JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Queer and trans filmmaking:
a new pedagogy

Beck Banks and Miche Dreiling in
interview with Joëlle Rouleau

Beck Banks
I'm a PhD candidate in Media Studies at the University of Oregon with a focus on transgender media. In particular, I look at rural trans media activists and the work that they're doing in the field, especially the region in which I grew up, Central Appalachia. I also research trans media representation and the limitations of representation. I’ve been making some short films and collaborating with the people whose activism I research as well as making shorts with Miche. This creating and collaboration seems to have gone hand in hand with my research as I’m becoming more of a maker.

Miche Dreiling
I am a PhD candidate in Media Studies at the University of Oregon, with a certificate in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. My research is in the area of non-binary gender. Specifically, I'm looking at driver's licenses and the X marker for non-binary that Oregon started using in 2017 (Oregon was the first state to allow people to designate themselves as non-binary on their license). I'm looking at folks’ experiences with that new gender marker. I also make documentary films to go along with my research, so I’m a scholar and practitioner.

Joëlle Rouleau
All right, so let's jump into our conversation. What is creation like for you? What does it mean?

BB
This question is so big. I love it for that. Interestingly, the further I got into my PhD studies, the more I enjoyed cooking because I was able to do something with my hands. And I realized I could do so many more things with my hands other than just cook, especially since I was teaching production classes. Miche and I have been co-teaching a production class together for three summers now.

I think it was after that first summer co-teaching when we started talking about collaborating, and then the second one when we made work together. I like creating on my own, too, but large scale creation doesn’t work that way. It takes more people. I am constantly sitting around thinking through project and film ideas, but there’s a next step, and collaborating can create the momentum needed to take it. Collaboration makes people accountable to one another. It produces ideas and outcomes that are greater than the people involved. As it stands, higher ed does not usually promote a scholar-practitioner approach. We’re often not trained in or encouraged to do it.

MD
Even when we make things on our own, we're never really on our own. We stand on the shoulders of other creators and other scholars. Creation means collaboration for me too, which I think makes Beck and I a good team. The way that I usually approach creation is to allow myself space to tap into curiosity about things I observe in the world or encounter or read about. It’s similar to the way that I formulate research ideas. Just start asking questions! With research, you read the literature, you figure out your theoretical approach and methods, but with filmmaking, it's just seeing what's out there in the world and doing it on a broader level than just from the academic ivory tower. When I'm in that scholar-practitioner mode, I balance these processes and they inform one another. But in some of the more creative projects that Beck and I have worked on together, I get to just be a practitioner, which means making stuff and telling cool stories with awesome people.

JR
To me, any research project is creative because you are following leads and curiosity and instinct. And you are driven by an energy for “finding something.” Creation allows for stories or ideas that are not necessarily valued in research to be explored. And I guess that's one of the reasons why I do research-creation. It’s my own way to queer research and to have the attitude, “Up yours, I'm going to do something else.”

BB
I love that! That’s amazing. Telling stories that haven't been told is something Miche and I are really invested in. Of course, you can sit down and research representation or its limitations for a long time. But if you don't ask, “Hey, what can I do to fix that?” that's a problem. My creation often tries to present a solution to what I've been researching. Research leads to more creativity, too. I wrote a short story a couple of years ago, just on a whim; when I first started working on it, I started researching. So I start with, “I have this vague idea,” and then it continues to develop. You’re throwing more ideas into yourself and therefore more come out. Just a matter of editing from there.

JR
You’ve mentioned it twice now, so let’s go there: What are the limits / limitations to representations?

BB
I think I am using that concept because I have an article coming out about trans masculine visibility on the screen—which is not really there or wasn’t for there a long time. Since there has been more representation in mainstream media of trans people, violence has increased towards trans women of color. So investigating that representation starts getting into a tricky and dire area. For example, how can representation be done well and with respect? Do we understand what's happening with certain representations and the consequences? Trans people may be seen as more of a threat because of more representation. Yet representation, as Laverene Cox noted, doesn’t fix problems as much as it may set us on the path to telling stories that can create more empathy, bring progress. That means that we really need to be having people with a trans perspective telling those stories because too often we’ve seen how people get objectified, used as furniture for telling stories. It's unethical.

