HBO Documentaries continues its strong stream of fine films examining the LGBT community with its two most recent releases: “Mariela Castro’s March: Cuba’s LGBT Revolution” and “The Trans List.”
In “The Trans List,” acclaimed portrait photographer and filmmaker Timothy Greenfield-Sanders builds on his successful HBO “List” series (“The Black List,” “The Out List” and “The Latino List”) to shine a light on 11 prominent members of the trans community. Trans activist and author Janet Mock, who also conducted the interviews, begins the movie with a fierce introduction that sets the tone for the excellent movie. “We fight to be seen as we see ourselves and live our truths without compromise,” she says. “We are a constellation of experiences, expressions and identities.”
And what a constellation it is. Adult film star Buck Angel describes his experiences finding a doctor who would give him testosterone treatments and in finding a role in the porn industry as “the man with the pussy.” Advocate Kylar Broadus talks about facing problems with both gender expression and skin color while growing up in the Bible Belt and recalls how he found inspiration in tabloid stories about trans jazz pianist Billy Tipton. Model Caroline Cossey, a successful model and Bond girl (“For Your Eyes Only”), remembers how she was brutally outed by the British tabloid News of the World.
Greenfield-Sanders and Mock also capture the amazing stories of veteran trans activists such as Bamby Salcedo and Miss Major Griffin-Gracy; emerging leaders such as student Nicole Maines, U.S. Army Sergeant Shane Ortega and photographer Amos Mac; and celebrities Caitlyn Jenner (who talks about the importance of having a sense of humor) and Laverne Cox (who movingly describes how seeing Leontyne Price on PBS helped saved her life).
The filmmakers also complicate things by including a portrait of Alok Vaid-Menon, a non-binary transfemme poet and performance artist. Vaid-Menon thoughtfully discusses their struggle with gender binaries in Western culture and says, “I should have the autonomy to self-determine who I am.”
While the stories are mesmerizing, the static staging does get a little dull. The archival material that glides through the frame is fascinating, but the subjects otherwise spend the film alone seated on a wooden chair facing the camera. Mock remains an unseen and unheard presence, although some of the interviewees do repeat her questions. The press materials tantalizingly include a photo of Buck Angel, Miss Major Griffin-Gracy and Shane Ortega posing together. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall for that conversation.
By any account, Mariela Castro is an amazing figure. Niece of the late Cuban president Fidel Castro and daughter of the current Cuban president Raul Castro, Mariela Castro tirelessly uses both her passion and her pedigree to fight for the rights of LGBT Cubans. A straight ally, she is a member of the Cuban parliament and serves as director of CENESEX, the Cuban National Center for Sex Education. She also serves as host of the annual Gala Against Homophobia and Transphobia in Havana, an event that serves as the backdrop for Jon Alpert’s moving documentary “Mariela Castro’s March: Cuba’s LGBT Revolution.”
The documentary opens with a title stating that the Cuban revolution forbade public displays of homosexuality, the performance of homosexual acts and associating with homosexuals. As Luis Perez, a survivor of a state-run labor camp for gay men notes, the “revolutionary man” was not a homosexual. Perez recalls how his state ID card branded him as a homosexual, but notes that he has recently found acceptance at an LGBT-friendly church-support group.
The film also includes interviews with other LGBT Cubans, along with footage from the titular march, where the campaigners chant “Socialism, yes. Homophobia, no!”
What the film doesn’t include, however, is a lot of context. Alpert does not discuss the current state of LGBT affairs in Cuba. It’s clear that things were terrible during the Revolution, but it’s not clear how laws and social attitudes have changed. He also does not examine the role of the charismatic Mariela Castro in the fight for LGBT rights. Would the movement exist without her name and protection?
While both films may take the old adage “always leave ‘em wanting more” a little too seriously, both are compelling portraits of two communities poised on the brink of change.