Interview - Kimberly Reed - - The Courage to Step Out - Geetanjali Misra

Kimberly Reed was brought up in a family of three children in a small town -- Helena, Montana. The oldest Marc was adopted, the youngest Todd, came out to the family and now lives an openly gay life in San Diego, and, Paul, the middle son, was a high school valedictorian and a quarterback with an aching secret. After Paul left home at the age of 18 he decided to change his gender. Today Paul is Kim – a filmmaker living in New York City.

Prodigal Sons is Kim’s very personal autobiography, about her transition and also her very difficult relationship with Marc. The two were placed in the same grade in school and Marc was always jealous of Kim’s talents in studies and sports. Later at the age of 21 Marc suffered from a head injury which further aggravated his tumultuous relationship with Kim.

Prodigal Sons is a heart wrenching story which begins with Kim returning home for her high school reunion, meeting all her friends and her brother for the first time in her transitioned state. Along the way the family discovers Marc’s true identity. He is the grandson of Hollywood icons Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth.

Prodigal Sons was shown at the 2008 Telluride Film Festival in Telluride, Colorado where it was a huge success with the audience. This was the 35th year of the festival, an annual Labor Day weekend event that attracts film lovers from all across the globe. The festival highlights the best of films of any given year – award winners from Cannes and Berlin, along with new american independent films, revivals of silent classics, panel discussions and Q&A’s. The Festival also featured Nandita Das’ directorial film Firaaq and Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire both set in India.

Geetanjali Misra interviewed Kim Reed following the Telluride screening of Prodigal Sons. Your film is such a personal story.

It must have been so hard to make it.

It was a tough experience. It is a film that exposes me, my brother Marc and our family and that can be a scary thing, but it can also be a rewarding and cathartic thing. Everybody I have shown it to in my family and our friends in our small town, has been very encouraging. When you have the courage to step out and really expose yourself like that, you also have the opportunity to really touch and reach out to people.

It wasn’t like I was setting out to explore my relationship with Marc. But my relationship with him has been the one that has affected me the most in life. There were a lot of things that were unresolved and a lot of frustrations that I had about it. Marc was quite frustrated being raised in the same grade as me and kind of competing with me, even though I wanted that competition to go away for him, to just forget about it. It was really a very important relationship in his life obviously. For me to move beyond that and also go through the big transition I was going through, I just had to cut myself from Marc.

I was reluctant to make this film. I knew it will be somewhat centered on me. I just wasn’t really convinced that we had a film on our hands until you consider my story versus Marc’s story. Just the fact that both of us have new identities and we get the opportunity to work out our relations in a way that a lot of families wish they could and we got that chance. So even though I was reluctant to tell the story, just knowing that our family had such a tremendous story to tell, was no way I couldn’t tell it. The filmmaker in me trumped the personal side of me that was a bit reluctant.

How long did you not talk to Marc?

There are different ways to define this. I think it was about a decade. He left home when he was 18 and I left when I was 18. We talked for a couple of years after that, kind of haltingly. But that was basically the last time we were close. We were getting updates from our parents, so it wasn’t like we were totally divorced. But then once I transitioned, but before my father died, I really cut myself from him, because my life had changed so much.

You have said that Marc had a tough life, especially after his head injury. But didn’t you also have a difficult life struggling with the gender issue while being a football hero in a small town?

I did. I think a lot of that comes through in the film. It wasn’t easy. But making this film was the hardest thing I have done in my life. Just to tell my story and that of my family in a way that it’s accessible to other people. I was always balancing how to show the drama without totally setting off such huge explosions that the audience cannot recover from it. It is very powerful to show documentary reality violence on film. That was the hardest balancing act. In allowing the audience to understand Marc better, I learnt a thing or two from that. Making the film was a very good vehicle for me to understand my brother.

The film opens with you returning home for your high school reunion. Had you prepared everyone in school about the film and how did they react to your transition?

We all knew it was going to be a pretty dramatic event that I was going back. Everybody knew about it and was on board and supporting it. But of course what ultimately happened was that we obviously discovered that it was not the biggest drama going on. Anyone who has a family or siblings knows the drama that all of us go through, that there are old histories that you have to work out. And that’s what took over and it became a much bigger part of the story than a football hero, a quarterback, returns home as a transgender person.

The response of my classmates is reflected in the film by the guy in the football team, who tells the joke ‘I had a dream that we were all fat, bald and old and you were a girl.’ That’s of course not a dream. I haven’t heard from anyone who had problems with my transition. People were very curious about it. But hopefully looking at who I am now, that’s the factor that changes people’s mind the most. That’s the best way to explain the change.

Would Marc act up more when the camera was on?

I don’t think so. Some people expected him to act up when the camera was there. Others expected him to act up less when the camera was there. All I can tell you is my experience of knowing Marc and seeing these episodes that are caused by his head injury. I don’t think anyone will say that the camera doesn’t have any influence at all. But I can honestly say that, I really feel that he ignores the camera. He was completely supportive of all the shots we used. That’s just kind of how Marc operates.

Sometimes I think about the relationship with Orson Welles. Orson always needed an audience. I suppose sometimes people who see the film think maybe the camera becomes Marc’s audience, that’s why he is acting up. What does happen is that the audience is the family and that’s who he is playing to. Whether or not the camera is there, it is the family relationship that he is mainly dealing with. You see it unfold at several points in the film.

How did you make the choices about when to have the camera on and when to shut it off, especially when you were involved in arguments with Marc?

The Producer and the Director of Photography, John Keitel, shot almost all the scenes you see in Croatia (Marc and Kim visit Orson Welles’ girlfriend of the last twenty years of his life who lives there) and the high school reunion. Where the film became very intimate and about me working out my relationship with Marc, it was natural and much more intimate for me to shoot. And that is how a lot of those scenes unfolded.

I wanted to separate myself from directing the film. But when all of this stuff happened, such as the big fight during the Christmas dinner, I suddenly picked up the camera. It was going to be a nice lovely Christmas Eve, at least when I picked up the camera. But it changed suddenly.

Did you have to struggle as a filmmaker given your transition? And why did you decide to stay out of contact with people who knew you for some time after that?

When I graduated from film school, I was working as freelance editor. I was trying to balance two bodies clients – one I had as a male and the other I had as a female. It was very difficult.

It is hard enough to be a freelancer just out of film school. I didn’t feel I was ready to transition in the public eye like that. I wanted to switch gears and kind of start over. I thought no one was ready for me but in retrospect I realize that I wasn’t ready for it. I could have transitioned in the public eye, but at the time that’s how I felt.

You are probably one of few transgender filmmakers. Do you feel that there are different expectations from you? That people are watching your career in a different light?

Sure! Anytime you are breaking new ground, you are going to be known as ‘Oh, aren’t you this filmmaker or that filmmaker?’ Your label precedes your work. If I can step back from the film and think about the queer politics, me being transgender is a factor in the beginning, but then it almost disappears. And I think that’s what a lot of artists, who are a minority one way or the other think. We always want our work to precede our label. That’s what happens in this film. This issue that is going to be the massive issue – my being a transgender – moves back. Yes, it is interesting and fascinating in many ways, but is it the only thing? Absolutely not!

Geetanjali Misra is co-founder and Executive Director, CREA, New Delhi. She is an activist and a film buff working in the fields of sexuality, gender and rights. She co-founded SAKHI for South Asian women in New York, was the President of the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID), and is on the Board of Directors of Reproductive Health Matters and Women’s Initiative for Gender Justice. She has co-edited Sexuality, Gender and Rights: Exploring Theory and Practice in South and Southeast Asia (Sage, 2005)