By Paula Gilovich
ACT 1. ART, GENDER, CONSCIOUSNESS: THE FILMOGRAPHY OF JAKE GRAF
In very recent years, scientists have been doubling down on their efforts to discover the real meaning of human consciousness. Can we excise it or is it merely a reaction? Is it a by-product of our brains, if so, what is it and where is it exactly? Regardless of their efforts, they can’t find it.
Similarly, gender—regardless of whether male, female, both, mixed, varied, other, non-binary—is completely displaced and yet it is here, there and everywhere—as essential to who we are as our consciousness. Not of our biology, but beyond it.
I mention these quandaries and their etherealness because it is central to understanding Jake Graf as a maker of films. He is a director, writer and actor living through cinematic storytelling. And he is both a transgender artist and an artist who is transgender; a transgender querying director, and a director who doesn’t care about that question at all. He makes us think, perhaps, that this word “gender” is nothing of what we make it.
His most recent films are centered on unusual meetings and relations, though they come to seem “normal” if we as viewers, like Jake as an artist, make a commitment to really look at each other. What he is capable of doing in ll minutes many films cannot accomplish in 90. Full stories, lives and contrasting worlds living in the flash of a few minutes. There’s a hint of The Little Prince in each film, different hints each time—not in theme or execution, but in tone and cadence—as if each film is one of the planets we will land on as we follow his work.
Jake’s body of work is directed from a trans angle, with trans-ness paralleled in the writing of them. Nothing is over-explained, and in fact, there are even missing pieces from each story, which give the films an allure and even drive their narrative movement. And the shots, angles, and storylines themselves are a scope that is bigger and arguably more inclusive of many ideas and perspectives—much like trans lives.
All sides of a story at once, and as if you can feel the missing years— the years it was most difficult when the gender march in one’s own life does not match the truth of one’s own being. As many believe, pain creates art and even if an artist supersedes their pain, it will always offer itself inside their work. That other elusive word, art. We don’t know where it lives, except distinctly when it is here.
And it is here in Jake’s filmography, which includes in order: XWHY, Brace, Chance, most recently Dawn, and the upcoming Dusk. And of course he is well known for being part of the cast of The Danish Girl. Do whatever you can to watch them all.
ACT 2. BRITISH ENGLISH, TRANS POWER COUPLES, AND GOVT. SPONSORED SURGERIES: AN INTERVIEW WITH JAKE GRAF
In interviewing the warm, affable Jake Graf, it should be known that the standout pleasure of the experience was indeed his British English. As BenDeLaCreme said, in Season 6 of Rupaul’s Drag Race during Snatch game dressed as Maggie Smith, “We originated the language!” And it’s true, British English is a smarter delivery of the language—it just is, and so we had what was a very smart conversation.
As it was 11pm there, it was the dead weight of afternoon here in NYC, and the difference felt important after seeing his films. How do we live in different times from each other? How many worlds are there in any given interaction? How should we come to know each other? Answers you are able to glean from his work.
When did you first think, “I want to be an actor”? When was it that you had your first desire to perform?
When I was really very small I would dress up and act out stories for my parents. I just loved it. Pretending to be other people and performing was really my first instinct.
But when I hit 11, 12, everything became pretty terrible as puberty hit, and I was filled with such a feeling of self-loathing that I pretty much shut down. During those excruciatingly horrible years, I completely lost that instinct to create and express myself freely and it remained that way until I was 26 years old, when I finally found the courage to transition, and write my first film.
When you were acting out stories when you were a small child, were you identifying as the male character? Was dressing up, in part, about identifying as the young boy you were and so you were creating stories?
No, not all, it was strictly performance rather than any story about gender. I just loved making skits for my parents. So we would be on holiday in Spain, and I would become the Spanish cleaning lady. If we were having Indian food at home, I would pop up and be the waiter straight away. Things like that…I would be anyone, as I absorbed the world from the gaze of a child.
And then, at 26 when I started to transition, I created a short fictional film to document my process. The film was called XWHY. In life, I was doing the lesbian thing. But I’ve always known I was a guy. And so I made a film about coming out to my (fictional) girlfriend as a man. Only through this kind of admission, this kind of confirmation was I able to be brave enough to put myself in front of the camera. Affirming my gender gave me a bit of confidence.
As I became the man I’ve always been – it is not an overnight thing – I became more and more comfortable performing, becoming other people. It’s ironic really. But the further into transition I got, the happier I felt with myself, the freer I became to express myself.
(DEAR READER: Just a reminder, all of this goodness in a British accent.)
When did you understand that you are male?
From the age of 2 ½, I knew I was a boy. I was an early talker, slow walker. We were on holiday. On holiday, you run around naked and so I noticed that all the other little boys had something I didn’t have. But I was certain I was a boy, and so it bore required proclamation, “I’m a boy.” But they retorted, “No, you’re not, you don’t have a wee wee, don't be silly!”
So your parents reported this to you?
No, no, I remember this. It’s quite a lucid memory, actually.
Is this your first memory?
Yes, of course.
Do your parents remember this?
Actually no, my mother had forgotten, which tells a story too. I have reminded her of this. She eventually dug out all the old cards that I had made her as a child, and the various sign offs as ‘Frank’, ‘Charles’ or ‘Adam’ all finally made sense to her. God knows what she and my father thought at the time! It's really very telling that they managed to ignore those somewhat glaring signs, but I suppose that back then, the education just wasn't there. She has been incredibly supportive of me since I came out to her, and continues to be today.
So who does it better, the UK or the U.S., in terms of trans-positivity and inclusivity?
