A Conversation with the three directors of Cruel & Unusual

Reid Williams, Janet Baus, and Dan Hunt, the directors of the documentary Cruel & Unusual which premiered at SXSW 2006
Reid Williams, Janet Baus, and Dan Hunt, the directors of the documentary Cruel & Unusual which premiered at SXSW 2006 (Photo By Kate X Messer)

My first viewing of the documentary, Cruel & Unusual, was an eye opener. First of all, I had to lose those entertainingly pesky visions of Divine's Dawn Davenport in Female Trouble from my brain. Time to put the cha-cha heels away; this was the real deal. Transsexuals behind bars. Women stuck in men's bodies stuck in men's prisons.

Immediately I was struck by the pace of the film and the gentle way that five very different stories of five very different women, Anna, Ophelia, Linda, Yolanda, and Ashley emerged. Director Reid Williams spoke to me before the conference about the film. A very small part of that conversation appeared as a preview to the film in last week's Chronicle. There was so much more we discussed. We agreed to meet with his co-directors Janet Baus and Dan Hunt upon their arrival in Austin and have a real conversation.

AC: How did working together as three directors work? How were responsibilities divided?

Dan Hunt: Both Janet and I edit and brought that to the project. I think we shared responsibilities equally.

Janet Baus: Because there were three of us, if one of us had to go do another job, or go see family, or go on a vacation, or something like that, there was always somebody you could rely on. And that's what's really nice on a project like this.

DH: In working on a film like this while learning about trans issues, it's a really, really complicated situation... a lot of issues... It was easy to burn out and lose perspective. So I could say, "Janet, I'm losing perspective, please, you take the baton away..."

JB: I don't think you could say that any one of us did any one thing more than any other person actually. We all did research. We all did proposal writing. We all contributed through editing even if Dan and I were doing actual editing. We all had certain things that we fought for, or that we had to compromise on. For example, I liked Anna's story more than they did, and I kept fighting for Anna. And I have son who's three-and-a-half years old, and so the son aspect of that was very moving to me. Not that they couldn't relate to that just because they don't have kids, but I think that I kept fighting for more Anna. But in working with other people, it really forced an edit of Anna that was really, really good, that really showed her story. That was definitely one we had a lot of negotiations on.

Reid Williams: One of the biggest things when you work with three people is you have to be able to admit when you're wrong. And you know, Janet was right, she was right about Anna, and so many people really did respond to her. And it's not that Dan and I didn't like Anna; we felt it fit in a different way than she did, but she was right to push us on that, but at the same time Dan and I also had our moments.

JB: Yeah, I was wrong about Yolanda. There was an ending with Yolanda that we went back and forth on – how to portray her in the end. Yolanda is a very smart woman and has a lot of potential, but you know, terrible circumstances in life. So at the end, she has all these hopes and dreams when she gets out of prison, and we really struggled with that. So we didn't want to make her look ridiculous. But they really fought for that, and they were right on that one.

DH: What happens is, you fall in love with the characters, seeing them for really long periods. It's really part of the process because you really do want to portray them in the best light that you can, but at the same time you have to be honest. And that's what the three of us did. You know, I'd fall in love with Linda, and they would say you have to demonstrate what's actually happening. You know this is really what's happening. You have to really be honest to your story and true to your story.

JB: And we did hire an editor, Mark Juergens. We hired him three times to come on for a few weeks on different parts of the project when we would get stuck.

DH: He was a bit of a mediator through all this.

JB: We would get stuck, and he would bring it to another level, and we would go "ohhhhh". It's just so hard to edit your own material and stuff. We couldn't afford to keep him on the whole time. So then we'd work and work and work. Mark was a really great gauge. When we first realized we'd be hiring an outside editor, I remember we were saying, "We want a gay person or a woman because we want them to be sensitive." We ended up with a straight white man.

RW: That terribly shocked us. (laughter) He was great. He was the best barometer.

JB: He has a great sensibility. He's a clear thinker, so [he] ended up actually being really perfect.

RW: We all set out with the same kind of idea of what we wanted with this film, so that really helped. Our end goal was all the same. How we got there was a little ... we took a few turns here and there.

AC: What was that end goal?

RW: In some ways we wanted to represent trans people in different lights from the other trans documentaries that you've seen ... except for Southern Comfort. I think we all agree that Southern Comfort was a really amazing film. But the subjects were all people who had money and who can afford to have surgery. Then there's this whole other segment of a segment of a segment of a population that is actually quite a large population, a large percentage of trans people who don't have a lot of money and can't survive, and it's difficult for them to integrate in society on any level. We wanted to look at those people.

DW: It really was about class ... I think the representations in the media of what trans people are, as Reid said, it's almost like these middle-class, middle-aged white men who are married, and they have enough money and they make this transformation, and they tend to be hypermale about that ... former Navy Seal or maybe former Marines. And the documentaries are about how they make these transformations with their life. Then at the other end of the spectrum is Jerry Springer. The [people portrayed on Springer] tend to be former or current prostitutes or drag performers, people who aren't making a lot of money. And on Jerry Springer you don't get to hear ... they don't really have a voice.

