Need To Know: PJ Raval
By Joseph Hassan
Born and raised in a small, conservative town in California, Filipino-American filmmaker PJ Raval readily admits that he had some preconceived notions about Trinidad, Colo. (population just shy of 10,000), when he decided to make his first feature-length documentary, Trinidad, about the former frontier outpost that has become known as the 'sex change capital of the world.' Out sat down with Raval to chat about how a story about three very different transgender women -- a surgeon, a rocket scientist, and a physician -- uncovered the social underpinnings of a community that fostered a surprising safe haven for people undergoing genital reassignment surgery. From a special 1960s dispensation from the Vatican that permitted the surgery in the first place, to an outpouring of community support to continue the practice when its pioneer passed away in 2006, Trinidad is a testament to the human condition's ability to, every so often, mysteriously and pleasantly surprise.
OutLet's start out with a bit about you and your background. You're in Austin, Texas now. Did you grow up there?
PJ Raval: No, I actually grew up in central California in a small town called Clovis -- south of San Francisco, north of Los Angeles. It's in the middle. It was fairly conservative, kind of a small country suburban type town. I pretty much grew up there and moved to San Diego and I lived in San Diego for about 10 years and then, at some point, I decided to go to graduate school. I was an art major so I decided I was going to do an art program, but I had done a little bit of filmmaking -- more experimental filmmaking -- and I randomly applied to UT Austin, their film program.
And then I got in and thought there's no way I'm going to move out of California. I thought for sure I was going to go to art school. But then, I don't know, I went to Austin and I thought this is a really cool place. I've never really done filmmaking before and this could be fun.
Austin has such a great reputation for being an artsy, indie community.
I think that's the thing...because it's artsy-indie you feel motivated to say I can do whatever I want.
Where along the line did the idea for the film Trinidad come about?
It's interesting because I made it with a good friend of mine, Jay Hodges, who had never made a film before. He comes from the book publishing world. And I'd been working in film for a while, but I'd never really made a documentary before. I'd worked on documentaries, but I primarily was doing narrative and experimental work -- a little bit of music video work as a director and a cinematographer. We were at a dinner party where someone was talking about [Trinidad], that they had just driven through Colorado and passed this town. And he and I just thought, 'Come on, no way!' And, you know, I grew up in a small town. Jay grew up in a small town. We just couldn't wrap our heads around it. And there was so much mythology around it -- even from what this person [at the dinner party] had said.
What sort of mythology?
That it was a town full of transsexuals, you know, that there were a lot of clothing stores for large women.
So you knew there was some truth to it, but obviously some myth, too.
A lot of myth, yeah.
And how did you proceed after that dinner party?
We started Internet researching it. And we started in 2004 because we just discovered that Marci Bowers, the surgeon there, had just taken over Dr. Biber's [the Trinidad surgeon who began performing genital reassignment surgery in the town] practice. And the fact that she was a transsexual -- or has a transgender history, that is how she prefers to describe it -- was really fascinating. So then I kind of was like, 'Oh my god -- this could be a really interesting documentary.'
Dr. Marci Bowers is a key figure in the film and she's so fascinating. One of the things she makes very clear is that, in terms of performing genital reassignment surgery, she sees herself first as an artist, then an Ob-Gyn, then a surgeon, but the fact that she has a transgender history comes much farther down the list. Do you think her patients see it the same way?
I think it's a really unique opportunity for her patients because not only are they going through a process that is a big deal -- it's a physical surgery -- but I think also to go to someone who they see as successful in terms of having a transgender history, I think they feel inspired and supported. And she is very into not only is this a physical thing, it's a spiritual thing, it's a mental thing -- it's a holistic approach.
When did you first go to Trinidad?
Essentially what happened was we ended up calling Marci. She was super nice on the phone. And she said, 'Why don't you come down here, meet me in person and we can talk in my office.' And I was like, 'Oh, let's do it! Let's get a camera'' And, again, Jay had never made a film before, and I said, 'Trust me, this will be awesome. This is the way it's supposed to work. We've been invited, let's go.' So we went and immediately we were like, wow -- this is really interesting. That research trip turned into our first production trip.
So you flew out, met Marci and started shooting?
Exactly. And then pretty much throughout the next two-and-a-half years I'd go out every two, two-and-a-half months. You know, whenever there was something happening. And then the second or third time I went out there was when I met Sabrina and Laura, who are also in the film.
And these three women -- Marci, Sabrina, and Laura -- are obviously integral to the story.
They are. I thought this is an amazing trio -- a trinity. Three very different personalities, three very different ideas about what gender means, what transgender means, you know, how they live their lives. I feel like a lot of people think that within a community everyone is pretty much on the same page. And I've found that even within the gay community, within the lesbian community, the Asian-American community, people have varying ideas. So I just found that here are three strong personalities who are very particular in their beliefs. Sometimes they'll get along, sometimes they won't. And such is life. Just like any other community.