Frameline yanks film
by Matthew S. Bajko
Executives at Frameline, San Francisco's LGBT film festival, made the unprecedented decision this week to yank a film from this year's schedule due to community outrage after the movie had already been accepted into the lineup.
The brouhaha over the 15-minute short, The Gendercator by acclaimed lesbian filmmaker Catherine Crouch, erupted last Thursday, May 17 after members of the city's transgender community accused the film and Crouch of being transphobic and asked the film festival to pull the movie.
Crouch refutes such claims against her and her film, which she describes as "a short satirical take on female body modification and gender." But within four days more than 130 people had signed on to a petition denouncing the film and Frameline's decision to screen it.
Caught off guard by the controversy, Frameline management scrambled over the weekend to determine how to address the film's critics. The festival had already planned to roll out the lineup for this year's two-week-long celebration of queer cinema on the morning of Tuesday, May 22.
By late Monday, Frameline staff, after talking to transgender community leaders and festival board members, opted not to screen the film and to issue an apology to the community, which they announced several hours after the Tuesday news conference.
"We are sorry this film was programmed," Jennifer Morris, Frameline's director of programming, told the Bay Area Reporter in a phone interview Tuesday. "We made a mistake in programming this film and judging how it would affect the transgender community."
Frameline Artistic Director Michael Lumpkin said he could not recall another film being pulled due to concerns about its content in the 31-year history of the festival.
"It was an extremely difficult decision," said Lumpkin, who did not screen the short film himself until after it had been selected.
Crouch said she was "very disappointed in Frameline" and felt the removal of her film from the schedule "is a bad decision that will reflect poorly on them."
"It is a short-term solution, but I know they are in a difficult place," said Crouch, who lives in Indianapolis. "They accepted the film on its merits but it did not match their community's standards, apparently."
According to a write-up on Crouch's Web site, her film is a science fiction story about a lesbian who falls asleep in the 1970s then wakes up in the future to find "a brave new world" where "butch women and sissy boys are no longer tolerated â€“ gender variants are allowed to chose their gender, but they must chose one and follow its rigid constraints."
In a director's note published on her Web site, Crouch wrote that "Things are getting very strange for women these days. More and more often we see young heterosexual women carving their bodies into porno Barbie dolls and lesbian women altering themselves into transmen. Our distorted cultural norms are making women feel compelled to use medical advances to change themselves, instead of working to change the world. This is one story, showing one possible scary future. I am hopeful that this story will foster discussion about female body modification and medical ethics."
Crouch does not hide the fact that she suffers anxiety over seeing fellow butch or tomboy lesbians opt to transition into transmen and undergo reconstructive surgery.
"My anxiety is about the amount of women I see transitioning into men and how fast it seems to be happening. I wonder about this sudden escalation. They are women, or they were women, and now they are not," said Crouch. "They seem like me, so I am not understanding what is the difference between them and me."
She told the B.A.R. that she always knew her movie "would be a flash point" but didn't expect such condemnation of her or her film.
"If this film is a flashpoint between lesbians and trans people, shouldn't it happen at Frameline? Shouldn't it happen in San Francisco?" asked Crouch. "This is one way to do away with gay people totally in the future if the politics of the world go the way I describe it in the film."
San Francisco filmmaker Mary Guzmï¿½n, a friend of Crouch's, provided a copy of the film to the B.A.R. after Frameline declined to make its copy available. In an interview Guzmï¿½n, a butch Latina lesbian, said she did not consider the film transphobic.
She said it is a science fiction movie and feels it is a mistake for Frameline not to show it.
"What is concerning me about all of this is we are not allowed to have a conversation. Either you accept it or your film gets shanked from the film festival," said Guzmï¿½n, whose own film Mechanics Daydream is to be shown at Frameline. "They should screen the film. Where is all this fear coming from? So nobody gets to talk? This is a perfect opportunity to have a conversation."
Crouch is mystified at how her film has been pegged as a trans or anti-trans film when she set out to make a film that would speak to lesbians about an issue she said is gaining more attention within lesbian circles.
"I thought I was making a film for women and that they would talk about what is happening in our community," she said. "It speaks to people looking at you, deciding what you are and deciding what you should be and how you can be fixed."
