“Disclosure” Confronts Hollywood’s Rocky History of Trans Representation

Director Sam Feder reflects on the making of his powerful new documentary, which had its world premiere at Sundance this week.

Sam Feder’s moving new documentary, Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen, explores how Hollywood has informed America’s understanding of transgender people, for better and for worse. One of its most striking moments illustrates the ripple effects of 1992’s The Crying Game, in which a character discovers his love interest is a transgender woman and responds by throwing up. This reaction would be seen time and time again, with another ’90s movie, Jim Carrey’s Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, taking it to a shocking extreme.

But Feder also shows trans people that we are not alone and that there is life after transition. Though it may sometimes entail all-too-familiar storylines in which transgender characters are killed for being trans, other opportunities are out there—and they’re surfacing more and more every year. Hearing notable trans luminaries like Laverne Cox, Lilly Wachowski, Yance Ford, Mj Rodriguez, Jamie Clayton, and Chaz Bono share their perspectives makes the film all the more powerful—crucial.

Two days after Disclosure’s world premiere at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, Feder opened up to NewNowNext about the making of the film, what Cox specifically brought to the table, and why including that transphobic scene in Ace Ventura felt essential.

How did it feel to have Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen selected to premiere at Sundance?

It was certainly a hope, and it’s incredibly validating. When Lauren Cioffi, the programmer, called me and said, “Your film is screening at Sundance this year,” I really didn’t have anything to say. I just was pacing around my kitchen, and then chills went through my body and I told her I loved her and then giggled for the next five hours. I was thrilled and it was terrifying, because then we had to finish the film. That was a lot of work, but yes, it’s an incredible opportunity.

Sundance Institute/Texas Isaiah
Sam Feder, director of Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen.

How far away were you from finishing the film at the time?

It’s hard to say exactly how far away, but I basically haven’t had a day off in probably 150 days.

How was the reception at the world premiere?

It was beautiful. I felt so honored when people gave it a standing ovation. And then I thought, These credits are really long. They’re gonna get really tired. But it kept going and going. I never would have imagined that.

Laverne Cox was brought on a few years ago as an executive producer. Did that help get more people in front of the camera to talk?

Oh, absolutely. As you know, we’re a small community and most of us know each other in some way or another. I’ve been working on films with the trans community for 15 years, so I had some connection to most of the people. Those with whom I didn’t, Laverne did. Between the two of us, we were able to invite everyone. But there are so many people we weren’t able to bring in because of budget, scheduling, or time, so there are still a lot of voices that need to be heard.

What are your thoughts on transgender representation on screen over the past few years?

I think there have been some representations that could be said to be positive for sure. I mean, I’m a critic, so I can always find a flaw. I want to see more and more trans people behind the scenes. That’s where it starts. Most of the problems we end up seeing on screen could have been avoided—when that script was being written, when the producer was hiring people. So that’s what I’m really focused on.

How collaborative was GLAAD when it came to making this film?

Nick Adams [director of GLAAD’s Transgender Media Program] has become one of my closest and dearest friends. He is such a wealth of information. He has been recording content for over 20 years. One day, I went with him to his personal storage room with a huge suitcase. I left with hundreds of DVDs, VHS tapes, and even some audio cassettes of things he recorded, and then digitized all of that. He’s been 100% on board from the beginning.

What was the most fascinating thing you learned while making the film?

I do love the way [filmmaker and theorist] Susan Stryker is looking at film history through a trans lens and how she makes the argument that transness and cinema grew up together. Fascinating isn’t even enough of a word to express how empowering that is and how much of a blueprint that has become for me, because history is always told from one singular perspective. So that changed my world. It really shifted the way I think about history and how we have always been part of it.

Yance Ford.
Rich Polk/Getty Images for IMDb
Trans director and producer Yance Ford.

Was there a conversation you wanted to keep in the film but had to cut?

So many. There are all these film reviews written by trans people that were passed around in the community newsletters, and that to me is like bringing those voices from the past into the present and showing how we’ve been having these conversations for a really long time. Newsletters like Metamorphosis and FTM International. Lou Sullivan wrote film reviews for years. I’m going to work that into another film, hopefully soon.

What was your thought process in including that long, difficult scene from Ace Ventura: Pet Detective?

That was so I’d always know when I could leave and go to the bathroom during a screening. It’s horrendous. I’m numb to a lot of things by now, but that scene is not one of them. I hate it so much. But something my producer [Amy Scholder] says so beautifully is, “Once you see these things, you can’t unsee it.” We can’t be the only ones suffering—we, trans people. The viewer, the content maker [may be too]. I hope something like this will never happen again. I think once people see it in that context and how pervasive it’s become over the decades, [they’ll understand]. It’s painful. [Director-producer] Yance Ford has that line in the beginning: A lot of this feels really violent and painful, but I think we have to see it. We have to talk about it.

What do you want viewers to ultimately take away from the film?

I hope viewers walk away excited to investigate their opinions about trans people, and understand that so many of them came from these ridiculous storylines and images that were probably created by someone who’d never met a trans person. I want viewers who are moved by this and who identify as allies to follow those feelings with some action. There’s so much people can do right now. Literally right now, people can be making phone calls to their representatives. I want people who feel aligned and care about us to fight with us, because we can’t do it alone.

Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen premiered January 27 at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and is currently seeking distribution.

Main image: Laverne Cox in Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen.

A Chicago-based transgender film critic, Solzman also runs the film news and reviews site SolzyAtTheMovies.com
@DanielleSATM