Need To Know: PJ Raval

5.6.2010

By Joseph Hassan

What surprised you most about Trinidad?
I was very surprised by the town's response. I thought for sure [genital reassignment surgery] had to be a hush-hush thing in the town and I expected to run into a lot more people who had issues with it. But again, I feel like that was my own stereotypes of small towns.

But I do feel like this really is a special case small town. Do you think you'd get that same reaction somewhere that didn't have that rich sort of history with a topic that for many is still taboo?
I think, if anything, it shows that it's possible. It's possible because here's an example of one.

How do you translate that then to communities that don't have that same sense of acceptance?
I think a lot of it is about awareness. It's about education. It's about learning that these people have the same tensions, the same wants and desires, the same need for acceptance, the same need for self-expression.

And your film is one way of trying to move that dialogue forward'
I hope so. It's interesting because after making the film, there's been a lot of asking if I set out [to start that conversation]. And, honestly, I set out for my own personal interest. I wanted to learn more about it. I was fascinated by it. And I just hope that it meant that someone else would be, too. And other people would respond to it in the same way because I was very intrigued and I didn't know much and thought I should know more as a gay man, as a queer individual.

And how has the audience response been to the film?
It's been great. When I was making the film, I thought it was going to be interesting only to a transsexual population. It would be interesting only to a gay and lesbian population. And it's actually not the case. For all purposes, these were heterosexual men transitioning to physical females. I think most people were surprised when they watched it that these people could be their father or could be their doctor or someone in the community that they know. These are everyday people.

You've done narrative film, have you done other documentaries?
Just short ones. This is my first feature length.

How do the two compare?
It's interesting because I also work as cinematographer -- it's almost two different ways of working. But what I love about documentary is that it's true that true life is' sometimes you just can't write this. Sometimes it's more fascinating than scripted material.

There's a responsibility that comes with it, too. Do you find it difficult to be there without leaving a footprint, so to speak?
Well, here's the other thing, too -- a similarity with fiction filmmaking. You want the people in front of the camera to trust you. And you have to make them feel safe like you're not going to take advantage and you're not going to paint them in a light that's -- I don't want to say bad light -- but in an untruthful light. And I feel like that's the same with actors. The actors have to respect you as a director and take your direction. And I think it's the same with documentary, you have to the trust of your subjects so that they'll be honest with you. So that they don't perform for you in a light that's not truthful.

That sounds like a lot of pressure and a lot of responsibility.
And it's also a lot of fun [laughs].

Outside of film -- what are your other interests and passions?
That's a good question. I don't know if I really have any other outside of filmmaking [laughs]. I mean, I just love working with creative people. It's funny, now that I actually work in film, I actually don't see as many films as I used to. I probably should increase that. Of course, I love like going out to dinner with friends. I feel like I've been paying a lot more attention to things that aren't film, but creative like, you know, music. I love music. I love seeing shows and live music and artwork -- museum shows, gallery shows, same with theater. I like different forms of artistic expression that maybe I don't do. Oh -- and I love taking this ballet class. It's so much fun. I can't stop talking about it.

How did that come about?
A good friend of mine teaches this class that she calls 'gay ballet.' It's awesome -- kind of just for fun. It's a group of people who aren't necessarily trained dancers, who obviously are past the age of becoming ballerinas [laughs]. But it's fun to be in this room and take a ballet class. And again, it's a different form of expression.

I can't believe you almost forgot to mention a gay ballet class.
I love my gay ballet. How could you not? Gay ballet is going to save the world.

That'll be your next film?
[Laughs] Yeah, that'll be the next one -- gay ballet saves the world.

PJ Raval's first feature-length documentary Trinidad, was just released on DVD. Head to the official website for a trailer and to purchase a copy of the DVD. Raval is currently working on his second feature-length documentary, a never-before-seen look at LGBT and gay-friendly retirement communities across the United States.

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