Who is telling 'my' story?: A look at fair & accurate representation in Cinema

A Fantastic Woman.jpg

When you google the definition of film, the Collins dictionary will reply with:

‘A film consists of moving pictures that have been recorded so that they can be shown at the cinema or on television. A film tells a story, or shows a real situation.’

A story, but whose story?

For the most part Hollywood films tell the stories of generic characters, in often farfetched situations. They appeal to us on a general level, we care enough to will them onto the end, or hate them enough to want their demise. Then there are the films that look at real life people, real life scenarios and real life experiences. They give us a glimpse into others realities, the opportunity to identify with characters and see ourselves represented on screen.

But it begs the question, is it our right to tell the stories of those we don’t know? Can we truly and fairly represent the stories, and lives of those we haven’t ourselves experienced?

Questions we ask of our latest screening of A Fantastic Women (2017).

The film is centred around Marina, a Transgender woman, who after spending a romantic birthday with her older lover, sees him suddenly pass away. As she tries to mourn and move on from him she is faced with many battles of suspicion, homophobia and transphobia, from his family and the police. It’s a film that explores themes of grief, of love, gender identity, prejudice and the transgender experience.

Yet the film is written and directed by Sebastian Lelio. A straight, male, who in an interview for The Globe And Mail, admitted that before writing this film he was ignorant to trans issues, with his knowledge coming from clichés.

So why this story, and should he be the one telling it?

Sebastian Lelio, who co-wrote the film with Gonzalo Maza, has explained that the film was never initially about a transgender woman, but instead about “What would happen if the person you love dies in your arms and those arms are the worst place in the world for that person to die, because you are the unwanted? The rejected one."

It wasn’t until they saw a Latin American television interview with a transgender woman that it clicked, and this was to be their story. It was at this point they stopped writing and set out to learn about the authentic, lived experiences of transgender women.

It’s during this time he met Daniela Vega, a Chilean actress, singer and transgender woman, who would go on to be play the films leading role. She had a wealth of experiences in which she shared freely and honestly with Lelio, who expressed that although the film wasn’t about her in a certain way she brought many, many things to the script through those conversations.

On the films release Lelio was asked many times on whether it’s problematic that he portrays groups he isn’t a part.

In an interview with Varity he explained that

“It’s both a great opportunity and a trap. In the case of “Fantastic Woman,” I wanted to make it a more complex animal than just a “cause” film. Even though I was sympathizing with the character’s struggle, I didn’t want to be trapped at that level — it’s important, but it can be quite basic. So, you have to find ways to elevate that and turn it into a cinematic experience and make the social aspect of it part of a complex narrative.”

“You want the spectator to see human beings, rather than just Orthodox Jewish women (speaking of his film Disobedience), or a transgender woman. Cinema is empathy machinery, and we multiply our life experience through cinema. When it is good cinema, it almost counts as a personal experience.”

In another interview with Vanity Fair he continues with his thoughts on the matter saying

“There’s something about using the cinematic device as a tool to connect with dimensions of the world that you don’t know too well, you’re not too familiar with, it’s like a creating a bridge, or a spaceship to travel to the unknown.”

But is this enough?

Although the voices and experiences of real transgender woman are woven into this film, it’s not a direct voice.

How much research can someone do to tell the many different stories of people and it be truly enough? Is our empathy enough for us to say I understand?

Or is this the job of our filmmakers? That we put our trust in them to show us the stories and experiences of those around us? So, we can better understand our differences, and find commonality in them.

It is important to say that his film was greatly received by the transgender community, and even made way for political changes. Once the film won it’s Oscar, a gender-identity bill that would allow trans people to change their names and gender markers on official documents was upgraded to “extreme urgency” status, after 5 years sitting dormmate, and it’s now under discussion.

So, what do you think?

If the filmmakers are fair, truthful in the depiction of others it’s okay? Or should such stories be told first hand?