Meet Raci. She's a freshman, class of 2008, at the California State University Los Angeles. She's come all the way from the Philippines for her education, and this is the first time she's spent away from her mother. Unable to afford anything better, she's living in a one room apartment with her aunt. Her funding hinges entirely on an academic-based scholarship, which requires a minimum 3.5 GPA. She is deaf, getting by with a hearing aid and, sometimes, the assistance of a captionist who types on a laptop what is being said to her (she does not know sign language). And she's living in fear that her big secret will be revealed to her classmates: Raci is a transsexual.
And you thought you had it rough.
Raci's is just one of four stories expertly interwoven in "TransGeneration," a documentary series co-produced by Logo and the Sundance Channel. The eight-part series is highly ambitious, following four transgender college students through an entire school year. The amount of access into these young people's lives is quite extraordinary, with a level of candor that leads to some of the most fascinating, touching, simply perfect few hours of television I've ever witnessed.
There's a bit of luck in finding four students that are this bright, this articulate, with such great stories to tell, different in so many ways but also similar enough to provide connecting links that create a grand picture from these four separate tales. Of course, director Jeremy Simmons and editors Inbal B. Lessner and Skylar Smith know how to manipulate the footage to find parallels both big and small within the stories being told (and they do it so seamlessly), but without such immensely engaging subjects to follow, such documentary expertise would be meaningless. (Lessner and Skylar, I learn from IMDB, are reality TV veterans, and perhaps this could be one good thing to actually come from this otherwise miserable genre: professional editors who know how to tackle so much footage, finding just the right personal moments amidst all the chaos, coming out with a tightly-told collection of stories.)
Alongside Raci, we meet: Gabbie, male to female ("M to F," in transgender shorthand), a University of Colorado sophomore and self-proclaimed nerd who might be a bit too immature to know exactly what she's getting herself into; Lucas, F to M, a senior at the all-women Smith College who has grown weary of three years of intense GLBT activism; and T.J., F to M, a Michigan State University grad student struggling with a mother who still refuses to accept his new identity.
All the stories here are so involving that they could easily stand out on their own. Together, they grow in power, with themes overlapping and intersecting in all the right ways. And while the transgender life is the clear center here, by our coming to know these people so personally, sexual identity does not become the sole reason keeping us watching. So much happens in a year, especially in the world of a college student trying to find his/her way in the world, that this becomes a most compelling human drama - try your best not to hold your breath in glorious worry when the year ends and Raci must check her grades to see if her scholarship will remain. And see if you can hold back the tears as Lucas has a long, emotional meeting with his father; sure, the topic is gender identity, but change a few words around, and this could be any father and son working out personal issues at a time in their lives when both need each other more than they know.
As mentioned before, the filmmakers find clever ways to compare and contrast the stories. In lesser hands, these parallels would seem contrived, pushing the point, but here, it's done so delicately that it only serves to draw us closer to the material. Consider the episode in which we learn that Gabbie's well-to-do parents are funding her every choice, paying not only for her expensive hormone therapy, but also plunking down the tens of thousands of dollars to cover her sex reassignment surgery (SRS). This helps explain Gabbie's actions throughout the year: self-centered, a little flaky, not much for patience. Here is someone who can get whatever she wants (but is she getting what she needs?). The series then compares this bit of good fortune with Raci, who must buy her hormones illegally, on the street, where they are considerably cheaper, albeit far less safe. SRS isn't even an option for her at this point. And it gets worse when Raci's source mysteriously disappears, leaving her in a panic - to stop the hormone treatments now would lead to a reversion to manlier features, a dreaded thing to happen for someone so intent on looking as completely female as possible. (This is the woman who informs us: "I don't want gossip. I want to live my life normally.") Ah, you see how easy it is to get wrapped up in these lives.
"TransGeneration" also comes to us with a welcome frankness about the ins and outs, no pun intended, of the transsexual lifestyle. Wonder just where M to Fs store their, ahem, goods? Curious to the pros and cons of hormone therapy? Want to know just what's involved in an SRS? The filmmakers hold nothing back, yet thankfully refrain from approaching even the appearance of exploitation.
