TransAmericans Behind Bars

'Cruel and Unusual'

TransAmericans Behind Bars

The motel room is as stark as any $27-a-night fleabag. Linda, a 6-foot-3, 230-lb. transsexual, gently spreads her skin to reveal what's left of where her penis used to be. "I didn't like to look at the thing, I didn't like to feel the thing. The thing just thoroughly disgusted me," she huskily explains of her desperation to obtain hormone therapy for gender identity disorder. "On March 18, 2000, I sat down with a razorblade and cut my nuts out."

When a transgender person is sent to jail, he or she is assigned by what they have between their legs, not by gender identity. Women like Linda and the other four subjects of the documentary Cruel and Unusual serve time in male penitentiaries while concurrently condemned to the prison of a male body.

Producer/directors Reid Williams, Janet Baus, and Dan Hunt had previously worked with John Scagliotti (After Stonewall) on Dangerous Living: Coming Out in the Developing World and decided to do a project of their own. The three agreed that this population segment had little voice. This film would challenge ingrained notions, maybe even some of their own.

"I was terrified at first to go into the prisons," Williams admits. "We all have a notion about who criminals are. After going to eight prisons, it becomes routine. But we were all fearful."

The directors followed the lives of five transsexual women in various states of transition and incarceration during a three-year period. Baus and Hunts' masterful editing packs compelling punches of the brutal realities of life behind bars set against the backdrop of the real worlds these women so desire to fit back into. The pace is thoughtful, almost placid. A halting soundtrack by Linton (née Amy Linton) from Aislers Set reinforces this.

"I felt really strongly about not using a typical film composer-type," Williams says, "and using someone in the trans experience. It brought an emotional connection to the characters that otherwise wouldn't have been there.

"A lot of people look at them as freaks, but I hope we've shown trans people the way we see them: as warriors."

World Premiere

Saturday, March 11, 4:30pm, Austin Convention Center

Tuesday, March 14, 4:30pm, Alamo South Lamar

Friday, March 17, 9:30pm, Alamo South Lamar

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SXSW Film 06, Cruel and Unusual, Reid Williams, Janet Baus, Dan Hunt

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