for your entire career, no matter where you go. On-set experience was probably the best education I received when it came to how to run a set. I think graduate school is optional - I've seen people go to various programs and become quite successful, but I have also seen people not go to grad school and still be wildly successful.
And finally, what do you hope people will take away from Light On A Path, Follow?
I hope it offers people something they may have not seen in film before and invites a shared space of imagining and witnessing the power of queer and trans bodies and queer of colour birth-work.