Thursday, November 13, 2008

A truly "trans"-formational flick

Having just seen P.J. Raval and Jay Hodges’s documentary “Trinidad,” I have to say: “Wow!” This doc did as perfect a job as I’ve seen of balancing the stories of transgendered people with those of their families and communities—and I’ve seen a lot of film-fest fare about the tricky lives of those who feel to the bottom of their souls that they were born into the wrong gender.

It helps, of course, that the filmmakers had a petri dish of fascinating conflict in the town of Trinidad, Colorado—population 9,000, and unofficially known as “the sex change capitol of America.” This once uber-macho mining and ranching center has become, over the last four decades, a scenic getaway where transsexuals can quietly have their life-changing surgeries. The late Dr. Stanley Biber, a sympathetic surgeon, helped turn Trinidad into a gender-bending mecca with his pioneering 1960s work in the field of the “penile-scrotal flap” technique. (And, yes, the filmmakers include some textbook photos of gender reassignment that are, um, intimate but non-sensationalistic). In one of the movie’s strangest revelations, Dr. Biber reveals that his first trans-operation was in a Catholic hospital—and that it occurred with the permission of the Vatican, which deemed as a condition that the doctor “do no harm” to the patient.

“Trinidad” dispenses with the “please tolerate me” platitudes and focuses on the nitty-gritty details of men who’ve had gender-reassignment surgery to become women. The film’s subjects include Dr. Marci Bowers, a former male OB-GYN from Seattle who resettled to Trinidad to become a female surgeon for transsexuals; and Dr. Laura Ellis, a post-op male-to-female who moved to the town and became a family physician for the general population. Watching her gently encourage a life-long Trinidadian to stop his smoking habit is priceless.

You better believe the children and grandchildren of Trinidad’s founders are not happy about their burg’s reputation. Snarled comments like “Disgusting!” and “That’s not how God made men and women!” appear early on in the movie. But “Trinidad” accomplishes a humane and endlessly watchable feat: It allows the old Trinidad blood—car mechanics, beauty and dress shop owners, firemen, mailmen—to slowly work their way toward their own versions of compassion. “I don’t get it,” said a woman, “but we all bleed the same blood.” “I was standing behind one, and I thought she was real, and she was pretty hot,” said a man gallantly.

The beauty of this doc is that there are no easy solutions and every emotion is messy and universal. Just as the townspeople intentionally and unintentionally cause pain for their transgendered neighbors, so do the gender-reassigned face the pain their decisions have brought to spouses and children. Sympathetic but unsentimental, “Trinidad” explores a most unusual small town in America that is “frontier” in every sense of the word. If you missed it Thursday night, it’s being rescreened Saturday at 11:30am at the Four Day Weekend Theater.--Jimmy Fowler

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