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Trans Filmmaker Jake Graf on His Dramatic Short, Dusk

Trans Filmmaker Jake Graf on His Dramatic Short, Dusk

paul grace
Photography: Paul Grace

"I’m just trying to have as positive an impact I can in a world that’s so scary right now."

Jake Graf's films are sweeping the American festival circuit--his latest, Dusk, which follows the story of a trans man from childhood into an adult relationship, just picked up the Jury Award for Best Short at Miami's MiFo Festival. The short is also screening in Seattle, Boston, Tennessee, and other cities across the country. Graf was notably an OUT100 2016 honoree.

Starring Duncan James, Victoria Emslie and Elliott Sailors, Graf's Dusk is only 15 minutes in length and is the second in a filmic trilogy, following Dawn. Through a series of flashbacks on lead character Chris' lifetime, Dusk explores "how the choices we make can change our lives fundamentally."

OUT sat down with the filmmaker to talk about his latest film, the importance of bringing queer narratives to the screen and his ultimate career goals. Watch the Dusk trailer and read our interview with Graf, below.

OUT: How is Dusk different from your other films, which all focus on trans or queer experiences?

Jake Graf: All of them are important to me, and when I came out 8 years ago, there was no one making trans films at all, so when I'd go to film festivals, there was nothing for people like me. I was just leaving the lesbian scene, because I'd done that for 10-ish years. And then, when I transitioned, I wanted to see myself on-screen. So the first film I did, Brace, was about two gay trans guys. I think there are so many people who come to the end of their lives, and never had the chance to transition. We're really lucky. When I see these kids now--13 or 14--and starting their transition, I think, "Holy shit. You're so lucky." Had I been born 30 years before, I wouldn't have had the chance to transition and really be myself. There are so many people that end up like that, that aren't Caitlyn Jenner, suddenly at 65 years old doing her thing. And that's what I wanted to tell with Dusk.

What's the storyline of Dusk?

So basically you're following the same character from the age of two, and then the age of six, and they're having a hard time at school. Then they're 16, and getting a milkshake chucked in their face. Then they're in their thirties, and you think they're living a life having transitioned and living this happy perfect life. You see the girlfriend pregnant. It's the perfect woman and the perfect man. Then you're led to understand that that character is actually Elliott [Sailors]. And Elliott [Sailor's] storyline is really dark, and that's the truth. This trans man, through lack of information and lack of resources, has lived a life as a lesbian.

Dusk draws on personal experience--you've transitioned, and have been in a lesbian relationship. Are there other aspects of the story that come directly from your life?

All the young moments of the film--the milkshake--there are so many moments that we had to cut for time, and I'd love to make this into a feature to show all those. When I was a kid, I would use the boys' toilet, and was regularly dragged out by teachers, or would get bullied. If I went to the boys' toilet I would get bullied; if I went to the girls' toilet, I would get bullied. My mom let me have my hair short, but I was this little girl, with curly hair, that didn't look like a girl or boy. They used to call my "Hermaphrodyke," which I think is quite clever. All of us have these stories, though. It's nothing special.

How do you see your filmmaking fitting into today's cultural climate?

My trans friends, a lot of them know people who have taken their kids out of school, because they're trans and terrified. My queer LGBT friends are being bullied and beaten on the street. And obviously this same kind of thing happened over here when Brexit came in. There was a lot more racism and homophobia because all the racists felt they could rear their ugly heads. So in relation to the film--my US friends have always been very supportive. I think art--be that film, theater, writing, literature--saying that it's ok to be queer, or gay or trans--that has a trickle down effect into people's homes. That gets engrained. I'm just trying to have as positive an impact I can in a world that's so scary right now.

What are you most proud of so far as an artist?

The most recent film I did--Headspace--I did with a budget of about 300 pounds, or 1,200 dollars, and it's had millions of hits. It's been translated for me, not even at my request, into French, Italian, German, Spanish... I've had mothers messaging me saying, "My son just watched this six times in a row. This is who he feels he is now." I've had people who weren't even within the community, messaging me saying, "I didn't know what you guys go through." I've had older trans women message me saying they cried through the whole thing, seeing onscreen what they go through every day. There was a good two weeks where it was just constant. It's been hugely positive.

You act in a lot of the films you director. What's that like?

I cast myself in Brace because we really wanted trans actors playing trans roles. And it was really tough, 6 years ago, to find another trans actor for the other role, so we ended up casting a cisgender person. I love acting, and I'm really lucky to be appearing my second feature, this summer, not directed by me. But it's been more a convenience thing--over here, anyway, there just aren't that many trans actors.

What else are you currently working on, and what would like to embark on in the future?

I just wrote the eight-part web series, Spectrum--it's an ensemble cast of nine. We've got three trans people of color in it, a lesbian couple with children, we've got gangsters... Other than that I'm about to star in that feature and I'm working on writing my own first feature. Really, if I could do anything, I'd love to write and star in my own cool, dark Netflix drama. Something like The OA--like Brit Marling, who wrote and starred in that. That's the dream. To write whatever you want to write, and then go act in it.

Check out Headspace, below:

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