Sometimes, the best way to make a documentary is to pick a subject you know nothing about and take the viewer along for the ride while you learn. That was the approach Shelby Fuller Elwood adopted for her film Trans*Cend
, which explores the lives of transgender and nonbinary people in Memphis. “I foolishly approached this as a short doc. I didn’t get very far in before I realized, there’s way more here than I can tell in 21 minutes.”
Elwood began by enlisting a friend who curated story sharing events in the Memphis area. “I wanted to work with Elaine Blanchard. She said a transgenered woman, Victoria, had asked her to do a story circle in Memphis…I started filming not knowing what the story was. I am a cisgender woman of a certain age. I wasn’t even a tomboy when I was a kid. What do I know about being transgender? My takeaway after week two was, we’re more alike than we’re different. That resonated through all of the stories, all of the pain. Everyone had a shared trajectory. There were thirteen different stories in the group, but I saw the pattern.”
But the road to Trans*Cend
was not without bumps. The Memphis native was communitng to her new home in Arizona while filming. “I had two camera crews refuse to work with me when they found out the topic,” she says. “I felt like the topic was so radioactive that I couldn’t get a crew in Memphis. That’s why I took it to Phoenix to edit.”
Elwood says making the film took on a new urgency after last November’s election, and she rushed to finish it before Indie Memphis. It was a deep learning experience for her that she hopes translates into learning for the audience. “I grew up in the bible belt, and it was an easy excuse to say, ‘they’re doing this for attention. No. All of these people have known since they were preschoolers that they were different. I see this as a civil rights issue, a human rights issue. All the people in the group were asking for is the right to be. This can strike a chord with cisgender audiences who have never thought about it. I admit, I’m guilty. I had never thought about it before, but now I can’t quit thinking about it.”
Trans*Cend screens at 11:20 AM on Sunday, November 5 at Studio On The Square. For tickets and more information, go to the Indie Memphis website.