The scene: a bodybuilding competition in Ohio. A gaggle of muscled cisgender men are awkwardly awaiting the final step of the spray-tanning process, their genitals sheathed in tube socks. They glance at the football game playing on the TV screen in the room or stare up at the ceiling, attempting to clamp down on any homoerotic tension.
Mason Caminiti, a soft-spoken trans bodybuilder from Cleveland, turns to the camera and explains his current predicament: He’s never been in a space like this, where his fellow contestants’ dicks are just out there.
The cameraman, who is also trans, tells Caminiti that he’s never been in this kind of situation either. “I’m so glad you’re here right now,” Caminiti responds, shooting him a grin. He ends up going through the tanning process without any issues, the presence of an ally calming his nerves.
It’s a short scene, but it’s emblematic of the warmth and conviviality with which the new documentary Man Made treats its subjects. Directed by T Cooper, the film chronicles the lives of men vying for a prize in the only transgender bodybuilding competition, letting the viewer into a world of hormone therapy and top surgery, strict workout regimens and personal upheavals.
For Cooper, the intimacy of the spray tan scene really drove home the point of the entire project. “I was literally on my knees at dick level with all these guys,” he recalls. “And here’s Mason, who wasn’t assigned male at birth, who just wanted the opportunity to compete. We were making faces at each other the whole time. We both knew what the fuck was going on, but no one else did.”
Cooper, who’s also a journalist and YA novelist, knew he wanted to follow the lives of trans bodybuilders the moment he heard about the annual Trans FitCon competition. The question was how. He’d initially conceptualized the project as a feature story for a publication like Mother Jones or The New York Times Magazine, where he’d worked as a contributor. Then he met Dominic Chilko, a rapper and drag queen from Minnesota who was participating in the bodybuilding competition while undergoing top surgery.
“He told me he’d recently gotten in touch with his biological mother on Facebook, and that’s when I realized, holy crap, there was a whole world I needed to capture on film,” Cooper says.
Unlike the way a cis filmmaker might approach the doc, Cooper doesn’t spend precious minutes introducing the audience to the idea of trans identity. Instead, he dives right into the lives of his subjects: In addition to Chilko and Caminiti, Man Made trails Kennie Story, a lightweight competitor from Arkansas whose lesbian girlfriend is struggling with his transition, and Rese Weaver, a father in Atlanta who’s unhoused and unable to find a shelter that will take him in.
In some cases, Cooper steps in front of the camera to assist his subjects, helping one into a binder or loading a testosterone shot. Chilko even lets him shoot his top surgery. (“That’s so crazy! That’s what’s under here? No boobs?” he exclaims after seeing his new chest.) In a particularly poignant scene, Story’s girlfriend, DJ, wrestles with the physical changes she’s witnessing in her partner. “It’s concerning because he will be getting horny as I’m becoming less attracted to him,” she says. “It makes me feel like a shallow bitch.”
“It was important to me that the people in my film were treated as full humans,” Cooper says. “Kenny and DJ’s relationship is like a metaphor for all relationships. How do we love people when they change? How does that affect us?”
Cooper also captures moments of pure joy, like when Story’s friends throw him a gender-confirmation party with “It’s a boy!” balloons and chant “chug, chug, chug” as his girlfriend administers his first testosterone shot.
Caminiti trusted Cooper enough to film him while he was “hangry,” as he subsisted on a competition diet so rigid his girlfriend called it obsessive. He says he never worried that Cooper would get his story wrong. “I felt so comfortable around him and the other contestants,” he says. “They felt like family,” he says. “I think that’s because when trans people tell their own stories, it adds this extra layer of authenticity.”
It can even change relationships. Caminiti has gone through periods of estrangement from his parents, who did not react well when they learned of their son’s budding desire to live as a man. After discovering that Caminiti had tried to kill himself, his mother reacted by brutally beating him. But Caminiti says that following a screening of the film, “For the first time in my life, my dad actually said he was proud of me.”
He adds, “It’s sort of a reclaiming of my own life. Like maybe I didn’t go through all of that for nothing, you know?”
Chilko experiences his own deep transformations in the film. In addition to his top surgery, Man Made captures the moment he finally meets his birth mother, who immediately embraces him in a long, tear-soaked hug.
“It was really nice that she just wanted to know her kid,” he says. “Man, woman… it didn’t matter to her. She was just excited to see that I was alive.”
Since the film was released, Chilko says he has met four other trans men whom he inspired to compete. “They liked the fact that, even though I had just had top surgery and wasn’t in competition shape, I still went out there and proudly showed my scars.”
Man Made is available November 7 on VOD platforms worldwide.