JR
That is a very interesting and important point to make. Representation was discussed in the 90s as something that you wanted at all cost—whether bad or good, we don't really care as long as we talk about our lives—because that was our main challenge. One of the limitations that you’ve mentioned is very important, but I also think we must consider another fact:  there’s no such thing as good or bad representations. They are just exposing some social condition and moving all the time, and their reception depends on which circle you are in. If you've never seen a representation of a trans person, this can be your “Hallelujah moment,” you know, it might actually save your life; but also that same representation can also be dooming your possibility, your life possibility. It's complicated territory.

BB
Let me go back for a moment. The day that Caitlyn Jenner Vogue cover appeared, I had about 40 people stop by my desk at my workplace and tell me that they stand with me in solidarity. I wasn't out, or at least I thought I wasn’t, gender-wise. I didn’t fully understand myself, and my utter lack of closets. So it helped me along those lines, to understand myself through other people.

But later that day, I had a cop follow me for several blocks in a really menacing way. I walked into a store and had to run out like the side door just because I felt a threat. That day was a microcosm of the ripple effects of representation. The best thing representation can do is give people insight into themselves, and that might provide them with knowledge to be able to reach out and form a supportive community, feel agency in their lives. If that happens through these creations that we are talking about, if they are queer/trans based, that's just one more way to help form that community.

MD
Yeah, I think that representation for representation’s sake is something to be mindful about because it follows a film industry, Hollywood, that's based on toxic heteronormativity. If these stories aren't informed by people who have the experiences and perspective behind the stories that are being told, then that lack is what will be reproduced. And that leaves out women, people of color, queer, trans people, disabled people and all the intersections of these plus class. Or it will lead to further misunderstanding about what these things mean and then that's another barrier for folks to overcome, both in terms of shaping their own identity and in understanding their community. Stories told in one-dimensional ways can be harmful.

JR
That leads into my second question. How can we have multi-dimensional representations or creation? And I'm guessing one of the ways is through queer and trans perspectives. But what does that mean to you?

BB
I think it's more than about labor or representation, I think it's about audience. Often queer, trans material appears in media made for cis, straight people, and we all feel and see that, time and time again. It’s the bulk of the stuff that you see in the mainstream. If I ask, “Does really strong trans, queer work make it to the mainstream much?” the answer is no.

MD
I’ve long meditated on what a trans or queer gaze is to me as I thought about it in an academic but not experiential way. So as a filmmaker what I try to do in terms of a queer gaze is turn the gaze backward and inward at viewers. It requires them to be aware of the medium itself, and then also feel some sort of empathy and look inward—that's at the heart of what trans and queer filmmaking means to me. In my work, this tends to manifest itself as humor, which I didn't actually realize until I went back to think about this question. For instance, in Beck’s and my film The Coffee Name Game, there was an outtake, a scene in which Beck is saying names over and over in a little montage. You (Beck) said “Marco” as one of the names and we all yelled “Polo!.” It was a funny moment on set and encapsulated all the fun we were having making this film about trans self-discovery. And so I put that scene after the credits in the final cut because I think it's important for people who are watching the media to recognize that this work was made by real people with unique perspectives.

JR
Going back to Laura Mulvey—as viewers we are trying to forget that we are in a film, basically. That's the idea, right? It's the idea that we forget we're in the film so that we go with it and we follow it and we engage with it. But if we look back at the New Queer Cinema in the beginning of the 90s, the whole idea was to actually break that spell, break that connection that we had with the film as an audience. And I totally agree with that idea, especially now since we are always mediated through images. Specifically, within the pandemic because everything's on Zoom and with our phones, our social media, Instagram, Twitter. It's always a mediation of some sort. I know that’s not true for everybody, but we have a common culture of self-mediation through social media. And we forget this media is an action, it is a performance. We are putting ourselves in the real world through a mode of representation. And you raise a very interesting question too: How to queer that? And humor … humor is dangerous.

MD
I think another function of humor is that it serves is to lift the veil a little bit and let people lower their guards. And it also lowers the bar for queer folks out there to see that real people are doing this media making; real people are making things and having fun doing it. It took me until my mid-20s to realize that I could tell stories this way. That no one was standing at some gate or was going to stop me from making films—I could do this. Because of that, I want that bar lowered so that every person who has a story can tell it or feel like that's an option available to them.

JR
Make it more accessible.

MD
Yeah.