Ocean film fest to feature trans bodysurfer

  • by Marijke Rowland
  • Wednesday April 5, 2023
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Southern California bodysurfer Tyler Wilde is the subject of "Gender Outlaw: A Bodysurfing Story" that will screen at the International Ocean Film Festival. Photo: Peter Williams/Cross Step Content
Southern California bodysurfer Tyler Wilde is the subject of "Gender Outlaw: A Bodysurfing Story" that will screen at the International Ocean Film Festival. Photo: Peter Williams/Cross Step Content

When two people met in the water near the Manhattan Beach Pier, their shared love of surfing overcame their outward differences and became the basis for a new short documentary about the sport and trans joy.

"Gender Outlaw: A Bodysurfing Story," the result of two men's chance meeting on the waves more than two years ago, will be screened Friday, April 14, at the 20th annual International Ocean Film Festival in San Francisco. The showing will be the Bay Area premiere for the 16-minute documentary about Southern California bodysurfer Tyler Wilde.

Wilde, a 38-year-old transgender man who identifies as queer and nonbinary, was bodysurfing when he met commercial filmmaker Peter Williams in the ocean. The 42-year-old straight cisgender male director said he was impressed by how "stoked" Wilde was about the sport, and life in general.

"The common denominator for us was our passion for the ocean, passion for sports and passion for surfing," Williams said in a recent phone interview. "In the end (the film) is less about gender identity and more about catching waves and being around people who appreciate and are driven by similar things."

The short documentary introduces Wilde, a member of the Gillis Beach Bodysurfing Association and a physical education teacher of middle and high school students in the Los Angeles area for the past dozen years. The film features plenty of footage of Wilde bodysurfing, a style of surfing done wearing only flippers and without any kind of assistance from a board.

But Wilde said the project is also an important example of trans joy, and the need for the full spectrum of trans and LGBTQ experiences to be shown in the media. With the continued onslaught of anti-trans legislation being passed across the country, Wilde said the focus is too often on the troubles and traumas trans people face, and not their lives as a whole.

"I open my social media and ... all I see are all these bills about our health care and livelihoods and attacks and stories of trans people being murdered," he said, referring to anti-trans laws banning gender-affirming care and other services. "You lose hope. You can't envision a future that doesn't include violence or not getting your basic needs met. And that's no way to live. No one can live in survival or trauma mode. It's hard to envision a life without that."

Wilde, who spoke with the B.A.R. over the phone while on spring break in the Tahoe area, said he was grateful to Williams for allowing him to be an active part of the creative process, and to help evolve the story beyond the original vision for the film.

"(Williams) had this vision of a phoenix rising from the ashes. Like you go through all this trauma and strife, but look at what you've overcome. I hate that trope," Wilde said. "It's not just about fighting to survive and thrive. It's not just about the resistance. I wanted to focus on trans joy and make a feel-good movie for trans people and for everyone."

The documentary shows Wilde with his girlfriend, Marit, as well as with the largely 60-and-70-something straight white cis male members of the Gillis Beach Bodysurfing Association. Founded in 1964, the group has welcomed Wilde into the club, and he now considers them part of his chosen family.

"We are the oldest body surfing group on Earth, founded in 1964. We're a great group of friends, we really care about one another, we stand by one another," said association member John Shearer in the film. "To us, Tyler is just part of our community."

Shot last year in Southern California, the project was originally planned as an Instagram Reels short, but then one day of filming became nine and Williams said he realized there was a bigger story to tell.

First released last spring, the short film has been selected for about 20 film festivals and has already taken home the 2023 Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Award for its upcoming International Ocean Film Festival appearance. It also won best short documentary at the Berlin Indie Film Festival and was named second overall at the Incluvie short film festival.

Wilde and Williams have used the film to raise money for the TransLatin@ Coalition, a nonprofit organization in Los Angeles that supports transgender, gender-nonconforming, and intersex immigrants. Williams said he was able to send a check for $5,000 to the organization, and they continue to fundraise for the group through the film.

Bamby Salcedo, a trans woman and chief executive officer of the coalition, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Wilde and Williams will both be at the San Francisco screening and take part in a filmmaker Q&A that evening.

"I really wanted it to be clear (through the film) that trans people just want to be happy like everyone else," Wilde said. "Here is one person who was able to find community in probably an unlikely place. And, yes, I've overcome things. But it's really just about a trans person living their life."

"Gender Outlaw: A Bodysurfing Story" will screen April 14 at 7 p.m. at the Cowell Theater at the Fort Mason Center in San Francisco for the International Ocean Film Festival. For more information visit the website.

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