Monday, 14 May 2012

WHEN KATE MET ROBERT: SOUTHERN COMFORT, THE DOCUMENTARY

Note: I wrote this piece ten years ago for the Financial Times, having seen Southern Comfort at the Sheffield Festival, and then interviewed Kate Davis after the film played at the NFT. It aired that spring in the BBC's Storyville series. Seek it out; it's a brilliant documentary. I came across the article as I was going through some files, and thought, since May is supposedly Movie Month here at IT, I'd run it again here....
 
WHEN KATE MET ROBERT

It’s not what you have down there that determines your sexuality,”says Robert Eads. “It’s what’s here,” pointing to his heart, “and here,” to his head, “that determine who you are.” Kate Davis’ documentary Southern Comfort charts the last year in Eads remarkable life, but that wasn’t what she set out to do.

The director of the award-winning Girltalk, a study of runaway teenagers, had turned to producing for an American cable network. “I found more opportunity to give a voice to people who aren’t usually heard much,” she explains. But while working on a programme about the struggle for civil rights by people who’ve undergone sex change operations, Davis attended a conference of female to male transsexuals. Standing out from the crowd was Eads, a bearded, pipe-smoking man in cowboy hat and boots.

He broke all the stereotypes, so completely." she explains, "He was a prototype Georgia 'bubba'. But this redneck had been the mother of two children."

Born into a girl’s body, Robert always felt male. He’d tried marriage, but found childbirth “both the best and worst experience of my life.” The joy of life inside him was countered by his despair at feeling it was all wrong, because he was a man. He got divorced, lived for a time as a lesbian, but finally began hormone treatments and surgery to remove his breasts, transforming his body to match his mind.

When Davis met him, Eads, only 52, was dying of ovarian cancer; betrayed, as it were, by the part of his body that remained female. When he first noticed the symptoms, some two dozen doctors made their excuses and declined to treat him, avoiding the awkwardness of a man in their OBGYN surgeries. Eades' lack of bitterness made an deep impression.

I couldn't get him out of my mind," says Davis. "All the way back to New York, I was thinking 'I've got to make a film about Robert. This is such a bizarre story, I've got to tell it myself'.' When I got home and called him he said 'I thought you'd call'. Robert, knowing he was dying, wanted to reach out to as many people as he could."

But even as Davis began filming, the story began to change. Robert fell in love with Lola, a male-to-female transsexual. As their relationship blossomed, he became determined to stay alive long enough to attend Southern Comfort, Atlanta's annual transgender convention, one last time.

The film opens in spring, with a sense of emotional rebirth as Robert speaks of coming to terms with dying just as he finally found peace in life. As Robert shows Lola pictures of himself as a little girl, we see just how far he has come. Davis works with all the intimacy of a home movie, allowing the audience to become part of Robert's world. "Yes, you could say it's close to subjective camera work," she says. "It gets the audience into the people's heads, so you can't objectify them."

Documentaries often do objectify. Davis studied with the masters of fly-on-the-wall techniques: Frederick Wiseman, Ricky Leacock, and Ross McElwee. The unwritten law of such films was that the camera is a silent observer. Not so this time. "I found the camera disappeared." Davis says, "In a sense I crossed the line. It became totally a labour of love. Where it might have been shocking, there was just so much normality."

In fact, what is amazing is how quickly the audience accepts a new definition of normality. The film's saddest moment comes when Robert's father explains why he now tells friends Robert is his nephew. "I didn't want the neighbours realising this is something different," he says. At the same time, when one of Robert's own sons tells us, "If I were to remarry I'd want Mom to be the best man," it is uplifting, and it doesn't sound at all strange.

Using digital video enabled Davis to work unobtrusively, and to move quickly to emphasise emotional reactions that larger equipment, or crews, might miss. Having Robert's trust enabled her to gain quickly the trust of is surrogate family, a pair of younger transexual men, and their partners. These are people whose first instinct is to remain inconspicuous. They appear to have chosen backwoods Georgia specifically for the privacy it affords. And they had real fears.

"Some were scared they'd lose their jobs, if not their lives,” Davis says. “But they wanted to believe they could change people's hearts and minds.” She laughs. “Of course, no one liked the way they looked on film! But seriously, some have attended public screenings, and when they see audiences react positively, they've been amazed."

Southern Comfort won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Festival. Its UK premiere came at the 2001 Sheffield International Documentary Festival. I spoke to Davis after a February 2002 screening at the National Film Theatre, part of the Sheffield Festival's national tour. She too was overwhelmed by audience reaction.

"This was what he wanted. I think Robert would have approved," she says, and her eyes begin to fill. She still feels the loss. "I just couldn't break away," she tells me. "Usually after you finish a film you may stay in touch, but you re-establish your distance from your subjects. This was a real friendship. Frankly, it took me almost a year before I could begin editing. I miss him so." She stops again, distracting herself by rounding up her two children. "That year was necessary, because I was still caught up in the injustice of Robert's death. I needed distance to cool down, to see that the story was simpler, deeper than that. I'd actually interviewed two doctors for the film, but I cut them out. I didn't want an investigative report."

Instead, it is a moving portrait of one man's difficult struggle to simply be accepted as the man he wanted to be. Robert Eads brought dignity to the film himself. Kate Davis might finally bring him acceptance.

2 comments :

sam mace said...

Hi Michael,
I am a big fan of yours and wondering how to progress into Journalism. I am currently at college and shall be going to University later this year. Would there be any tips you would give to me to help me achieve me dream? If you wish to tell me, my email is sam.mace@hotmail.co.uk

Yours sincerely

Sam Mace

Anonymous said...

Wonderful, moving film. Thank you.