Judge Brett Cullum feels that men should be able to express their gender with something beyond warpaint and crude drums.
When people ask me if I'm a boy or a girl? I say "yes."
Monika Treut is a radical feminist who accidentally fell into making films about gender and the war of the sexes. She's German, she's fascinated with hyenas, and her documentary movie Gendernauts is a loving valentine to the transgender community. The full proper title of the film in German is Gendernauts—Eine Reise durch die Geschlechter which translates to "Gendernauts—a Journey Through Shifting." Most of the subjects featured in depth are female-to-male transsexuals, long ignored by a mainstream pop culture more fascinated with men who want to become women. I believe the female-to-male figures appeal more to Monika, who is fascinated with the effects of testosterone on estrogen laden bodies rather than the reverse. It's important to note that female hyenas also have testosterone in amazing amounts, so this fascination nicely ties in to her obsession with the animal kingdom.
Gendernauts is a fascinating journey through San Francisco's gender bender community on its own terms. No interviews with shrinks, family members, or anyone who is not transgender or supportive appear in the film. The footage was all shot in the late '90s. A spirit of journey and discovery permeates the film, typical of the era as the millennium approached. Gender is seen from two viewpoints: as a theatrical presence and as a biological reality. The two ideas sometimes clash, because it seems most of the participants are obsessed with the biological ramifications of having or not having a penis. Gendernauts is obsessed with the male member, though mostly through a pervasive group case of envy. But gender extends much further than one's sexual organs or desires. Gender is about the way you think, the way you relate to the world, the way people see you; the "Gendernauts" featured in the film are quick to take umbrage with those stereotypes. You could almost rename the movie "Gender-Nots," because these people seek to obliterate (or at least blur) the line between masculine and feminine.
As I watched the film I found myself strangely attracted to some of the participants. It wasn't very disturbing, because I have transgender friends who are beautiful in ways outside their chosen genders. For some viewers, Gendernauts will be a revelatory experience, a strange journey out in to the wild frontier of gender. It's an important trip because many people don't understand the transgender community. Often they get lumped with gay, lesbian, and bisexual groups which doesn't quite mesh with them. Gendernauts allows its subjects to speak plainly about these issues without ever contradicting them. Monika Treut as a documentarian is a silent filmmaker, unlike Michael Moore. We feel the movie belongs more to the subjects than to the opinions of the director.
Gendernauts is oddly sexy. The women turning into men in San Francisco look amazing, and it's something you don't see every day. Probably the closest mainstream depiction of this kind of androgyny was when Nastassja Kinski appeared in Cat People with a boyish haircut. Yet the film's greatest strength is also it's weakness. By honing in on these primarily female to male denizens of San Francisco, the movie limits its own definition of gender pioneers. Geographically and in terms of gender it's a bit stilted. If you check out Transgenration you'll see a more balanced cross-section of transgenders.
The movie is extremely clear, and the transfer is crisp. There are some moments when grain crops up, but it is minor. Stereo sound delivers dialogue without any distortion. There are two interviews with Monika Treut as extras, but one is in English and the other German. Unless you're fluent there's no hope to understand it, as the interview has no subtitles. The DVD is a little bare bones, but the feature itself is so talky I can't imagine commentary or further interviews. The movie stands alone nicely without much support.
This is a brave documentary, and if you're open-minded enough it should open your eyes to new possibilities in gender issues and expression. There's nothing quite like the experience of Gendernauts; you will walk away from with more questions than answers. It provides contradictions, strange visuals, and uncomfortable moments when you'll question decisions made about identity. You'll either find yourself strangely attracted or completely repulsed, but it will affect you. That's all any film can hope for.
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