RW: When you watch them, you don't hear what their lives are about.

DH: I do have to admit that with Jerry Springer, there is an element of just visibility. But it enforces stereotypes. Of course we're not satisfied with that; we really wanted to show what these women felt, what their lives were really about – not just some five-second soundbite.

JB: I think initially we thought the whole film was going to be about was how dangerous it was for them on a daily basis – how much violence, how much they were attacked. And obviously those stories are there, and they are really, really important. But what ending up happening was we discovered this whole thing about hormones that we had absolutely no idea about. It was a complete discovery for us and a challenge. In the beginning we were a little resistant; we were sort of like, "Wow never thought of that. Huh. OK," and we went down this little path that was a complete discovery. And I hope that the film does that a little bit. We certainly aim to take people on that discovery with us without making it a personal documentary.

AC: I think it definitely makes you stop and think. As a women I found it really easy to relate to: What if you were put into a male incarceration facility and were deprived of your body chemistry. To me that was immediate. That's what hit me first. Austin is a pretty open city. I couldn't speak for the trans experience, but it's definitely an easier city to be queer in. There are certainly a lot of problems for folks, but on a daily basis there isn't a constant barrage of what you might find in a smaller town or even in most other Texas cities. So here it was very easy for me to relate on that level. And also very easy to relate these stories to that of my own trans friends and their struggles. But it also brought up some questions about these people's real, private lives. What were some of the debates you had in terms of disclosure of certain aspects of some of your subject lives?

DH: The castration scene. [Where Linda reveals the results of her self-castration.] What would people think? We know that our intent wasn't to exploit. She [Linda] knows that. But does the audience know that? We went back and forth on the castration scene. We were certainly not going to use it just for our marketing purposes. Linda actually called me from prison and asked are we using that footage. And I went [makes whimpering Scooby Doo noise] "Well, we're debating and..." And Linda said: "You absolutely have to. I had my reasons. I'm proud of what I did. I know it wasn't the smartest way to correct yourself, but I'm happy with the end product."

JB: We didn't ask – for the record – during the interview Linda went into the bathroom, came out, and told us to turn on the camera. It was a surprise for us. It wasn't something we were prepared for, that we planned for.

AC: There's an overriding sensitivity that makes it work in the film. Everyone is couched in their environment, first in their incarcerated state and then over here, here's the real world in which they are aspiring to emerge into. These are human beings sharing their stories.

DH: Like I said, we went back and forth. We would stop and put together a test run. I showed one of these to my elder brother, very straight, hyper-conservative. I was really worried about my older brother's reaction about the shot. But what he said to me was, "That's when I got it. I absolutely got it. If she was willing to cut it off then she's not just this big dude with a fetish," he said, "then she really is a she. She really is a woman." For me that was a real 'Aha!' moment.

RW: We all talked about goals at the beginning of the project. We wanted this as a tool for straight people to better understand the trans experience. Hopefully.

JB: We debated over whether or not to tell why they were in prison. What were their crimes? Would the audience want to know? Our first cut of Yolanda made her look like this angel who was simply a victim. And Mark [Jeurgens, the editor] said, "Hey look, I don't believe her." We had become very close to her, had become very protective of her, we had been writing to her for a year. And Mark put the footage of her disclosing, "I was on ecstasy and weed." Those little details made her made her seem so much more real.

RW: We all started out that way. We were way too protective because we felt so strongly about the issue. And then we got over it.

AC: Was there a lot more to these stories? Did you pull punches? In hindsite, do you feel you withheld too much?

JB: There was a lot more to each story. That's just the nature of documentary: 90% of it is not in the film. Ophelia's story is very complicated. How do you get into it? She was in prison since she was 17. She self-mutilates. Of course she's got problems. So how much of that do you go into? So Mark put in the part about her being a difficult prisoner.

AC: Which made clear the complexity of her situation. Obviously there are larger frameworks here, and you as directors had to make decisions about what was germane to the telling of their stories. I wondered about that, if certain areas of the story could have been opened up to reveal so much more ...

RW: One thing that I don't think comes through in the film, and I wish it had come through more: Linda, when she won her case, turned down a financial settlement so that it would set precedent in Idaho so that every trans woman who comes into that prison now will have the right to have hormones. Which I think is really incredible.

JB: She turned down the part of the agreement so she could speak publicly about it. She spoke first to a newspaper and then to us. It was hard to put that in the film without making it look like she was promoting herself.

RW: That's one thing that I'm sad about, that it did not come through. It's one more thing that shows how brave Linda is and how much she's done for a lot of other trans people.

AC: What was interesting to me is that each of the five subjects is sort of their own type of badass in their own worlds. All in very different ways. The intensity of five Lindas probably would have been overwhelming. The stories work well together.

RW: One of the other things that we talked about was why we didn't have trans men (FTM) in the film.

JB: Well, we tried. We wanted the film to be about trans people – all trans people. We sent out a notice in the newsletter, the GIC TIP (Gender Identity Center of Colorado/Transgenders in Prison) Journal. We got hundreds of letters from that, and they were almost all MTF (male-to-female transsexual). We found one trans man in a woman's prison. We did get permission to interview him in a Texas prison. We ended up not using it. We communicated with a lot of people and found the prison experience for FTM (female-to-male) to be quite different from MTF, almost making it an entirely different story.

