Frames Per Second: Photojournalists-Turned-Directors Take A Mindful Approach to Intimate Storytelling
July 27, 2016
The movie poster from The Pearl, a new documentary by Jessica Dimmock and Christopher LaMarca that follows the lives of four middle-aged transgender women.
Jessica Dimmock films in the tight confines of a subject’s home—there was no room for a sound technician with a boom mic, so the filmmakers wired as many subjects as possible with lavalieres.
The Pearl, the new feature-length documentary directed by photographers and filmmakers Jessica Dimmock and Christopher LaMarca, follows the daily lives of four transgender women, who range in age from their mid-50s to mid-70s. Over the course of three years, the filmmakers followed their subjects through their daily routines, and captured the women grappling with how to introduce their female identities to family and co-workers who for years had known them as men.
LaMarca and Dimmock, who have produced long-term photo projects as well as videos, worked in a cinema verite, observational style. LaMarca calls their approach “immersive”: “From day one, we wanted to create a film that would make the audience feel that they were on the journey with these people.”
Their subjects face issues the media rarely cover. “I think people who transition at any age are incredibly brave, but at this age, the stakes become high, because you have a lot to lose,” Dimmock says. She explains that older transgender women face “unbelievable rates of housing and job discrimination.
“The film isn’t about any of these people trying to transition to womanhood,” she continues. “It is about how to leave behind being a man after all these years of constructing male identities. How do they take off that cloak and reveal who they are underneath?”
Dimmock’s interest in the topic began five years ago. On a hiking trip, she checked into a sold-out hotel in Port Angeles, near Seattle. She learned that the hotel was hosting the Esprit Conference, an annual event that attracts transgender women from around the Pacific Northwest. Over the next two days, she talked to Esprit attendees at the hotel bar and on the street. She called LaMarca to say she thought she had found a topic for a short film.
Many of the women she met were still closeted at home. The Esprit Conference, LaMarca explains, “is the one week out of the year they are able to be themselves and have camaraderie.” Before she left the hotel, Dimmock introduced herself to organizers. “Of course there were a lot of issues about secrecy and confidentiality,” she says. “I made sure to let them know that we would only come back and work with people who are fully transitioned and are totally willing” to participate.
Krystal hid feminine clothes from her sibling, who turned out to be doing the same thing. The filmmakers attended Sundance Institute labs where they refined the editing and sound. Image © The Pearl.
Dimmock and LaMarca returned the following year. They held “a casting call,” LaMarca says, telling attendees they were looking for subjects to follow. They interviewed the volunteers, then chose subjects with unique stories: Nina, a grandmother who worried about how her coming out could affect her family; siblings Krystal and Jodie, who lived together and hid their feminine clothing from each other for years before one revealed her gender identity; Amy, who in the course of filming, went to Bangkok for sexual reassignment surgery. The filmmakers hoped that by choosing subjects who were “early in their journeys,” that they would witness dramatic change, but there was no guarantee. “That’s the amazing and also scary thing about documentaries,” Dimmock notes. At times, she and LaMarca worried they might end up with “a collection of interesting scenes that [didn’t] come together to tell a real story.”
They shot every scene together, each looking “for complementary and interesting visual angles that work in the edit,” Dimmock says, including close-ups, reaction shots, cutaways and scene-setting footage. “Most of the time we were shooting on a fixed lens, a 35 or 50mm, in close proximity to each other,” LaMarca explains. “It makes the whole room feel that much more expansive.” There was no room for a sound technician with a boom mic, so they recorded sound as they shot, wiring as many people as they could with lavalieres. “When you’re filming people in their daily routines, it’s their inflections and breath that’s important,” LaMarca observes. “When you’re across the room with a shotgun mic, technically you’ll get the audio you need, but you’ll lose that closeness.” There are no on-camera interviews in the film; they instead used the interview recordings as voiceovers for footage of each subject, “to bring the viewer into their psychological space,” Dimmock says.
They initially shot with Canon 5D Mark III cameras. After landing a development grant from the Sundance Institute in 2014 and other funding, they bought Canon C100 cameras, which helped when shooting in low light, Dimmock says.
Winning the Sundance grant also put them in the pool of filmmakers eligible for invitations last summer to the Sundance Institute labs in Park City, Utah. For the first, the “edit and story lab,” LaMarca, Dimmock and their editor, Fiona Otway, brought a segment of the film they were struggling with: the opening. They wanted to give enough information about each character to draw viewers in, but not enough to give the stories away too soon, LaMarca says.
Several advisors—including editors Mary Lampson, Ra’naan Alexandrowicz, Jean Tsien, and Marshall Curry as well as Keri Putman, director of the Sundance Institute and Tabitha Jackson, executive director of the Sundance Documentary Film program—would drop by the trailer where Otway and the directors were working, ask questions or sit at the editing console and try out ideas. They often asked what the filmmakers wanted to convey. “The message we got was that [viewers] were getting lost,” LaMarca says. By the end of the week, they had their opener: Nina changing out of men’s clothes and into women’s attire in a dark parking lot, followed by images and voiceover that introduced the other women’s stories.
At the second lab, they worked with a composer, who scored the edited opening, and a sound designer. He experimented with adding in sounds, including sounds recorded in the logging towns where the women live, as a reminder of the world outside the privacy of their homes. The idea, Dimmock says, was to use sound to “help signal to the viewer there’s an element of risk and danger to what these characters are doing.”
The “creating and producing lab” provided Dimmock and LaMarca a tutorial in marketing their film, negotiating distribution deals, understanding which festivals are most selective or prestigious and “making sure that you’re launching the film at a festival that makes sense for your project,” Dimmock says. A film without famous names could get lost at popular festivals. After the marketing tutorial, Dimmock says, they were delighted to debut The Pearl at the True False Festival in Columbia, Missouri, which “cares about exceptional programming.” They’ve also landed slots at the Ashland Independent Film Festival in Oregon and the Montclair Film Fest in New Jersey.
Reviews of the film have been mixed, but all have noted the “extraordinary access” of the filmmakers and a Los Angeles Times reviewer said their immersive style “can uniquely help new groups be understood.”
The women featured in The Pearl have embraced the film. Jodie drove several hours to attend the Hot Docs festival screening in Toronto. LaMarca says, “She told us that she’s been using the film as a way to talk to friends from her past life: high school friends, old friends.” Dimmock says, “That’s the best review we could get.”
As they look for ways to reach audiences, the filmmakers plan to work with human rights groups and LGBTQ advocates. Whether The Pearl is released in theaters or via video-on-demand depends on distributors, but Dimmock says some viewers may want to consider the subject matter in private. Their target audience includes people struggling with their identity and those who “think they don’t know trans people,” she says. “If we can show them a depiction of trans people that is human and raw and empathetic, then hopefully that creates a bridge for understanding.”
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