Need To Know: PJ Raval


By Joseph Hassan

It's different when you're on the outside. Like, when you're part of the gay community you recognize that there's so much diversity, but when you're on the outside, you don't necessarily see that. For me, that was a takeaway from the -- that there's such diversity among the transgender community, even when it comes to what 'transgender' actually means.
Yeah. And I think a lot of people have misperceptions, too, that it's the whole idea of 'a woman trapped in a man's body.' Sabrina [a former contract engineer for the NASA Space Shuttle Program], for instance, very much believes that she's a transgender woman. She has a different experience from Marci, who very much believes that trans is part of her history -- she is a woman. And I feel like Laura [a physician trying to build a practice in Trinidad] was in the process of trying to really formulate what she really thought about it since it was such a recent awareness of her identity.

Towards the end of the film, there's an evident rift between Marci and Laura that was interesting to watch. It was' uncomfortable at times. What was it like actually being there?
I wondered how people were going to react to that because I feel like when you are making a work of unrepresented communities there's this pressure to paint everyone in a perfect light. But I don't think that's realistic or human. So I very much wanted to show that there are differing opinions, there is tension that exists and people make things work -- or recognize that they are part of each other's community. And then, obviously, here are these three transgender women who are trusting me to tell their stories and present them to the rest of the world. Honestly, I don't know if I could do that -- have someone else present me to the rest of the world. So I felt this incredible amount of trust that they placed in me. So right when I finished the film I screened it for all of them and was like "let's talk about it," but I stand behind all the decision here because this is how I perceived it when I was there. And that's the thing for me that makes documentaries different from say a news piece. [Because] as a filmmaker, as a storyteller, this is the story that I saw -- this is the perspective that it's coming from.

Especially when you're dealing with three different personalities like that, there has to be a merging of storylines in a way.
Exactly. It was really funny because at some point we were making the film I was joking with the editor and I said, "We're making a film about a doctor, a surgeon, and a rocket scientist."

That's right, because Sabrina was an engineer for the space shuttle.
Yeah. So it's really kind of funny. It shows three very successful, very different personalities. I feel like when you make a film like this -- because it's a community that a lot of people don't necessarily pay attention to -- you do want to educate people. And I think that's part of the education process. It's showing that we're not all going to go shopping together. Or be best friends. They all respect each other but they all have very different points of view. And tension is part of that process. It's part of being human.

On relationships, another extremely important relationship is the one between the people of Trinidad and the transgender community. And feelings about their town being referred to as the 'sex change capital of the world.' What did you notice there?
I think there is this perception that in a small town you're going to get run out, beat up, not accepted. But I feel this is a great example of a community of people that for them it's not a question. And I think it's not a question is because, for them, it's been going on since 1968. So, at the time, for it to be 2004, 2005 and up to 2006, when I was still shooting, for them it's just part of their social landscape. It's a non-issue.

What did you expect the town's reaction to be?
I had my own perception of small towns. And it's interesting because since making this film, I've definitely traveled with [the movie] to bigger cities and in a lot of ways I could be walking down the street in Trinidad with one of the characters and no one bats an eye, but I could be walking down the street in Los Angeles or San Francisco, places you'd expect to be very, very accepting and liberal and [that's not the case].

Why do you think that is?
Maybe the fact that they're not in contact [with transgendered people] as frequently, maybe that's part of it. Or intrigue? I have no idea, but it's interesting how people react differently in different places.

Speaking of the tolerance of Trinidad, there is also a financial aspect and benefit to the community in play, too.
Yes. Yeah, so I think there are different levels of it. One, [the surgeries] have been going on for such a long time -- what would be the point of running them out. And does anyone really want to because they're just so used to it. And then, two, the hospital does benefit and the town does benefit from having the practice in terms of visiting patients, visiting families, surgical expenses, things like that. And then I also think the third thing is that also it is this Wild West kind of town so maybe the mentality has something to do with it also. And Dr. Biber, too. When he started the practice he was such a well-respected individual in the community. He'd been there for several years at that point and he was also a family practitioner and a very well respected man. And when he passed away, I really saw the town very much come together.

And you were there for that, right, when Dr. Biber died?
Yeah, I was actually there when he passed away. People really always had wonderful things to say about him.

That marked a potential turning point for the town -- an opportunity for them not to be seen any longer as the sex-change capital of the world. But what you captured instead was an outpouring of solidarity -- editorials, letters to the editor, even the support of the local Catholic priest.
It was really interesting every week to read another letter to the editor and what someone else had to say and I think they hit it when they said, 'We want to be a town of tolerance.' And that's what they practice there. At some point -- and we don't go into it in the documentary, unfortunately -- but Reverend Phelps [the independent Baptist pastor notorious for his vitriolic antigay protests] was protesting and the town actually asked him to leave. And I think that says a lot about the town.