AC: Perhaps a part two, in a few years? What sort of other challenges to your own preconceived notions did you go through?

DH: I hadn't realized how I felt about prison and prisoners and the justice system. I, like most people, fall prey to what the politicians say, "Lets get tough on crime." And we all say, "Yeah crime is bad." So this notion that prisoners have any rights while they're incarcerated, while not new to me, was an area I had not explored prior to this film. I didn't realize how many walls I had up. For me, it was a real journey. In doing that, I discovered that most people feel that way. Outside of places like Cambridge, Massachusetts, Woodstock, NY, Austin, progressive cities, most people don't want to think about rights for prisoners. I hadn't realized how manipulated those concepts were: Prisoners as scapegoats. That whole notion of justice. I just didn't get it on a core level. I still find that most people, even very educated people, have conflicting feelings about it. That election year "Get tough on crime" thing seems to work.

RW: At the beginning, I had a lot of fear. I was terrified. We went to eight prisons, and after a while, it kind of becomes routine. We are all fearful at the beginning. We all have a notion about who criminals are. We have an instant prejudice about criminals that we have lost by doing this film.

JB: For me, the big moment was the castration. Early on, when we put the pieces in the TIP Journal, back when we were still thinking about the film simply portraying a woman in a man's prison – what the daily life was like, how do you survive. Those were our beginning questions. We got a letter from Linda, and I was like, "Oh! This is too out there." But we kept the letter. And then we were getting more and more into the issues. We met Ophelia and began to understand the hormone issue more. Prior to all this, we had done a lot of gay and lesbian work; it's not like we were new to all of this. So, we kept hearing from Linda. And we decided to follow up. By that time we realized she had an amazing story. We got in touch with her lawyers ... who couldn't find her. She was in Wyoming. No, she's in a hotel. No, she was homeless. The owner of the hotel next door would let her come in and shower. We ended up getting the number of that hotel owner. Then we got her. But she really wanted to tell her story. Luckily, she wanted to tell her story enough that by the time we got educated, it all came together. I'm glad we went through that journey, because I don't think we could have conveyed her story as well otherwise.

AC: Well, you all had to overcome a double layer of prejudice: of prison and of trans living. How did doing this film transform you?

RW: I think I was far more transphobic than I thought I was. I think it is a life-long process. We were all brought up boy-girl. To get out of that binary way of thinking takes a lot of emotional effort. You have to accept things about yourself that you may not want to. Dealing with pronoun issues: To these people, these are very important. If you could see what it is really like and what these people are going though. A lot of people look at them as freaks; we see them as warriors. I hope that we've shown that.

AC: Do you want to continue in this vein? And explore trans issues further?

RW: We actually have been talking about doing a project on gender in other countries. One happens to be about trans people in Nepal, who have been targeted due to their government trying to get people to think about something else other than the problems that are happening in the government. So they're making this big issue that these immoral people are taking over our country. Using them as a scapegoat to avoid larger issues.

AC: Hello? Gay Marriage? Does this sound familiar? Are they getting their scape-goating ideas from the best, from the West?

RW: Exactly! And yes, I would definitely consider continuing with similar issues. My biggest thing about this film is that I want it to open up discussion. We've all talked about how class intersects with justice. We've talked about how race intersects with justice. Now we need to start talking about how gender intersects with justice. It's going to take a long time, but we've got to start somewhere.

JB: There's been a lot of documentary work of late on trans issues, and that's great. I definitely would like to do something else with it. I'd want to figure out how to go beyond the "transition" movie. Which are great movies. It's just that there's already been a number of them.

AC: Kind of like what "Coming out" movies are to queer feature film.

DH: We still need to see those.

JB: We have been talking about following up on the woman with the landmark case in Canada who successfully had sexual reassignment surgery [that is mentioned in the film]. She has a wild story.

DH: I think she's out now.

AC: This interview has impressed me with how well you three work together: Is this how your filmmaking happened?

RW: We are three different people. All of us fill in different parts. I think we argue well.

JB: I think we are all polite people. And we're all a bit passive aggressive. And a little bit irritable. But for some reason we are able to let it go.

DH: We set down rules when we first started the process. Simple things, like voting majority: No one individual has final say. We learned to take breaks, take walks when we would disagree.

JB: We had this conversation one time where we were like, "80% of what I say, I'd say directly to you! The other 20%? Well, you don't need to know the other 20%, because everybody's irritating!" (laughter) But you know, I think despite the fact that there's three of us, The film has a strong vision, a strong sense of style, a strong voice.

AC: The style is very engaging, the pace is so deliberate, so peaceful, placid and contemplative. The pace had me at the first shot.

JB: That was something really exciting about this film. For me, as a colloaborator, it's kind of a first. I feel it's the most mine of a lot of the collaborative work I've done. It's all of ours. We all feel that relationship with this film.

Remaining screenings:

4:30pm Tuesday March 14 Alamo S. Lamar 1

9:30pm Friday March 17 Alamo S. Lamar 1

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