“I just want to be loved by my family, and I think that, for my family, it’s not as simple as that.”
This month, thanks to BFI Flare, the brilliant coming-of-age documentary REAL BOY is making its way over from the US for an international premiere.
REAL BOY follows Bennett, a transgender teenager, as he grows up and finds his voice — as a musician, a friend, a son, and a man. Through director Shaleece Haas‘ lens we get to see Bennet’s friendship with Joe Stevens, a trans musician, and his relationship with his mother Suzy.
BFI describe REAL BOY as “raw and breathtakingly honest,” and they also recommend brining tissues along to the screenings.
But what goes into making such an enormous, powerful and important documentary? We caught up with Shaleece to talk about her time with Bennet, his family and friends and the evolution of those relationships.
There’s no doubt that Bennett’s story is an inspirational one, how did you first meet him? I met Bennett through Joe Stevens, who I knew from the awesome queer Americana band Coyote Grace. The two had just met and Joe had invited Bennett to be the opening act for a living room concert in Sacramento, California. Bennett was 19 years old, newly out as trans, and was having a really rough time with his family, who was not on board with his transition. He sang a new song he’d written, which he told the audience was his “break up song with alcohol.” His lyrics were raw, honest, and pithy. He was super-nervous, but he charmed everyone in the room, including me.
What was it about his story that you wanted to tell? Was there a moment or a particular aspect where you thought, ‘I can’t NOT make this into a film?’ At first, when I met Bennett and Joe, I was struck by the parallels in their lives. While Bennett was finding his voice quite literally through music and transition, Joe was also searching for his muse as a newly sober songwriter. I thought the film might be a kind of buddy movie, one that explored the healing power of music and the way mentorship within LGBTQ communities can be a life-saver for both the mentor and the mentee. That storyline is still part of the film. But when I met Bennett’s mom Suzy and witnessed the combination of affection they had for one another and their painful struggle to understand each other, I knew the film needed to focus on their relationship as well. I had faith that their love would eventually prevail over the pain, anger, and fear, and I wanted to stick around long enough to see it through. It took four years, but I think it’s part of what makes REAL BOY special: you get to watch the full arc of that relationship.
It must have been quite difficult at times to put it all together, what was it like directing such a personal and emotional movie? I can’t tell you how many times I told my girlfriend I was quitting the documentary business to become a florist… Or a plumber… Or an accountant. As an independent filmmaker working on a story with people I feel deeply connected to, I was often balancing the roles of director, producer, and friend— and sometimes it was difficult to figure out which hat(s) I was wearing. But this process has also been deeply rewarding. Bennett, Suzy, and Joe have become family. I have had the extraordinary support of funders, film organizations, and an awesome documentary community that have made it possible for me to be a full-time filmmaker, which is a rare privilege. And I am able to be part of a collaborative story-telling process with those in the film to change minds, touch hearts, and impact actions to serve the broader trans community.
Bennett and Joe have a great relationship, how much did you get involved in that while filming? Or were you more a ‘fly on the wall’? When I met Bennett and Joe at the living room concert, they had only known each other for a few weeks, but they already had a special bond. We started filming REAL BOY fairly soon after that and I spent a LOT of time with the two of them in those early months. Occasionally I had a small crew, but most of the time it was just me and my camera. Sometimes I was filming. Sometimes we just hung out. Over the years, as their relationship deepened and changed, I continued to film many of the milestones in their friendship. Now that the film is complete, it’s such a pleasure to spend time with them as friends and to leave my camera at home.
Have you got a favourite encounter or story with the two of them? There are so many stories behind the hundreds of hours of footage we shot for REAL BOY. One that comes to mind was the shoot we did during a road trip Bennett & Joe took a couple years ago. We managed to squeeze Bennett, Joe, me, a bunch of instruments, a bunch of camera equipment, clothes, cooking gear, sleeping gear, and Ben’s pit bull mix Honey in a sprinter van and drove for five days through the American Southwest. I had to constantly distract Honey from chewing on my headphones, there was no laundromat and more than a few stinky socks, and the windshield cracked dramatically on day two. But we had a great time, the footage was great, and there was lots of time to hang out and just be with each other.