Hate crime is very severely punished here in the UK. And so the murder cases simply are not here, or certainly not in the same way as in the US or somewhere like Brazil, where the statistics of crimes against trans women are terrifying. But we also have a much smaller population.
And there are bathroom laws to protect us. There are laws to protect us.
Then the UK is better. Protective laws? No murder?
Yes, yes, it’s just more accepting over here because that’s our culture – to be accepting. And of course, everything is covered by the government with our surgeries, and so there’s no need to crowd fund.
Oh right, universal healthcare. Non-discriminatory healthcare.
Yes, but there are no trans specific places to go for the more intimate health aspects– no LGBT centers, which does make life difficult at times. And the subject, how we talk about it, how we create true acceptance and genuine conversation has its peaks and troughs. I mean in the era of that wretched woman Margaret Thatcher, we had Section 28 but it’s been gone since she’s been gone.
As a trans power couple, are you burdened with representing trans issues at all times? (Jake Graf’s gf is Hannah Winterbourne, a trans woman and an officer in the British army)
Oh not at all, it is not a burden. It’s quite the opposite. It is a profound honor to be this visible, and to be able to make a difference. Hannah and I both receive messages daily from younger trans men and women, reaching out for help, and thanking us for just being out and proud. My girlfriend is truly the better half. Much calmer than me, much more levelheaded. And she is the highest-ranking trans officer in the British Army, and so she is—we are—very much in the press.
She is so active, particularly in the youth community, using her visibility for the benefit of all trans people. She works very closely with the Mermaids Charity; she’s been their patron for 3 years. It’s an organization that helps really young trans children.
NOTE TO READER: As defined on their website, Mermaids is a support group formed in 1995 by a group of parents who were brought together as a result of their children’s longstanding gender identity issues.
Can you describe what it was like to be part of the cast of The Danish Girl? What was the experience like?
The whole thing was incredible. I went for this casting and you know, of course, I didn’t think I would get it. But then they called me, and I just couldn’t believe it. The whole experience was another world, I had my own trailer. They treated all of as if we were one of the stars. They would pick you up each day in a car, and drive you home. I had never had that kind of luxury. You know, I’m a Manny when I’m between the acting gigs. This was pure luxury.
And getting to work with Eddie Redmayne...the design of the film, as a filmmaker, wearing one Eddie’s wigs that wasn’t quite the right colour for him, the 1920s suits on the racks, the experience was simply exquisite…
Then 3 months later after wrapping the film, I got an email from the White House, inviting me over to the States. I thought this can’t be real. I actually called my mother to ask if she thought it was a hoax, and forwarded the official mail to Hannah to double check! Even after several confirmations, I still thought it must be a dream.
The White House was having their first trans symposium. And so they flew us over. All the cast and crew of Transparent were there. Zachary Drucker, Jill Soloway were there, and we had this Q&A and showing of The Danish Girl. Absolutely incredible.
What is your next project?
My next project is shooting in just 4 weeks. “Dusk.” Its got a strong theme of choices, and what society puts on you and what your parents put on you. We have the incredible Victoria Emslie from The Theory of Everything. Extraordinary. We also have Elliot Sailors, the US model who groundbreakingly cut her hair off and started walking mens runways and is also a stunning actor. Do you know her? And then we have a boy band alum, Duncan James. Thrilled to be working with him. It’s a fantastic cast.
Will you ever shoot a film here in the states?
I would kill to do something in the States, I absolutely love it there. I lived in NYC for a year when I was 25 and that was actually the first time I saw a trans guy, and I was like, oh, THAT’S what I am. I realized I could live happily as a trans person, for the first time in my life. It really changed everything for me. So yes, I’ll do something in the States someday.
Jake Graf, we are here to help you make that happen!
ACT 3. AT DAWN: AN EXCERPT FROM JG’s MOST RECENT FILM
Dawn tells the story of a quick meeting between two “outcasts who are more afraid of themselves than each other." An allegory about transness, otherness, and what we should really be able to see in one another. It stars Harry Trundle and Nicole Gibson, both whom exquisitely render the potent silence of the mind that is present at all times during the film, even through the pitter-patter of dialogue.
Below is an excerpt transcribed by trans.cafe (not the actual screenplay). The names of the characters have been swapped out so as not to disclose too much of the the film itself. They’ve been changed to: “M” & “F”, as in Male and Female.
(Just before daylight, as the title suggests)
M: You looking for the bus stop?
M: You think it’s hidden behind the tree? I know the buses stop here. You want some? It’s not what I usually drink, but it’ll do.
F: No. Thanks.
M: You had a good night?
F: I’ve had better.
M: How come you’re out so late then?
F: You talk a lot, don’t you.
M: Sorry, I don’t really go out much. Since, um...My mom thinks I’ll get lost.
F: You don’t look blind.
M: I wouldn’t really know.
F: You haven’t always been.
M: No. Degenerative. I tried to really look at things before I couldn’t. Now I can see shapes, colors, I can almost see the sun rise. Anyway, I’ll leave you alone.
F: I’m just trying to get away.
M: From what?
F: Dunno. A boy I used to know. Everything.
M: You’ve got a boyfriend?
F: Why, are you offering? Have you got a girlfriend?
M: Yeah, there’s loads of girls queueing up to lead a bloke around.
F: I dunno, I can think of worse things than a bloke who cannot see.
Paula Gilovich is the Executive Producer for trans.cafe. She is queer, an ally, a youth advocate, a writer, a story coach and the founder of the Goldmine collective. She loves television and yoga. Find Paula online on twitter: @paulagilovich, on instagram: @paulagoldmine and at www.paulagilovich.com.