Yet a statement released by Lumpkin said that "given the nature of the film, the director's comments, and the strong community reaction to both, it is clear that this film cannot be used to create a positive and meaningful dialogue within our festival."
Transgender scholar and filmmaker Susan Stryker, a former member of Frameline's board, agreed. After watching a copy of the film this week, Stryker said it would have been inappropriate for Frameline to screen Crouch's movie.
"After watching the film and hearing the director's comments, I do feel like it is a classically transphobic film. It repeats all of these stereotypes that have been kicking around for 40 years now," said Stryker, who also corresponded with Crouch via e-mail after learning about the controversy. "It is basically the same stereotypes of trans people articulated in The Transsexual Empire by Janice Raymond in 1979 that said transsexuals are in collusion with politically reactionary forces."
The film, like Raymond's book, is based on this notion that "it is an anti-feminist, anti-queer thing transsexuals are doing," said Stryker.
Jules Rosskam, a queer filmmaker who is trans, saw the film at a screening in Chicago earlier this month and found it appalling.
"I think the film is created based on a naï¿½vetï¿½ or ignorance around what the real issues are or struggles are for trans people," he said. "I find it dangerous because it feeds into people's ignorance and misconceptions of the trans community."
After meeting Crouch at the Chicago screening, Rosskam said he doesn't believe she is being truthful about wanting to spark a discussion.
"I think she is disguising a vehemently anti-trans film by saying it is starting a dialogue when at best it is a personal vendetta by her against the trans community," said Rosskam. "She was honest about the fact it was her own paranoia about a world where evangelicals and the trannies can get together and create a world where everyone had to choose male or female and that was in some way a backhanded way of erasing gay people. She really believes the evangelicals and the trannies could actually come together as a political movement, which is unbelievably ironic to me."
Rosskam said he is astounded that LGBT film festivals in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Miami, where it premiered earlier this month, have accepted Crouch's film. But he is also apprehensive of asking the festivals to censor another filmmaker's work.
"To be honest with you it is beyond my comprehension," he said. "On one hand I want to demand film festivals not show this work, on the other hand morally or ethically I feel trepidatious participating in censorship."
He added, "One does wonder how the film got past the screening committees."
Stryker, whose film Screaming Queens: The Riot At Compton's Cafeteria not only received funding from but also is being distributed by Frameline, nonetheless questioned the festival's commitment and understanding of the transgender community.
"Frameline has actually tried over the years to be trans-inclusive. I don't think it has always gotten it, it's been more of a liberal accommodationism," she said. "As an organization Frameline still imagines gay and lesbian as the center of what it is they are doing and that intersex or trans or kink or fetish or whatever initials are in the queer alphabet soup are add-ons to the central focus."
That lack of institutional culture around trans issues, said Stryker, is evident in the decision to accept Crouch's film.
"In this instance trans and other people I have talked to who are upset about the Gendercator film there is this kind of shock. How can you not see this film as deeply offensive to trans people? Don't you know these are the stereotypes that have been hurled at trans people?" she said.
Lumpkin disagreed with such characterizations of the festival. In their statement, Frameline staff said they are "deeply committed to promoting the work of transgender filmmakers and films about transgender issues."
They pointed out that Frameline Distribution distributes over 20 transgender themed films and over one third of its free monthly Frameline at the Center screenings have been transgender themed.
Through the Frameline Completion Fund, the organization has also given funding to the films The Brandon Teena Story, Southern Comfort, A Boy Named Sue, By Hook Or By Crook, Red Without Blue, The Believers, Cruel & Unusual, F. Scott Fitzgerald Slept Here, and Maggots And Men.
Rabbi Levi Alter, president of Female-to-Male International, is also quoted in the statement as saying that his organization has "enjoyed our association with Frameline and welcome their timely and community-minded response to the concern we expressed on this issue."
Yet there are no transgender members on Frameline's board and only two people on the selection committee are from the transgender community. Morris could not say if either of them had raised objections to Crouch's film.
She did say Frameline is committed to including more of the trans community in its selection process and organizational leadership.
"If anything comes of this, all of us in the LGBT community need to be greater aware of issues that affect the transgender community," said Morris.
But Crouch, who was set to fly in for Frameline, wonders how that can happen if films like her's are censored. She said Frameline's decision means the audience loses the chance to have a conversation in San Francisco.
"We will have the conversations in other cities," she said.