Need To Know: PJ Raval

5.6.2010

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?
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.
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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.
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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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