What world do you want to live in? Do you want to inch towards the dystopian nightmare depicted in George Orwell’s 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four – a nightmare that threatens to become reality under Donald Trump’s alt-right administration – or do you want to live in a world that celebrates individualism, diversity, and basic rights for all human beings?
Those are important questions to consider. They crossed my mind following a private screening of the new documentary Just Be Gemma for about 120 people at The Rooms on Tuesday, September 19th.
The documentary debuted September 23rd as part of CBC Television’s 2017 line-up for its long-running “Absolutely” documentary series.
Written, directed, and produced by Peter Walsh of Nine Island Communications – a company Walsh founded with his wife and co-owner Ronalda Walsh – Just Be Gemma is a riveting and vital documentary that captures activist Gemma Hickey’s physical changes and emotional journey over a period of twenty-one months.
“The questions I asked were from that mainstream perspective,” Peter says. “It’s not an accident Gemma approached me. I’m not trans. I’m a married man with three children, and I have a background in programming for the general public.”
“I was interviewed by Peter Walsh fifteen years ago when he was a reporter at CBC,” Hickey elaborates.
“I was heavily involved in getting same-sex marriage legalized across the country. Peter didn’t mince words. Got straight to the point, and the heart of the story. When I saw the news later that evening, I was immediately impressed.
“Ten years later, our paths crossed again. His company was hired through the St. John’s International Women’s Film Festival to facilitate a film camp for the youth at For The Love Of Learning, where I’m currently employed. We’ve been working together on film camps ever since and he also donated his time and resources to produce a music video promoting Pathways, the organization I founded for survivors of clergy abuse. There was already a trust established between us, and a solid working relationship.
“As a journalist, Peter obviously knows how to ask pointed questions, but I was more interested in the perspective through the lens of a heterosexual, middle-aged, white male. Basically, he had no way of understanding what I was going through, as someone who was an assigned (and socialized) female, came out as lesbian, and later identified as non-binary. Nor would our wider audience. He also has a boyish curiosity, is ethical, and collaborative.”
Hickey’s activist work to legalize same-sex marriage in Canada and as the founder of Pathways is briefly explored in Just Be Gemma, but what drives the story is their invitation to their previous existence as a female and their transition to a trans person.
That “their” in the last sentence is the politically correct and, more importantly, most respectful pronoun to use when referring to people who identity as non-binary individuals. Gemma does.As explored in the documentary, and recounted by Hickey during the private screening,its title was inspired by a conversation Hickey had with their grandmother following their decision to inject testosterone and undergo top surgery as key processes for their trans transformation.
“Just be Gemma,” Hickey’s grandmother told her. They listened.
In addition to Hickey’s transformation, activist work, romantic relationships, and horrific childhood sexual abuse, the documentary explores Gemma’s relationship with their grandmother and mother, and those relationships are the blood of the film’s vibrant heart.
We watch Hickey revel in their grandmother’s wisdom and mourn her death. We watch Hickey’s mother struggle to come to terms with a daughter who now identifies as non-binary. We watch her waver between fondly fawning over Hickey’s high school graduation dress – the last dress Hickey ever wore – and the necessity of respecting her former daughter’s desire to be recognized as a non-binary person.
There is pain here. There is confusion here. There is also love. A lot of love. And humour.
What the documentary might lack in exemplary technical execution – some of the run-and-gun style footage leaves a little to be desired, and a stronger sound mix seems occasionally in order – it makes up for with the all access pass into Hickey’s life and their commitment to open and honest dialogue.
“I was always committed to this project,” Hickey says.“Both Peter and I had no idea where we were headed, but we were on this path together and were going to see it through to the end. Even when the volume of death threats increased due to my pursuit of a non-binary birth certificate, I was more determined to see this film through.
“Of course it brought old hurts to the surface, but it was also incredibly empowering to strip myself down both physically and emotionally. Essentially, I liberated myself from myself. You can’t hide on camera. It’s a different kind of mirror and at this point in my life, I finally like what I see.”
Hickey’s video diaries are an effective tool that hooks the audience into their engaging embrace. The interview segments and family photos speak to the universality of this story, a story that is essentially about a human being fighting to find a solid sense of self in a chaotic and all-too-often disheartening universe.
When all is said and done, Peter and team craft a cohesive and heartwarming story from a starting point that had no road map.
“Gemma approached me while we were working on a different project and said, ‘I’m going to get a shot of testosterone today, and I’m going trans,’” Peter recalls. “And I was like, really? Then Gemma said, would you want to do a documentary on that?”
“I knew Gemma’s an honest person, an open person, and a trustworthy person with a good reputation,” Peter continues. “So all of our business partners trusted Gemma was a great person to tell this story.”
Those business partners include CBC and The Newfoundland and Labrador Film Development Corporation (NLFDC).
In a press release, NLFDC Executive Director/Film Commissioner Dorian Rowe states, “We support great stories of all kinds, but the subject of gender identity is particularly relevant and important.”
“There was no hesitation from my perspective,” she says. “Peter mentioned Gemma was going through this process and was interested in telling their story. It was like, yes. We have to do this. It’s an important story and Gemma’s the right person to tell this story, and is courageous enough and brave to put their self out there and do that.”
Recently in the news for their fight for Canadians’ right to identify as non-binary on government-issued documents, Hickey is the source of much public controversy. They also received death threats that were serious enough to warrant police protection. That’s not fake news.
Is it 1984 yet? Not quite.
Brave people like Hickey are on the front line defending not just their rights, but human rights. All human rights. Brave people like Peter and Ronalda are also on the front line with a lens focused on telling compelling stories, educating the public, and resisting the loss of those rights.
“As Peter said at the private screening, regardless of my gender or your gender, people are people,” Ronalda says. “We need to understand people at that basic human level and not judge. We don’t want to tell people what to think or how to think or make their decisions for them, but we certainly want to encourage them to listen and experience someone else’s perspective. Maybe they’ll find it enlightening.”
“I would suggest for people who are confused or even threatened by trans people to maybe not worry too much about their sexuality and the language and the new terms and the political correctness of it all,” Peter says.“Just think of them as people. That’s pretty simple, if you ask me.”
Indeed it is.
“This film isn’t just about a person transitioning into another gender, it’s about a person transitioning throughout the course of their life,” Hickey says.
“It’s about the human condition. The struggle to be alive. To crawl. To stand up. To fight. To cry. To laugh. To just be. Human. That’s what makes this film so relatable and relevant. We can overcome our deepest, darkest moments and come out on the other side of ourselves. I meet everyone there.”
You can watch Just Be Gemma online, to see the world through Hickey’s eyes and decide what world you want to live in: http://www.cbc.ca/documentaries