‘Girls Lost’ — Swedish director Alexandra-Therese Keining explores transgenderism in this affecting, gender-bender flick from the acclaimed novel ‘Pojkarna’Online Only, Section 4A, Entertainment News, Bottom Highlights Monday, December 12th, 2016
Gender-bending as a cinematic device offers a fertile pasture upon which to graze. Many successful films over the years have explored the idea that we inherently embody both male and female identifies. To what extent they manifest themselves in our actual lives is really the luck of a DNA crap shoot. But it presents both the creative team that creates these theatrical constructs and the public that watches them an opportunity to explore the inherent duality in all of us, with all the usual emotional suspects: grief, sadness, frustration, anger and joy, to name but a few.
While it’s easy to go back just a few years and pluck a few titles out, you’d have to go back much further, actually, to see exactly how not unusual it really is. If you want to see just how striking the gender bender motif is, check out Joseph Von Sternberg’s der blaue Engel (“The Blue Angel,” 1930) where Marlene Dietrich appears in her trademark drag look.
But while drag represents a more mainstream understanding of the dual role in human sexuality, transgenderism, despite the mostly positive media spotlight under which it operates today, has a long and not surprisingly sordid history in TV and film. Drag is funny because an audience can comfort itself knowing the conceit is used to obtain some greater good. Films like Tootsie (1982), Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), Some Like It Hot (1959) and The Bird Cage (1996) were innocuous enough and often employed cross dressing as a non-threatening means to further the plot.
Transgenderism, on the other hand, was and still is frequently at the center of the plot and, as is so typical from the conservative levers of Hollywood, depicted as an oddity that often warranted death or ascribed to some of film’s most despicable characters. Boys Don’t Cry (1996), Silence of The Lambs (1993), Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and the truly awful Dressed To Kill (1980) are memorable because they reinforce rather than challenge transgenderism in all of its complexities.
Alexandra-Therese Keining’s Girls Lost, adapted from award-winning Swedish novel Pojkarna by Jessica Schiefuerm, offers her viewers a chance to glimpse the conversation today and how transgenderism is, arguably, the ultimate expression of human duality. Three adolescent girls – Kim, Momo and Bella – suffer daily taunts at school by the cool kids. One day, a box of seeds arrives for Bella and contains a mysterious seed of unknown origin. The young girls plant it and decide, after a remarkable growth spurt overnight, to add some of the plant’s sap into their tea. Before they know it, they have all been transmogrified into three young men. The reactions they face at school change (they are no longer picked on) but Kim discovers something about herself that her friends do not; she is happier inside the body of her male doppelganger.
We had a chance, albeit briefly, to speak with director Keining to probe where and how she felt a story of this complexity could help shape the ongoing conversation we are having about transgender people and, hopefully, disabuse those of us who still view transgenderism as something to legislate against rather than openly encourage and support.
San Diego LGBT Weekly: What drew you to the source material and how did you go about/decide which elements of the book you wanted to highlight?
Alexandra-Therese Keining: I wanted to examine the limits of self and the body, and in the portrayal of Kim show that the phenomena of identity and gender is in perpetual motion, something that is constantly changing and is negotiable.
The young actors are terrific. As a director, how did you work with them to convey that sense of dichotomy, a dichotomy I’ll add – masculine/feminine impulses that reside in each of us – that were significant for Kim but less so for Momo and Bella.
The plant itself and the sap was very helpful for the actors portraying Kim. The masculinity is like a drug that Kim can’t get enough of and the masculinity becomes addictive.
Many critics argued that after the girls experienced their first night as boys, they returned to school as confident beings. But I didn’t get that sense for Bella. How would you explain her role?
What I’ve discovered is that people have very different opinions about each character, depending on one’s own personal story. I love that! I’m not a person or a filmmaker who likes to generalize. It’s very boring and don’t see the point of labeling.
Adults are depicted as paralyzed by outside forces, weak and ineffectual. I’m guessing that was part of the author’s vision but, if so, did you agree with that vision? Are adults truly clueless when it comes to their children’s sexuality?
In this particular story – yes. There’s no adult support or understanding for Kim. Most people, especially young women, seem to have had an experience like the gym teacher in some shape or form – parental or from another adult.
The picture relies on magic to transport our main characters outside of themselves. Is it possible that sends the wrong message to teenagers struggling with their identity? For many, it’s quite real and they can’t rely on plants to instantly correct their imbalances.
I didn’t want to make a film that’s politically correct. As in most stories about the search for identity, both personal and sexual, you need to ask questions and I used magic as an element to enter that state. Some people see this story as a process of transitioning, some people don’t. I meet many transgender teenagers who are really moved by the film. They say, “You really nailed the feeling.” Others become very curious and ask “Where can I buy this [magical, gender-changing] plant?”
What have been your own personal experiences with transgenderism?
This story is ultimately about the right to explore one’s own identity and true self. I have had plenty of experience of that personal journey.
Why did you make this film?
I wanted to portray gender and identity as a fluid notion, not an absolute, and explore ideas about gender influences. How we move through the world and how we are treated by others.
Girls Lost will be released Dec. 13 from Wolfe Video. For more information, visit http://wolfeondemand.com/productions/details/1998/Girls-Lost.
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