Sundance-bound short For Nonna Anna deepens the trans narrative

If you’ve ever attended a screening of trans short films at an LGBTQ film festival, you can probably guess coming-out storylines await you.

“That’s always the topic,” says film producer Lucah Rosenberg-Lee. “The family doesn’t like you, you’re trying on the clothes, you’re trying to do medical stuff, you’re trying to get doctors’ approvals and the story closes with the family coming around at some point. But what happens after that?”

The idea that a transgender person’s physical transition is a beginning rather than an end point underscores the 13-minute short, For Nonna Anna, which is among the Canadian films selected to play at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival kicking off this weekend in Utah.

Directed by first-time writer/director Luis De Filippis and co-produced by Rosenberg-Lee, the film follows Chris (Maya Henry), a young trans woman, who is left home alone to care for her ailing Italian grandmother (Jacqueline Tarne).

Though not about transitioning from one gender identity to another, the film still has transition in a broader sense at its heart. Chris is still in the coming-of-age demographic, not entirely confident yet as a woman, while her grandmother’s body is failing her. A move to elder care seems inevitable.

De Filippis and cinematographer Kelly Jeffrey tell the story through intimate details, relying on glances, cutaways to religious objects and other decor, and tight framing of the cramped home to capture the empathy and awkwardness between two relatives in different life stages.

“A lot of emotions or character motivations get bogged down with words,” De Filippis says during an interview with Rosenberg-Lee and Henry at a Chinatown coffee shop. “If you just watch any interaction, a lot of what’s happening isn’t actually being spoken or expressed through words. There’s so much in a pregnant pause.”

This assured approach is likely what caught the eye of programmers at Sundance, the International Film Festival Rotterdam and the Toronto International Film Festival, where For Nonna Anna premiered last September.

Elements of the film are also autobiographical. De Filippis grew up outside Toronto in a first-generation immigrant Catholic-Italian family. The generation gap and the way grandparents often defy perceptions and biases to surprise their grandkids are also themes.

“I was really scared about telling my grandparents [that I’m trans] and then when I did my grandmother was like ‘Yeah, and…? I’ve known this whole time,’” says De Filippis. “My grandfather feels exactly the same. We were doing a photo shoot and walking around in heels and dresses and he was like, ‘Don’t trip.’”

Henry, a YouTube vlogger making her acting debut, also drew upon the bond she had with her late grandmother in playing Chris, as well as her own experiences.

“There’s a scene with me looking in a mirror, and I can’t count how many times I have stood in front of a mirror and looked at myself and observed changes,” she recalls.

Although Henry studied screenwriting and editing at Ryerson University, she wants to explore acting further.

“Since I’ve transitioned, I feel more comfortable,” she says. “In order to act well, you have to let go of yourself and I feel like I’m able to do that now. I’m not clinging to this identity.”

Remaining obstacles are the small number of roles for trans women – especially young trans women – and the tendency for films featuring trans characters to pathologize. A lot of scripts Henry has received are heavy on shock value and surface-level aspects of transitioning rather than underlying humanity.

“A lot of that is from a cis-male gaze,” De Filippis says. “Trans bodies are eroticized, sensationalized or vilified.”

The For Nonna Anna team rhymes off notorious movies like Dressed To Kill and The Silence Of The Lambs as two revered Hollywood films that feature villains whose gender identity frustrations lead them to kill.

Frustration over those one-dimensional media portrayals is a big motivator for all three to continue making films. De Filippis hopes the short contributes to normalizing trans people and shows audiences – and film financiers – that many stories exist beyond the stereotypes and coming-out narratives.

One hopeful sign is the success of trans filmmaker Yance Ford’s documentary Strong Island, which premiered on Netflix last fall, claimed top honours at the Cinema Eye awards and is on the shortlist for a best documentary feature Oscar nomination.

Two years ago, Telefilm set a gender parity goal for the year 2020, though its strategy is based on incentives rather than specific 50/50 quotas. But it remains to be seen how trans-led projects will figure into the mix.

“If you’re supporting women, you really have to take an intersectional approach,” De Filippis says.

“With trans projects it’s important for people to try and get them off the ground, whatever that looks like,” adds Rosenberg-Lee, whose first trans film project cost $10,000 and was crowdfunded via GoFundMe.

“Our community is a depressed community. A lot of it comes down to not having the confidence or not wanting to be in the spotlight,” he continues. “I would call this a pioneering time for being trans because we are setting a tone that says you can go for it and it is worth it.” | @kevinritchie

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