What they provide instead is five strong hours of solid discussion material. T.J. and Lucas' stories are constantly intersecting with politics - T.J. is a campus radical, with friends and acquaintances heavily active in a number of leftist protests; Lucas is the focus of a gender-issue battle with the school administration. Both have grown tired of fighting. At what point, then, do such intensely personal issues become public affairs, and at what point can they become private again? Both find escape in companionship, T.J. with a loving girlfriend, Lucas with a close friend who's documenting his new hormone treatment.
Friendship, indeed, is a major factor of these stories. All four subjects find comfort in friends, almost all of whom are also transgender, or at least homosexual. It's a birds of a feather thing: to be going through something so far outside of society's norms is immensely isolating; to be able to talk things out with someone who (finally!) knows exactly what you're going through is a giant relief.
And then, of course, we come back to the human drama, as we get to watch how these friendship threads play out over the course of a year. Lucas finds a comfort zone, T.J. backs away from her too-radical friends, Gabbie's selfishness leaves her pushing away too many, and, above them all, Raci is taken under the wing of an older, far less convincing yet far more wise transsexual. I will not tell you how Raci's story plays out. I will only tell you that her revelations lead to a most emotionally gripping viewing experience.
Surely what "TransGeneration" gives us most is hope. There is a scene midway through the series in which Gabbie reunites with her grandparents. Her grandfather is a retired Presbyterian minister, and we learn that it is he and his wife who cared for Gabbie when her parents originally took issue with her transgender status, refusing to help her. Gabbie remains perplexed. "You're accepting of me," she almost whispers. Grandpa's reply: "That's what religion is for!"
And maybe it is, as she soon spends a service at their church, a place where the biggest controversy is whether one elderly woman will get the facts straight about Gabbie's gender - so she doesn't offend Gabbie.
Yes, there are bumps on the road for all four subjects, and no, not all stories end happily, but all four find acceptance, be it in family or friends, or hopefully both. This is what "TransGeneration" wishes most, a world where people like Lucas, T.J., Raci, and Gabbie are not whispered about, are not giggled at, are not met with an endless array of questions. "TransGeneration" wants a world filled with open minds and open arms, and when you're through with this magnificent series, maybe you'll be wanting it, too.
Docurama presents all eight episodes spread over two discs. Episodes 1-6 (there are no episode titles, only numbers) are featured on Disc One, and episodes 7 and 8 are on Disc Two, along with the brief amount of bonus features. Episodes 1 and 8 run just under an hour apiece; the rest are a half hour each.
The series was filmed entirely on low budget digital video, so don't expect much. Still, all things being equal, this cheap digital video looks pretty darn good, perhaps a result of a direct digital source (and top notch on-set photography from camera operators who knew how to avoid an ugly shot).
More from the no-frills department. The stereo soundtrack is always clean, nothing ever interfering with the dialogue. The terrific musical score from David Benjamin Steinberg comes out bright and clear.
On Disc Two, we get just over nineteen minutes of deleted and extended scenes, the kind that we can enjoy for providing us with more time with the people we've come to love, but also the kind that we can understand why they were ultimately cut. Sadly, it just doesn't seem enough, as this is a series that screams for supplemental overload. While it's too recent a production to require a where-are-they-now? character update, surely we could have used some behind-the-scenes information (just how did they coordinate all that filming?), or at the least a featurette on the more clinical side of the transgender lifestyle. Alas, all we get are those darn deleted scenes. Better than nothing, I suppose.
Repeated on both discs is the "About Docurama" page that will be familiar to anyone who's ever watched a disc from this company. Also on both discs are trailers for four other Docurama releases: "Bob Dylan: Don't Look Back," "Paradise Lost," Andy Goldsworthy: Rivers and Tides," and "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill."
The lack of bonus features doesn't really matter, however, as just having this series available on DVD is reason enough for celebration. I simply cannot praise "TransGeneration" and its makers (and subjects) enough. This, if you'll allow me to risk hyperbole, is why television was invented: it brings us together, it introduces us to new people and new ideas, it proves that this world is smaller than we think it is. It will, I so very hope, open some minds, and it will do it not by being overly preachy or political, but merely by reminding us that we're all human. Spend five hours with these extraordinary individuals, and you'll be hooked forever. Highly Recommended.