When sisters Krystal and Jodie came out to each other as trans women, the 40-somethings were terrified that the other would reject them and they would lose the only family they had.
Living together in close quarters in a trailer park, they had been squirreling away their female clothing, having hidden their true identities from each other all of their adult lives. To finally be open with one another was not only a huge relief, but also an incredible shock, discovering that they were both on the same pathway.
It’s an incredible story—the sort that would never be bought if it were sold as fiction—but it’s not played for high drama in this beautifully understated documentary The Pearl. Screening as part of this year’s Queer Screen Mardi Gras Film Festival, co-directors Jessica Dimmock and Christopher LaMarca have captured the lives of these sisters and two additional trans women - Nina and Amy - at the start of their journey in the less-than-forgiving surrounds of America’s blue-collar, north-western states.
While audiences will, most likely, see their stories as remarkable, the doco studiously presents the everyday lives of these certainly impressive women almost to the point of mundanity. Shot in vérité style over the course of several years, stripped of talking heads or narration, it’s a fascinating insight into the realities of transitioning.
And yet, it is full of soaring moments of personal triumph and quietly heartbreaking adversity. When we first meet 67-year-old Nina, she is changing into female clothing in the backseat of a car, hiding in the dark. Married for almost 40 years, her wife and children have no idea. “I’m always Nina, just not everybody sees it all the time.”
Amy, 72, opens her rather cluttered home to become a refuge for trans women, after finding the place somewhat empty following the death of her wife—an event that sped her own transition. Acknowledging that she has the room to help others find their place in the world, Amy begins to doubt the helpfulness of her charity when the various souls she has sheltered seem unable or unwilling to move on.
Returning from a long-hoped for trip to Thailand for gender reassignment surgery, Amy’s horrified to discover the botched DIY of the young women she left behind. “Deconstruct your masculinity,” she rails on them, but surely this documentary is proof that strict gender notions aren’t always helpful?
Only briefly together, in Washington at the Esprit Conference for trans women, the joy experienced by the quartet is palpable as they explore fashion choices openly, including trying on a wedding dress, though minus the attendant husband-to-be, take vocal classes and simply share stories without fear of recrimination. When they each go their separate ways - with even sisters Jodie and Krystal approaching their new circumstances in distinctly different ways - there’s an unavoidable melancholy at the realities each will have to face. There’s also a great deal of hope that shimmers in the coral glow of The Pearl.
In truth, by including pent up frustrations over housekeeping chores and meal making, Dimmock and LaMarca allow us to understand their subjects as relatable human beings, and the common goal of all four women to be accepted just as they are, not as activists, eccentricities or inspirational heroes.
The Pearl plays at the Queer Screen Mardi Gras Film Festival on Saturday 18 Feb (Sydney CBD) at 1pm. The Queer Screen Mardi Gras Film Festival runs from February 15 to March 2. For more information, tickets, and the full line up of films, you can check out their site here.
SBS will be streaming the 2017 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade live on Saturday, March 4 on SBS On Demand, and will then air our Mardi Gras special event - with commentary from our hosts, behind-the-scenes action and exclusive interviews - on Sunday March 5. In the meantime, you can keep up with all our Mardi Gras content here.