Now 15 Years Old, SF Transgender Film Festival Pushes for More Than Visibility

Still from 'El Camino.' (Courtesy of Alexander Lee)

In mid-October, Fox released its remake of cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the latest example of Hollywood’s efforts to represent transgender experience through popular entertainment (albeit the transgender experience of an alien-cum-mad-scientist).

Critical reception was mixed at best, but Laverne Cox’s performance as Dr. Frank N. Furter, a role made legend by Tim Curry in the 1975 film, was singled out as a highlight. Yet despite this increased mainstream visibility, trans lives, particularly trans women of color, are not equally valued in our country -- 72 percent of the victims of hate violence homicides in 2013 were transgender women.

While Transparent, Orange Is The New Black, The Danish Girl, and Caitlyn Jenner’s breathlessly reported debut portray (slightly more realistic) representations of transgender lives, they still downplay the violence those same communities face on a daily basis.

The 15th annual San Francisco Transgender Film Festival, running Nov. 10–13 at the Roxie Theater, answers the dangers faced by transgender people with a glorious range of responses, celebrating visibility from within a vibrantly diverse community. Here are four not-to-be-missed highlights from this year's SFTFF:

Still from 'Free Cece!'
Still from 'Free Cece!' (Courtesy of Jac Gares)

FREE CeCe!

Thursday, Nov. 10, 8pm
Tickets: $12-15 sliding scale

Chrishaun ‘CeCe’ McDonald was out for a night with friends in June 2011 when a man and two women harassed the group outside a Minneapolis bar. The encounter escalated to assault when, as CeCe and her friends defended themselves, the male attacker was fatally stabbed. CeCe, a trans woman, was tried, convicted, and ultimately housed for 41 months in a men’s prison, which ushered her into a hell that few of us can or want to imagine. FREE CeCe! recounts McDonald’s time behind bars, but that important narrative isn’t the focus of Gares’ film. Instead, emphasis is placed on how national and international trans communities fought to tell CeCe’s story and hold attention on what becomes of black and brown bodies within the prison industrial complex. Laverne Cox acted as the film’s executive producer and is featured prominently throughout the film, but this isn’t her story. Our eyes are trained on CeCe who, by surviving an incredible trauma, emerged as a powerful advocate for trans rights both in and outside the prison system.

Still from 'El Camino.'
Still from 'El Camino.' (Courtesy of Alexander Lee)

El Camino

Friday, Nov. 11, 8pm (with shorts program)
Tickets: $12-15 sliding scale

El Camino portrays a family’s struggle to retrieve the body of their husband and father, who died in prison. While the short film centers on this mournful task, it subtly addresses a few of the myriad challenges -- education, employment, familial estrangement or separation -- faced by those living in the United States without the basic protections and dignities afforded by citizenship. Screening in San Francisco only days after Donald Trump's stunning upset, the traumas envisioned by director Alexander Lee capture the fears of what may lie in store for millions.

Breanna Sinclaire
Breanna Sinclaire (Courtesy of Nicole Opper)

Mezzo

Saturday, Nov. 12, 7pm (with shorts program)
Tickets: $12-15 sliding scale

Mezzo documents the life of Breanna Sinclair, a talented performer who, among other accomplishments, was the first transgender artist to sing the national anthem at a major league baseball game. Mezzo shifts from present-day conversations with the artist to flashbacks in which a boy comes to terms with his ill-fitted gender identity at a young age. Sinclair’s burgeoning surety in her adult life contrasts with the doubt her youthful self faces. Director Nicole Opper’s portrayal of Sinclair’s struggles and success is entirely engaging, bolstered by vibrant cinematographic choices and tantalizing tastes of Sinclair’s commanding voice throughout.

Still from 'Ryans.'
Still from 'Ryans.' (Courtesy of Rain Valdez and Natalie Heltzel)

Ryans

Saturday, Nov. 12, 7pm (part of shorts program)
Tickets: $12-15 sliding scale

It’s a familiar scene: Girl meets Boy, set up by a matchmaker friend. Girl freaks out because Boy has the same name (Ryan) as the man who just broke her heart. Girl dresses down Boy for an offense beyond his control. Will they reconcile? Actor and director Rain Valdez’s funny and poignant short film proceeds through tried-and-true tropes; miscommunication, misdirection, and a reconciliation that foretells a bright future for two very attractive people. Clocking in at 14 minutes, Ryans is exactly the length most rom-coms should be. And with its strong performances, Ryans presents romantic engagement as something we all seek and deserve, gender identity be damned.

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The San Francisco Transgender Film Festival runs Nov. 10-13 at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco. For tickets and more information, visit sftff.org.

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