On May 7th 2016, Animate Concordia hosted a screening with Yiara Magazine called VISIONS as part of the 43rd Concordia University Film Festival in Montreal. This collaboration was the result of several months of talks based on their similar mandates for inclusivity and increasing the representation of marginalized groups in the arts, particularly the film industry.
VISIONS aimed to feature work by LGBTQA film students from around the world, and gathered films that fit the theme VISIONS IN FLUX: conceiving and interpreting the world with hopes and aspirations for the future, transformation, and change.
The final programming consisted of six animations and six live action films. The films touched on themes such as exploring sexuality and the body, as in the comically whimsical “Ivan’s Need”, as well as the themes of self-discovery and struggle within non-heteronormative sexual identities, as in “The Man with a Pink Heart”, which tells the true story of a gay man in Vietnam. One film stood out to the jury, however: the live action black and white short phoria, by Forrest Lotterhos. This documentary-style film approaches the topic of dysphoria, gender identity and presentation, speaking specifically from the transgender male and transmasculine perspective.
Director Forrest Lotterhos interviewed various transmasculine individuals who discuss their life experiences, their transition, and their identity. Forrest himself also makes an appearance in the film. Using the traditional medium of 16mm, Lotterhos creates a beautiful and earnest piece which allows the audience into an intimate space where very personal aspects of each individual’s life are shared. Each subject is interviewed one by one. As their voices tell their personal stories, shots of each individual’s face and fragments of their body are shown, from more classical portrait-style shots to close-ups of their hands, arms, and torsos. This strategy is far from clinical; on the contrary, these close up shots of the body carefully present the beauty of the subjects as they are. It is a gentle and respectful treatment of the body and the person, expressing trust, understanding and openness between subject and director.
Certain shots contain soft overlays of other body fragments. This delicate transparency adds an element of lightness to the theme of the body, while the film’s grainy quality lends weight and physicality to the imagery. The textured visuals also simultaneously give the film a nostalgic feel and a timeless quality, echoing the lives of gender-nonconforming individuals of the past. The sound design is minimal, consisting of the interviewees’ voices, ambient softly droning strings that fade in and out, and the shuttering sound of a traditional film reel used as a transitional cue between scenes. This simplicity enhances the authenticity of what is presented to the viewer – a piece of each person’s experience, a fragment of their soul. The shutter sound achieves a similar effect to the soft shifting of a turning page, delicately ushering in a new story.
In order to learn more about the film, and expand on the ideas brought forth by it, the team that brought VISIONS into being held an interview with director Forrest Lotterhos. The following is an interview with the creator.
Catherine and Amelia: We were wondering if you could tell us a bit about the medium and the formal qualities of the film: what draws you to 16mm film, and how or why was it important for you to work with it in your project? Following from that, could you also speak to how the ambient sound design and the black and white contribute to the film and subject matter?
Forrest Lotterhos: Using a 16mm film medium was an essential aspect of creating phoria, not only stylistically, but also because the limitations and eccentricities of the medium shaped the way the content was compiled and edited. Stylistically, I chose to use a super fast Black and White 16mm film stock called ORWO and I pushed it in the developer to achieve high levels of grain. The hand processing technique creates imperfections and inconsistencies that lab processing does not. It was important for me to handle this material myself, because of the intimate nature of the portraits, but also because I wanted the film to take on as much texture as possible – embodying skin, pointing to the material object of the film itself. Not having sync sound capabilities created an obstruction that I think benefitted the film. I was able to conduct the audio interviews independently proceeding the shoot, allowing the subject space and time to reflect on what the experience was like to be photographed. 16mm was really the key to creating the type of document that could properly hold the content.
Catherine and Amelia: We came across your process blog, and we were wondering how your project came to be. Also, could you tell us a bit about the context that led up to it: did you have a key motivation, or a central concept that you wanted to address in your film from the very beginning?
Forrest Lotterhos: This film was very much a process – and I mean that literally as well as emotionally and spiritually. Dealing with my own feelings of dysphoria, I wanted to explore this topic for myself- to dive into the emotions surrounding what it is like to not identify with your own body and also to confront societal notions of masculinity and what a “masculine person looks like.” My initial motivation was not limited to trans-masculine people, though that’s what it became. It was about shame – it was about men or masculine people who are shamed because they have “breasts” of some form. I had this idea that through approaching extreme vulnerability, my subjects would confront their own feelings of shame, address it, and find some form of self-acceptance and self-love through that process.
Catherine and Amelia: We have found that your film has many photographic elements to it, and essentially presents its subjects with beautiful moving portraiture. Is this approach informed by the history of problematic and otherwise widely absent visual work that accurately represents not only the transmasculine experience but earnestly depicts the person of that experience?
