By Jerome Stuart Nichols
As an artist, your ideas and vision are your life – especially when you’re independent. But what happens when you’re midway through your greatest work and you discover that someone with a bigger budget and celebrity backing had the exact same idea?
Detroit-based independent filmmakers Erica Hayes and Madisun Leigh of the upcoming documentary film on the transgender experience, “iTrans*: Transforming the world,” know this disheartening situation well. On June 5, months into filming their documentary, it was announced that Janet Jackson would be taking the seat of executive producer on a separate documentary, on the same topic, called “Truth.”
Obviously, the news of a separate documentary covering the same subject by people with more money, greater notoriety and more Hollywood connections would leave most indie filmmakers a bit shaken. Especially when they got the news about a week after filming their most current interview.
“My first reaction was, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me!'” says Leigh, the producer for “iTrans* who’s also known for being Smooth Jazz V98.7’s on-air personality. “Here we thought we were doing something profound and prolific and exciting and world-changing. Our little bitty effort pales in comparison. I thought, ‘We’re toast. We’re done.'”
Whether they liked it or not, their film was now at risk of being overshadowed by the much larger production of “Truth.” Even though the situation was disconcerting, there was still a glimmer of hope.
“Our publicist, Courtney (Wilson), was giving us this motivation. (She was) like, ‘There’s enough room for all of us,'” says Hayes, director of “iTrans*.”
The reactions from the production team of “iTrans*” is something with which trans advocate and educator Buck Angel identifies. Having recently released “Sexing the Transman,” a documentary on the lives of trans men, he has a unique insight.
“I sort of had to deal with this same thing when Chaz Bono came out,” he says. “My work was completely overshadowed by him. Most everything he has said, I have said years before him. But the most important thing is that the message got out there even further.”
Although the team is hopeful, there is still an air of suspicion surrounding “Truth.” The main question being: Who inspired whom? For his part, “Truth” director Robert Jason says that he is not familiar with “iTrans*.”
“I started developing ‘Truth’ in 2006. Janet became attached in 2009,” Jason says. “We have been methodically collecting material and partners to make sure this reaches the broadest audience and is the penultimate film on the subject.”
As far as competition, like Angel and Wilson, Jason asserts that there isn’t any.
“My objective is to transform human consciousness and expedite human evolution,” he says. “The more people exerting pressure to effectuate that end, the better. This is not a competition. Perhaps this is not the goal of their film.”
Jason isn’t the only one with concerns. Hayes, like many others, questions Janet Jackson’s commitment to the “Truth” project.
“I’m not sure if she was paid to be a part of it or it was a passion project. For us, it’s a real passion project,” Hayes insists.
But Jason thinks that without Jackson and her celebrity, the message would never reach a mass audience.
“The only reason a film on this subject is going to reach the mainstream, and hopefully effectuate real change, is because of the vision and creative courage of someone like Janet,” Jason says.
Then there are the historically justified questions of whether either film would get the story wrong. Perhaps with such a big budget and celebrity backing, “Truth” might exploit those the director seeks to spotlight. Conversely, with such a small team and little outside financial backing, “iTrans*” could easily fall into similar trappings of exploitation or mischaracterization.
With the recent controversy over trans woman and performer Carmen Carrera’s appearance on the TLC reality show “Cake Boss” – she was offended by the show’s portrayal of her that was edited for dramatic purposes – it’s understandable that this would be such a major concern.
To that point, Angel had a positive outlook.
“Why would she (Janet) get the story wrong? People are always looking at the bad in things,” Jason says.
Regardless, both teams are working, in their own way, to ensure that their film captures the story in the best way possible.
Jason, who has been in a relationship with transgender actress and artist Nina Poon for 10 years, is making sure that trans people are heavily involved in the production of the film.
“Half of my staff is trans and I am encouraging and facilitating trans participation in many levels of the production process,” he says. “Additionally, we are working directly with the head of communications for GLAAD and I am presently bringing on board an amazing and prominent trans activist/writer to be part of the production.”
Leigh, Hayes and the “iTrans*” team are taking similar but budget-accordant strides.
“We were able to pick up one of our interviewees, Noah (Alverez), as our trans liaison. That has helped us get the proper wordage, the proper terminology,” Hayes says.
All worries and controversy aside, both films, if done properly, will open the transgender experience to people in a unique and eye-opening way. While the “iTrans*” team is doing it on their own, the “Truth” team have some rather lofty goals.
Whether either film will succeed is still a mystery. Regardless, this controversy does beg the question: Why now? Both production teams had their thoughts but, perhaps, it was Buck Angel who said it best.
“‘Trans’ is sort of the new ‘gay’ in the media now. So, I believe there will be even more documentaries coming on this subject,” he says, “and it’s about time.”