Welcome to the Neighborhood: PJ Raval Heads to Trinidad

Life in the sex change capital of the world

The town of Trinidad, Colo., population 9,000 and "sex change capital of the world," is so much the stuff of fiction that PJ Raval and Jay Hodges initially had trouble believing the place actually existed. But after a 2004 meeting with Marci – formerly Mark – Bowers, successor to trailblazing genital-reassignment surgeon Stanley Biber and now the field's acknowledged leader, the filmmakers were convinced, and the reality held their fascination for the next four years. It will hold yours for an hour and a half. The Chronicle spoke with co-director Raval, one of Austin's most prolific filmmakers (known mostly for his cinematography), at Bouldin Creek Coffeehouse recently, leading up to Trinidad's aGLIFF screenings. The documentary premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival in June.

Austin Chronicle: You hit the jackpot with your sources and subjects. Almost to a one, they're intelligent and well-spoken and savvy. How did you draw so much out of them?

PJ Raval
PJ Raval (Photo by Todd V. Wolfson)

PJ Raval: First of all, Marci, Sabrina, and Laura are just incredible women. A lot of it had to do with them trying to gauge the filmmakers, Jay and myself, making sure that we were trying to tell a story that they found truthful and honest and not sensationalized and not trying to make it an exposé piece. And we were very much interested in them as people. The town and their gender identity is part of who they are; it's not necessarily the only thing about them. I think they became very intrigued when we were interested in exploring their whole lives. ... Part of the reason of making the documentary was a genuine interest. I knew very little about the transgender community. I knew very little about the history of it. And just being around them, naturally, there were questions, and I guess the questions I was asking tended to be more invested in who they were as people. ... I think both Jay and I consider them very good friends. ... In that process [of filming], there's a trust that builds up. One of things that was a really big advantage is that I'm also a cinematographer, so I shot the film. It's very different when you're hanging out with a friend of yours who's filming you versus a huge film crew. I think that made them a lot more at ease.

AC: Can you talk about how your background as a cinematographer fit in with your first effort as a feature-length director? Part of why the film is so effective is because it looks so sharp.

PJR: I think when we first started making the film, I just kind of shot it more intuitively, just in terms of covering whatever was happening. You're not there to try to control it; you're not there to manipulate it. You're there to capture it. Even in a narrative film, the actors create their own world momentarily in front of you. Documentary is very much that. ... It's your job, as someone making the film, as someone behind the camera, to go along with that and present it as an honest experience. It's also a portrait. It's a portrait of these women. It's a portrait of this town. I wouldn't say I tried to make it look good; I tried to make it as natural and real as it was for me. I would like to think that whatever intuitive choices I made in terms of framing and camera movement reflect that. There are a couple of spots in there that are a little more stylized, like there are some townspeople sequences and some Trinidad schoolkids in there.

AC: There are some moments of discomfort early on in the film, when you come out immediately interviewing locals. One guy calls the practice "disgusting"; another points at you and says something like, "They're not my neighbors; they're yours." Did you ever feel uncomfortable or even threatened?

PJR: No. Well, you try not to just walk up to some person on the street with a camera and say, "Tell me what you think about transsexuals in your town." And since I was very much interested in the town, a lot of times I would just start out by asking them about the town. And it's such a unique thing that happens in their town, you can't escape talking about it if you're talking about the town and the history of the town. ... In terms of certain townspeople having negative views or them not being supportive of the practice, I think it's understandable. It's so controversial for people, especially in a small town that is considered conservative and very religious. But the question is, do they just not agree with it, or are they willing to run their neighbors out of town? For these people, since it has been going on since 1968, it's kind of a nonissue for them. You ask them, and they say, "Oh, yeah, there it is." Some of them are like: "I don't know if I understand it, I don't know if I agree with it, but it is what it is. It's live and let live." Ultimately, it's very much a universal story. It's about acceptance.

Trinidad screens Thursday, Sept. 4, at 8pm. Directors PJ Raval and Jay Hodges will be in attendance.

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