Forrest Lotterhos: Yes, this work was very much inspired stylistically by experimental portrait photographers such as Francesca Woodman. It is also in direct conversation with the history of violence and erasure of trans and gender nonconforming people, of their bodies and their voices. The way that images of humans are portrayed is so limited and binary. Even today, with the ever-increasing visibility of minority groups, we see mostly white, able, cisgender, heteronormative, and fit bodies in the media and in film. The best way for me to explore this topic of dysphoria and trans bodies that are often shamed, fetishized, and historically erased from mainstream view was not in a vacuum in my own private world, but through a photographic medium, a documentary form that is essentially a public forum. Documentary has a special way of eliciting empathy in viewers. You’re able to experience someone else’s story, someone else’s perspective, and even if it is only for a few minutes, this type of identification has lasting impact that can truly change someone’s mind and heart.
Catherine and Amelia: In making this film, you brought together a group of people that have various life experiences and perspectives, yet share similar gender identities. What is your relationship with the people who have participated in your film? Have you kept in touch?
Forrest Lotterhos: My relationship with each person in the film is different. Three of them I knew personally, though not very well, and one of them I had never met before filming. Interestingly, the one that I didn’t know at all has become a good friend and a great supporter of me and my work. I do try and keep in touch with everyone that was a part of the film, though we all have very different lives and interests. That’s one thing to remember: there are no two trans people that are the same. Though we share some commonalities with specific life experiences, we are all very different people.
Catherine and Amelia: In our viewing of the film, especially alongside other films in our screening, phoria evokes the idea that gender identity is an extremely personal and private experience, but not necessarily solitary. The people you featured in your film show that many people, of different walks of life, have a trans experience. Many differences bring you all together. From there, we were wondering how important is the idea of community to you as a person and an artist? This can be in terms of the Trans and/or LGBTQA+ community, or in the broader sense of the term.
Forrest Lotterhos: It’s interesting to me how each person in the film identifies themselves differently, and it speaks to how identity is extremely complex and intersectional. In my efforts to show this, it was important for me to have some different perspectives in my film. Mainstream media tries to collapse trans identities in particular, but also identities of other minority and oppressed groups in order to label and categorize for means of efficiency and also value assignment. That being said, identity is both solitary and not solitary. No labels and categories can really describe a person in their entirety. Identity is private and personal, though – we live in a world that is based on perception and assumption, with languages rooted in symbology. Therefore, community is vital. Many times community is formed out of necessity for support surrounding specific issues in a person’s life, issues that often arise from being shamed, oppressed, or not having your voice heard. Something that LGBQ people and Trans and Intersex people have in common is that we are all oppressed based on perceptions of gender presentation. Binary gender, with all of its heteronormative behaviours, role assignment, and hierarchies is an ideology that needs to be assessed. I hope that the Gender and Sexually Diverse communities and society as a whole continue to question and dismantle this ideology that tells us that sex and gender are binary, and that anything outside of that is wrong or “other.”
For me personally, community has been essential to my survival and has supported me as I got out of fight-or-flight mode and into thriving in the world. I have different communities and some of them overlap. First and foremost I identify as a creative – I’m a writer, a musician, and a filmmaker, so most of my friendships and communities revolve around art in some form.
Catherine and Amelia: What has changed for you since making this film?
Forrest Lotterhos: Many things have changed in the past year since making phoria. I graduated with honours from my film studies program and immediately began to try to find work in the film industry. I currently work as an Assistant Video Editor with a production company in Boulder, CO. It has been great to work in my field with a B-Corp that aligns itself with entrepreneurs and companies that promote positive humanitarian and environmental change in the world. I’ve also founded my own production company called Achroous Productions. It’s essential for me to not just create media, but to create media that has a mission and is rooted in social justice. Personally, a lot for me has changed – I got top surgery, or chest reconstruction surgery, in August of last year and it has completely changed my life in a positive way. phoria played a large role in processing a lot surrounding emotions going into the surgery and my own self-acceptance and self-love.
Catherine and Amelia: Do you have any plans to expand on the content or subject of phoria into other projects in the future?
Forrest Lotterhos: I’ve had a number of people ask me if I’m going to make a sequel to phoria. I would definitely like to make more films in the same vein. I want to create another film that is similar, but focusing on a different form of dysphoria, potentially with trans-feminine identified or non-binary identified folk. I like this format of documentary, one that allows people to have their own voice and tell their own stories in an intimate way. There is something powerful that I think phoria taps into, which is the empathic qualities of film and the transcendent idea that truth is subjective and that our bodies are more than physical objects to be classified. Our personal power is rooted in claiming our bodies as our own, and our unique experiences as important. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin says that “We are not physical beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a physical experience.” This is an idea that I am currently exploring more in my writing and that I would like to continue to explore through film in the future.
In a world which, despite its progress, continues to radicalize and sensationalize transgender individuals, an earnest and authentic presentation of trans people as complex, unique, familiar and complete is essential – and phoria achieves this.
For more detailed info on Forrest’s work on phoria, have a look at his process blog for the film here: https://5phoria.wordpress.com
You can find more of Forrest’s work here: www.achroous.space