You must have become quite close with Bennett’s mother, in a way, you were both watching him grow up into an incredible young man. Suzy and I have become very close through the process of making REAL BOY. We have a different relationship than the one I have with Bennett or with Joe, but we’ve also been through a lot together. It’s true, we both experienced Bennett grow from an angsty teenager to a self-confident young man. But I was also able to witness Suzy’s transformation, which in many ways was as profound as Bennett’s. Although REAL BOY takes place during the early years of Bennett’s transition, the film isn’t really about his transition at all. It’s about the evolution of the relationships in his life during that time, and the impact his search for identity has on those closest to him.
When you embark on making a movie like REAL BOY, did have your own thoughts on what bits would work best on screen? Or were you daunted by the sheer amount of footage you could use? It takes a village to make a movie. REAL BOY would never have been possible without our entire creative team, not least of which is our editor Andrew Gersh, who was a tremendous collaborator on the project. Because I was both director and cinematographer on REAL BOY, it was essential to have someone else in the edit room who could challenge my assumptions, ask the difficult questions, and keep me motivated when the path forward was hardest to see. We also sought feedback from fellow filmmakers, editors, and content advisors, whose wisdom was essential to the editing process.
I hope the film makes people laugh, cry, think, feel, and relate.
It must be thrilling to know that your film will have its international premiere at the BFI: Flare this month. What do you hope people will take away from the film? I am honored to have our international premiere of REAL BOY at BFI Flare and to share the film with welcoming audiences that celebrate the diversity of our broader LGBTQIA community.
It’s always difficult for me to answer the question of what I hope people will take away from the film. Watching movies is so personal and so subjective. And what resonates has everything to do with who you are and what your experiences have been. The greatest compliment I’ve received thus far from someone who previewed the film was that it left them not with a greater “understanding” of what the people in REAL BOY are going through, but with a sense of identification. Ultimately, I hope the film makes people laugh, cry, think, feel, and relate.
On a more personal note, what have your experiences with the trans community been like? Does this film come from a place of wanting to represent issues that affect them, and give them a voice? I’m a queer cis woman born and raised in the Bay Area in California and I am deeply involved in my community here — a diverse network of queer, trans, and gender nonconforming people who are my friends, creative collaborators, and chosen family. It’s common to hear documentary filmmaking referred to as “giving people a voice,” but I don’t see my work that way. The people in REAL BOY already have strong, powerful voices and are out there making their mark on the world. I see this film as a collaboration wherein they have shared their time, vulnerability, and lived experience with me. And they have given me permission to filter it all through my own lens and craft a story that others can watch, filter again through their own experiences, and hopefully find something that resonates.
How does REAL BOY compare to your other works? Did you have to change your style/approach at all? I believe REAL BOY is marked by its intimacy, heart, and balance of poignancy and humor. In this way, it has an energy similar to my first film, a documentary short called OLD PEOPLE DRIVING, which explored the lives of two men in their late 90s reaching the end of their driving years. Ultimately, I make films and tell stories because I love people. I’m interested in our complexity and messiness and nuance and I strive to make films that reflect a heart-centric approach to filmmaking.
Would you make a film like this again? What’s next on the cards for you as a filmmaker? This is just the beginning of what we hope to be a long, exciting life for REAL BOY. In addition to film festivals, we will bring REAL BOY to communities around the globe who can use the film in their work to empower trans youth and their families. We’ll also have a national broadcast on public television in the United States, where we hope to reach a wide general audience.
I am currently in the very early stages of pre-production on my next film. In the meantime, I’m working as a freelance producer and director and continuing to teach filmmaking at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and the Berkeley Advanced Media Institute.
You can buy tickets to see REAL BOY at BFI Flare on March 21 and and March 22 via bfi.org.uk/flare – hurry though, tickets are going fast.