Review: New Doc, Just Be Gemma, Online at the CBC

Credit: Nine Island Communications
“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.“

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.”

Ronalda agrees.

“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:

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  • I agree with a lot of the things you are sayin but how is that trump???. Sorry man but do you watch anything outside of your liberal bubble? I’m trying not to be rude here but trump is trying to get rid of all the corrupt people in the White House. Trump is about nationalism. Not globalism. He cares about his people. And he uses commen sense not political correctness, which in the end is better for all walks of life. I can’t believe how many Newfoundlanders are on the side of fake news and globalism. It needs to stop before all of the west is like the Middle East all because of liberalism. Just look at North Korea. How do you think the Germans actually let hitler do what he did? Well the same way the liberal government is pushing communism now it’s just their using political correctness instead of white supremacy. And the funny thing is you guys call trump hitler. That’s hilarious. Its time to wake up Newfoundland.

  • 18 comments, and only one actually relevant to the main storyline – Gemma’s documentary and the adversity they’ve faced in fighting for fair treatment and human rights. I enjoyed the documentary and applaud Gemma on their courage in the face of adversity, ignorance, hate, and old ideas.

  • Also, the 7 countries in the travel ban were all highlighted by Obama as harbouring terrorists. If he wanted to ban Muslims, why not include India (9.6% of the world’s Muslims) and Indonesia? (13% ).

    I think it’s ok to tighten up immigration enforcement.
    Look into the Mexico/Nicaragua and India/ Bangladesh borders, see how Mexico and India treat immigrants from selective countries.

  • Dear “ANONYMOUS on SEPTEMBER 26, 2017 10:21 AM” that’s a stupid comment. I think Trump is Alt-Right NOT because of CNN (which I have never watched in my life) but because of his actions. Are you a real person or an anti-CNN bot?

    • Very much a real person. What does alt-right mean to you? What has the Trump administration done that you would define as “alt-right”?

      Also way to not address any of the content of the post and just go straight to ad hominem attacks. What’s wrong, was it something I said?

      • What do you mean? He tried to ban an entire religion/race from entering the country. He called Mexicans rapists and drug dealers, and wants to build a wall to keep them out. He is a white man trying to keep non-whites out of his country. More recently, he slammed a football player for expressing an opinion — kill free speech much?

        • Islam isn’t a race but let’s have some fun with numbers! The total populations of Iran, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Sudan and Chad is around 163 million according to what I found on Wikipedia (total population, not just Muslim population). Wikipedia also says that there at 1.6 billion Muslims so looking at these numbers that is around 10% of Muslims not the entire religion.

          Here is the quote about Mexicans you are referring to: “What can be simpler or more accurately stated? The Mexican Government is forcing their most unwanted people into the United States. They are, in many cases, criminals, drug dealers, rapists, etc.” I don’t think is saying all Mexicans are those things but referring to those he claims the Mexican Government is forcing into the US.

          Also super ironic you mention him slamming the NFL for expressing an opinion then mention that is killing free speech. Is he not allowed to use his own free speech to state his opinion or is free speech only reserved for those who agree with you?

  • The doctrinaire political correctness being pushed by the social justice mobs is more Orwellian than anything this author is writing about, but that aside, I like Peter Walsh’s comment about “just thinking of them as people.” If someone prefers to be called “they” I can go along with that.

    • “Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”

      Sounds pretty similar to the social justice ethos in 2017. History needs to be updated and altered to fit the current 21st century ideals. Anything not in line with these ideals will be altered or destroyed.

      • Your hyperbole is showing. I have seen no one calling for history to be altered or destroyed. I have seen many people calling for a fuller history to be told. I have seen many people calling for repugnant historical figures to be recorded in classrooms, books, museums, and archives rather than in places of glory. History should always be “updated” as we learn more about what happened, the stories that have not been told, and the stories that have been told incorrectly – if not, what is the point of the field? Current research and theories do not erase existing ones. There is no harm in acknowledging the shortcomings of past leaders.

      • “It was based chiefly on communism because that is the dominant form of totalitarianism, but I was trying chiefly to imagine what communism would be like if it were firmly rooted in the English speaking countries, and was no longer a mere extension of the Russian Foreign Office” -George Orwell in a letter to Sidney Sheldon

        • Dear Anonymous. I’m well aware of the historical events which inspired Orwell’s book, and I’m quite familiar with the book and its long-lasting historical resonance, too.

          That fact of the matter is that while Orwell used communism – and Soviet Union communism, particular – as the basis for his dystopian vision, he was more concerned with exploring totalitarianism in general. The letter you quote hints at this. Orwell used communism because “that is the dominant form of totalitarianism,” meaning the dominant form when the novel was written and published.

          My point was that alt-right governments like Trump’s administration employ the same totalitarian tactics explored in Orwell’s book, and I’m not the first one to draw the same conclusion.

          For example, enjoy this NY Times article and you’ll see where I was coming from.

          Apart from all that, the reference to Orwell’s book is obviously not the meat of this article, and it’s kind of sad that you spent your time aiming to prove a rather irrelevant point.


          • “Alt-Right” is the new boogie man for anything that is right of Lenin. It’s basically as useful of a descriptor as Nazi is at the moment because there is no consistent definition to either of these terms. If you disagree with anything far left or hold any centrist views you are labelled as alt-right or a Nazi as a way to discredit your ideas. Sorry, but Ad hominems are not an argument.

            Also If you think Trump’s administration is alt-right then I think you are watching too much CNN. Go ahead and try reading some actual Alt-Right content instead of regurgitating NYT and CNN headlines and you might actually learn something about the movement. The Alt-Right are a collectivist movement pushing for white identity as a reaction to the massive increase of other identity movements (see the extreme left, BLM, Antifa) over the last few years. They see all of these other groups acting in a tribal fashion and attacking “their tribe” so they decided that they need to do the same. If anything, the alt-right has more in common with the alt-left than the Trump administration. As far as I can see, Trump’s administration only wants to push one identity, that of being AMERICAN (regardless of race or culture).

            Don’t forget, liberals get the bullet too.

    • It doesn’t particularly matter which side of the spectrum it depicts, both are oppressive at their totalitarian extremes.

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