Canadian filmmaker Gwen Haworth’s documentary She’s a Boy I Knew makes its Nordic debut at the Reykjavík International Film Festival and leaves a big impression on audiences.
Reviewed by Jonas Moody.
Lifelong vaginal dilation and breasts made from birdseed: we all have issues we’ve had to deal with in our lives; these are Gwen Haworth’s issues. I know this because I’ve seen her film, She’s a Boy I Knew, a deeply intimate portrait of a male-to-female transsexual woman.
I’ve seen docs that follow sexual transformation and I’ve seen feature films that tell the story of transsexual people (like amazing film Transamerica from 2005 featuring Desperate Housewife Felicity Huffman’s brilliant portrayal of a transsexual woman). But this film is something entirely different.
Not only is Canadian Gwen Haworth the filmmaker but also the subject of the documentary. This is by no means an objective look at the position of transsexuals in western society, but rather the very real and human story of one person’s experience of gender transition.
The film is mainly comprised of old home movies from Gwen’s childhood, interviews with members of her immediate family and her ex-wife, as well as frequent narration over quirky animation, keeping the audience in touch with the filmmaker’s viewpoints and emotional state as the film progresses.
The interviews with family members are remarkably forthright and by no means do they paint a rosy picture of the filmmaker’s experience. The various interviewees, including Haworth’s ex-wife, detail the frustration, anger and disappointment of dealing with the transition, as well how each individual has had to realize a new relationship with the filmmaker, especially Haworth’s parents and older sister.
Adding to the complexity of this story is the ongoing relationship between Haworth with her ex-wife, whom she married while still publically identifying as a male. The wife’s dedication to Haworth not as her husband but simply as a person, even after Haworth reveals her intentions to identify as a woman and begins her transition, is nothing short of astounding. In fact, each one of the family and friends profiled in the film presents a strong character and certain degree of mettle well worth examination.
Finally, it’s the intimacy the filmmaker allows herself that inevitably draws the viewer in. The candor with which she speaks about her fear about revealing her plans, the betrayal she fears she will incite, her insecurities as she begins her life as a woman (with a face FULL of makeup and hard-as-rock breasts made from birdseed, as one friend recounts), as well as rather candid images of her body in transition, including electrolysis, hormone treatment, new breasts, facial surgeries, and finally, her vaginoplasty.
Couched in the narrator’s plainspoken voice delivered with humility and humor, this unwieldy story becomes approachable, listenable and even relatable. She’s a Boy I Knew is certainly one of the Reykjavík International Film Festival’s highlights. See the RIFF website for screenings in Iceland or check out the film’s website for screenings abroad.