If Kimberly Reed took a not particularly unique path into filmmaking, she certainly took an interesting road out of it. A native of Helena, Montana, she came to U.C. Berkeley in the late ’80s, discovered film and went on to earn a master’s degree at S.F. State while working in the seminars department at Film Arts Foundation. After transitioning from male to female, the challenge of adjusting to a new identity impelled her to trade her location (San Francisco for New York) and career (digital editing for magazine publishing). Call it necessity, call it a detour, but it’s in the rear-view mirror now. She makes a triumphant return to both filmmaking and the Bay Area with her first-person documentary Prodigal Sons, a raw and altogether remarkable debut that opens this month around the country.
Prodigal Sons filters the present through the past, and vice versa, in a gutsy attempt to stare down old hobbyhorses and forge healthy relationships. The main bugaboo is Kim’s adopted older brother Marc, who still resents that his status as the original prodigal son was usurped by Kim’s (nee Paul) emergence as a two-sport athlete. Marc’s issues are compounded by a brain injury he suffered in a car accident in his early 20s, and he gets very mean if he doesn’t take his meds. His behavior comes to overshadow a host of other developments, leading off with Kim’s return to Helena for her 20th high school reunion.
“It was very important to me as someone who’s trans that that story be told, but also that the issue of being trans recedes and even disappears,” Reed declares on the phone from New York. “I ended up thinking about Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? It’s all about this one issue and everyone’s freaking out about this issue. We can’t talk about anything else. I wanted to make a film where you could talk about someone’s trans identity as being one aspect of who they are but not the entirety of who they are.”
Prodigal Sons, which premiered locally last summer in the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival, garnered a standing ovation for the filmmaker and her family. LGBT moviegoers certainly find the film brave and empowering, though Kim depicts herself not only as tough and vulnerable, but conflicted and ambivalent. For example, she challenges Marc’s need to show childhood (pre-transition) photos to strangers–in Croatia, after he discovers that his birth mother was Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth’s daughter and Welles’ longtime partner Oja Kadar invites him to visit–yet includes the pictures herself at various points in the movie.
“There’s this irony kinda built into the film,” Reed allows. “The film is about me being comfortable with those images; in fact, it’s about everyone being comfortable with images of everybody else and identity. I think it’s a historical record of me getting more comfortable with that, which happened during the making of the film. In Croatia, I was really bent out of shape. Later on, I realized I shouldn’t be bent out of shape. Marc was right: The truth is the truth and I had to make peace with it. I really appreciate that in storytelling, where the author lets the audience get a couple steps ahead, not only of the characters, but the story itself. And another really important thing it does is question my character.”
First-person documentaries have a special hurdle, or opportunity, in that the main character is directly addressing the audience. Questions of self-awareness and reliability seem unavoidable to me, although plenty of filmmakers choose to pretend they don’t exist. Reed intentionally shaped her narration, in conjunction with the images, to encourage viewers to, as she puts it, “interrogate” or disagree with her along the way.
“It’s easy to come up with the idea of a first-person narrator,” Reed says. “I think it’s actually quite difficult to make it work. Restraint is maybe the most important factor. Most first-person voice-overs talk too much. Voice-over can be a crutch. It compensates for a lack of storytelling elsewhere in the film. And then you make that voice-over a first-person VO, and you make the high wire even higher and the fall more perilous.”
Back in the day in San Francisco, before Multimedia Gulch and trendy South Park, Reed was in the forefront of the new wave of digital editing. As she recalls, “I got caught up in that nutty, nutty idea that you could edit a film on your computer.” Among its many strengths, Prodigal Sons is a marvel of smart, complementary editing.
“One of the best notes I got, from one of our co-production partners, the BBC, said, ‘You’re a very warm, personable, entertaining, delightful person and that’s not coming through in the narration and structure of the film. Go do that.’ That was the note that made me want to tackle this whole first-person narration. I took a lot of convincing that that was the right way to go. I think you should push third-person v‚rit‚ storytelling as far as you can go and then, when the film is articulating itself, bring the first-person point of view into play to say things that can’t be said any other way.“
Instead of, or in addition to, using other films as a model, Reed turned to her bookshelf. Structure, though, represented only one part of her research.
“For me it was important to study novels that use a first-person voice-over as a strategy. We had this big, wild story with this kind of epic scope, we’re traveling all over the world and we’re spanning generations and we had a lot of ground to cover. A first-person point of view can really help with that. You can set up the background better. But I think the most important issue is the viewer is placed in the point of view of someone they haven’t considered before. If they considered it, they’ve never seen the world through those eyes. If you can make them forget that they’re seeing the world through those eyes, it’s a really good way to create understanding, even sympathy and compassion, for that person. Novels do that all the time.”
My emphasis here on filmmaking approaches and techniques risks overshadowing the film’s head-on impact on individuals
“We’ve been at film festivals for the last year and a half,” Reed relates. “Sometimes it’s a big house and a standing ovation, [or] a big storm in Wichita and a small crowd. But to see how the film connects with individuals, how you can beat that? I was on this TV show [“Oprah”] that everyone seems to be talking about, and there’s been this flood of email. It’s great to get that flood but it’s great to get the one that says, ‘You’ve made life easier to live.’”
*Prodigal Sons* opens Friday, March 5 at the Lumiere in San Francisco and the Shattuck in Berkeley. Kimberly Reed will be at the Lumiere Friday, March 5, and Saturday, March 6, after the 7 and 9:45 p.m. shows, and at the Shattuck Sunday, March 7, after the 5:25 p.m. show, followed by a casual meet-and-greet at the adjacent Lot 68 Lounge.
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