Cowboys, Rūrangi and No Ordinary Man are showing at BFI Flare now; book tickets here
Join us as we take a look at three Trans Trailblazers from this year’s BFI Flare Festival, each movie and documentary continuing to build trans representation onscreen. While furthering public discussion and understanding of the journey, every trans kid and adult takes in becoming the person they were destined to be. Q April features Cowboys, Rūrangi and No Ordinary Man.
Cowboys (United States)
Director: Anna Kerrigan
“Everything is so big—the sky, the mountains, the wind-swept flatlands—it sinks into you, it shapes your body and your dreams.” – Christopher Paolini
The expansive vistas and luscious mountains of Montana have long held appeal for filmmakers. The rugged, calming and beautiful landscape home to movies ranging from A River Runs Through It to Big Eden. Each one, reflecting themes of family, isolation and renewal as if the mountains, rivers and forests are themselves a spark for personal change and transformation. Its glacier-carved landscape offering rebirth, risk and adventure to those who seek to explore its wonder. However, this romantic view hides communities where conservatism, culture and religion still control daily life. The freedom, beauty and size of Montana’s wilderness contrasting the small, isolated and often insular towns that sit cradled in its presence.
In a small town where everyone knows each other and their kids, we meet 11-year-old Josie or Joe. Their long blonde hair and dainty dress, pleasing mum, Sally (Jillian Bell); who dismisses the discomfort in her child’s eyes. However, for Joe’s dad, Troy (Steve Zhan), this discomfort is all too noticeable. His challenging relationship with Sally and close connection to Joe only enhancing family tensions. Tensions created by his bipolar disorder, erratic behaviour and freewheeling attitude to life. In Troy’s eyes, Joe is a tomboy, a girl who loves cowboys, camping and bowling; his role as a dad one of encouragement and rule-breaking. However, on returning from a trip out, even Troy is taken aback when Joe raises the subject of gender identity.
Troy listens as Joe clearly states that he is a boy, raising the issue with Sally as he returns home. But, for Sally, this discussion is out of bounds. Her belief that Joe needs more feminine activities, toys, and outfits defying Troy’s urgent message. And as tensions further escalate over Joe’s gender identity, Troy takes off into the Montana wilderness, his son in tow. Their destination the Canadian border; their mission to escape the restrictions and oppression of the town left behind. With Sally quickly informing the police, who begin the hunt, to bring Joe home and arrest his wayward father.
Director Anna Kerrigan cleverly dovetails elements of the classic Western with a far more personal family drama. Building a sense of impending disaster as Troy leads Joe through Montana’s mountains and forests with the Police hot on their heels. But, where Cowboys truly sings is in its nuanced discussion on parental response to gender identity. Here, it is the father who accepts Joe’s transformation without judgement and the mother who strives to keep Joe in a gender identity alien to their needs. One of the fascinating questions this conjures is whether the role of Sally and Troy would have been reversed if Joe had been a boy who identified as a girl? And this, in turn, raises questions about how gender roles are seen differently based on parental expectations or desires.
Joe’s need to transform and escape mirrors his father’s ostracism and isolation as his marriage breaks down and mental health deteriorates. Both father and son outsiders in the small community they call home. However, Kerrigan’s trailblazing brilliance comes from silent moments of thought and connection. For example, Joe sitting at the bowling alley watching their dad and his friends engaged in banter. The camera following their gaze as they deeply identify with and explore the men in front of them. Or the transformation in Joe’s mood, confidence and conversation as they sit eating beans out of a tin with their dad, finally free to be the boy they held inside.
None of this would have been possible without the young Sasha Knight as Joe. A young trans actor who fully understands every emotion and thought in Joe’s journey. Bringing realism to Joe’s adventure while lacing this with a growing sense of fear as his dad becomes more erratic and unsure of his actions. The Mountains and lakes of Montana offering brief freedom and escape alongside a spark of hope and transformation. A spark that Joe’s mum has only just begun to understand as she patiently awaits their return.
Rūrangi (New Zealand)
Director: Max Currie
Ten years away from your hometown and family is not easy. But, when those ten years have seen you embrace your gender identity and become a passionate trans activist, the idea of home may seem like even more of a distant memory. For Caz (Elz Carrad), home is the small town of Rūrangi, New Zealand, and after abruptly leaving ten years prior, he is finally heading home. However, will anyone recognise him? And will his dad finally understand the reasons for his sudden departure? As Caz drives long into the night, a lifetime of emotions build up inside of him; fear, pain, loss and insecurity.
His activist life in Auckland now hollow without reconciliation and hope that he can once again find peace with family and friends. His arrival caught in a whirlwind of doubt as he walks up the steps to the home of his childhood friend Anahera (Awhina Rose Ashby). As the door opens and Anahera looks out, Caz finds his words stumbling as he awkwardly introduces himself. Anahera’s mind initially blank as she stares at the young man on the doorstep. But as she looks into his eyes, she quickly sees her missing best friend staring back. The beautiful girl that left now a stunning and confident young man.
