SF Trans Film Fest Unveils Largest Program Ever

  • by Sari Staver
  • Saturday October 29, 2016
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Actress and executive producer Laverne Cox, left, interviews prisoner CeCe McDonald in a scene from 'Free CeCe!,' which opens the San Francisco Transgender Film Festival
Actress and executive producer Laverne Cox, left, interviews prisoner CeCe McDonald in a scene from 'Free CeCe!,' which opens the San Francisco Transgender Film Festival

In its largest program ever, the 2016 San Francisco Transgender Film Festival includes two groundbreaking feature-length films: "Free CeCe!," a documentary about a transgender woman who was imprisoned after defending herself during a brutal street attack, and "Nakom," a narrative film shot in Ghana by San Francisco native T.W. Pittman.

The 15th annual festival, held at the Roxie Theatre November 10-13, also includes 38 short films, several featuring well-known local filmmakers and actors. Question and answer sessions with filmmakers and stars will follow many of the screenings.

The world's first and longest-running transgender film festival, SFTFF also includes its first-ever program subtitled for the hearing impaired, with ASL interpretation before and after the shorts screenings Friday, November 11.

The festival includes everything from "inspiring documentaries to jaw-dropping animation, from gender-busting music videos to hard-hitting short films," artistic director Shawna Virago said in a news release.

Kicking off the festival Thursday, November 10 will be the documentary "Free CeCe!," directed by Jac Gares, a New York City filmmaker. The film tells the story of Chrishaun Reed "CeCe" McDonald, who was viciously attacked on her way to the store with a group of friends in 2011. In defending her own life, a man was killed and, after a coercive interrogation, McDonald was incarcerated in a men's prison in Minnesota, said Gares in a telephone interview. McDonald accepted a plea bargain of 41 months for manslaughter but was released after 19 months following a media campaign by activists. Among McDonald's most vocal supporters was transgender actress Laverne Cox, star of the Netflix series "Orange is the New Black."

Gares, who produced the PBS television series "In the Life" for many years, asked Cox to collaborate on a documentary about the case, with Cox as executive producer.

Gares raised $300,000 to fund the project, which is now on the film festival circuit. Gares said she is negotiating with a film distribution company and plans to move on to her next project, a film about the abolition of prisons.

On Wednesday, November 9, the evening before "Free CeCe!" is screened, McDonald will be speaking as part of the Black Excellence Tour sponsored by the San Francisco LGBT Community Center's Trans Employment Program.

The film festival's closing night film is a narrative-documentary hybrid, "Nakom," the story of Iddrisu, a medical student who returns to his home village in northern Ghana after the sudden death of his father and must deal with family obligations in the farming village. Directed by San Francisco native T.W. (Trav) Pittman, the film was inspired by the years Pittman spent in the Peace Corps in Africa, she said.

Pittman, an African-American transwoman, said in an interview that the film's premier at the 2016 Berlinale festival marked two historic firsts - the first fiction feature from Ghana ever to play the world-famous festival, and the first fiction feature directed by a transgender woman ever to play there. The film was co-directed by Pittman's longtime collaborator Kelly Daniela Norris; the two made a film in Cuba in 2013, "Sombras de Azul."

The shorts programs include two films featuring well-known members of the local transgender community.

One of them, "Mezzo," stars San Franciscan Breanna Sinclaire, an African-American opera singer and the first out transgender woman to graduate from a major conservatory. The film is directed by San Francisco filmmaker Nicole Opper and traces Sinclaire's earliest memories of self-discovery.

Opper, who also teaches film at San Francisco State, directed and produced the Emmy Award-nominated feature documentary "Off and Running" and the feature documentary "Búscame: Search for Me," which is supported by a Fulbright Fellowship. Opper, who identifies as genderqueer, recently signed a contract with ITVS to produce a web series about adoption through the foster care system, which will be distributed next year.

Another short, "Dear Abigail," about the struggles of transgender women, features Clair Farley, a trans advocate, actress, and writer who is the director of economic development at the San Francisco LGBT Community Center. Farley has starred in a number of award-winning films, including "My Life with Mode Media," "Red Without Blue," and "American Transgender."

Other Shorts

Other short films of note include "El Camino," directed by Alexander L. Lee, which tells a story of 16-year-old Jorge, whose father dies while serving time in a California prison. Jorge and his mother must race across the state to claim the father's body before prison authorities cremate the remains against their wishes.

Eden's "Garden" is the first episode of a web series dramady starring an all-transgender male cast. The series, directed by Seven King, deals with issues affecting transgender people, including dating, HIV awareness, and transphobia.

"Ryans" is a romantic comedy about a trans woman who goes on a blind date with a man who had the same name as her ex. The film was directed by Rain Valdez and Natalie Heltzel.

Virago said the festival has a budget of $65,000, which comes from a variety of grants as well as donors and box office receipts. Virago said that when the festival began in 1997, "there was absolutely no funding available for transgender arts events," a situation that has improved over the years.

"For years, we've had to survive and thrive on our transgender smarts, sweat, and love from the community," she said.

While the festival doesn't provide fees to filmmakers to screen their work, they also do not charge a submission fee and, beginning last year, were able to provide hotel rooms for a number of out of town directors. The festival provides blocks of complimentary tickets to community groups, Virago added.

The festival "provides a powerful counternarrative to the increasingly assimilationist world of transgender reality stars and celebrities," she said. "Come see transpeople telling our own stories. Come see trans characters played by trans actors. We are the little festival that keeps going."

Tickets for the festival are on a sliding scale from $12 to $15 but no one will be turned away for lack of funds. Passes for the entire festival are available for $65 on the festival website, www.sftff.org. The Roxie Theatre is located at 3125 16th Street.

Tickets for McDonald's November 9 talk at Faithful Fools, 234 Hyde Street, are available at https://bxtsf.eventbrite.com; sliding scale, no one turned away. On November 15, McDonald will be speaking in Berkeley, following a screening of her film. For more information, visit https://www.eventbrite.com/e/free-cece-documentary-and-qa-w-cece-and-filmmaker-tickets-28737179678?aff=es2