Initially devised as a five-part web series, director Max Currie weaves together all five episodes to create his second major feature film. And while it feels like some of the original episodic detail may have been lost in the trimmed result, Rūrangi remains a groundbreaking trans movie. The final picture one of the most assured, tender and powerful explorations of the trans experience seen onscreen so far. With Caz’s journey embedded in a post-transition narrative. Currie’s lens focusing on the differing experiences of trans life in cities and rural communities. While at the same time, surrounding this with discussions on indirect discrimination, escape, reconciliation and transformation. Each conversation, interaction and step that Caz takes part of a healing process, as he rebuilds a world long since lost. While at the same time, standing tall as a proud trans man in a community where social transformation and change are slow.
Elz Carrad anchors every minute of Rūrangi, with an outstanding and engaging performance rooted in realism. Caz’s onscreen journey a blaze of emotion and joy as Elz’s lived experience combines with Cole Meyer and Oliver Page’s assured screenplay. Meanwhile, issues of culture, place and purpose find a unique and distinctive voice through the towns Maori population. And while the film often feels loose in its discussions on culture, intersectionality issues between equality characteristics do briefly find a voice. The resulting film a true trans trailblazer in both representation, story and delivery. Its final message one of hope, optimism and belief in change as Caz builds a new home.
No Ordinary Man (Canada)
Directors: Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt
”Billy’s story lets us watch one woman’s bold solutions to gaining a certain amount of recognition in what was largely a man’s world.” – Diane Middlebrook (Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton)
Since their publication in 1998, these words have diminished and dismissed Billy Tipton’s life into a mere career choice based on gender. I do not doubt that Diane Middlebrook had no direct intention; her writing laced within the media storm following Billy’s death in 1989. However, words carry power and trust; they influence public opinion and build widely accepted narratives. Therefore, when discussing Billy’s life, family, career, and love, these words intentionally or unintentionally reinforce a narrative of deceit, acting, and lies.
For those unaware of Billy Tipton, let me take you back to Oklahoma in 1914, where Billy entered our world with a god-given talent for music. His passion for the piano and saxophone eventually leading him to the world of Jazz. His teenage years spent touring clubs and dances where his rhythm and style wooed crowds. By the mid-1930’s Billy was locally renowned for his musical talent, joining the Western Swingbillies. Followed in the mid-1940s by an increasing number of gigs recorded live for radio stations.
By the 1950s, Billy was not only a self-funded recording artist but in line for a prestigious position as part of Liberace’s house band in Reno, Nevada. However, at this point, Billy stepped away from the fame and opportunities on offer, choosing to settle down with nightclub dancer Tilly. Their relationship together included the adoption of three boys. Billy and Tilly’s relationship came to an end in 1977, but his role as a loving father continued. However, as Billy lay dying of an untreated ulcer in 1989, his son Billy Jr at his side, a media storm was about to break. For when the paramedics arrived, they discovered that Billy’s birth gender was female.
Billy’s life as a man was immediately dismissed and questioned by a media machine using damaging slogans such as “The Jazzy Gender Bender”. His story’s complexity only enhanced by no family members knowing the gender of his birth, until after his death, including Tilly and his son’s. His family and friends thrown into a TV chat show circuit whose sole aim was to embed a narrative of lies in a sea of tabloid curiosity. The 90s media machine obsessed with lurid conversations around genitals, sex life and deception. The effect of this was the continued ostracisation of trans people in media and history. Their lives once more classed as a grand deception in a world where gender only existed as defined by a birth certificate. While at the same time, the homophobia inherent in 90s society merged conversations on gender identity with homophobic views around sexuality and deviance.
With Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt’s new documentary No Ordinary Man, Billy’s story finally receives the positive historical attention it deserves. Their engaging, informative and bold exploration of Tipton’s life and its links to trans experience today, creative, empowering and deeply emotional. Here, Tipton’s story is told through a group of trans masculine actors “auditioning” for a film about Tipton’s life. Their performances dovetailing reflections on Tipton’s career, courage and bravery with archive footage and interviews. Trans performers, authors, writers and Billy Tipton Jr coming together in exploring trans visibility past and present.
No Ordinary Man manages to transcend the usual biographic documentary boundaries finding a unique, urgent and investigative voice. One that firmly places Tipton’s history and legacy in contemporary discussions on trans equality. The result, a documentary that feels both alive and relevant. Simultaneously, celebrating a true trans trailblazer with a deeply loving exploration of a life that quietly yet bravely challenged societies views on gender identity.
Q Returns in June with Pride and Purpose.
Why not also read the February edition, LGBTQ+ From Stage to Screen