Sam Feder on the story of hit documentary Disclosure - from genesis to Oscar buzz

Excl: "The biggest obstacle in getting the film made? Transphobia."


Words: Jamie Tabberer; pictures: Sam Feder/Sam with Laverne Cox (Provided)

"I can't believe it, I really can't believe it" enthuses director extraordinaire Sam Feder of growing Oscar buzz around hit documentary Disclosure: Trans Lives On Screen. 

We can believe it.

Since dropping on Netflix last year, the film - which explores the often horrendous and more recently inspiring history of trans representation in TV and film - has been a critical darling. (We named it one of our top LGBTQ films of 2020, FYI).

Sam Feder

Made by a largely trans crew and featuring interviews with Laverne Cox, Chaz Bono, Candis Cayne and more, it is "probably the first film that’s been made by so many trans people, let alone about trans history, that's even been [an Oscar] contender," says Sam.

"Yance Ford - his film Strong Island was nominated and is one of my favourite films," he adds. "He's the first out trans filmmaker to be nominated. But I think Disclosure stands apart, in that it's about the trans community and trans history."

We caught up with Sam ahead of Oscar nomination day (15 March) and shortly after US President Joe Biden's inauguration to talk politics, pop culture and the painstaking process of getting this truly epic film made.

How did you spend inauguration day?

Like every other, in the house! I watched a little, but I'm a very cautious person when it comes to politics. I can't really say this is my dream team that's in but, you know, I'm glad Trump is out.

What political changes are you hoping for in the next four years?

Access to sport is being threatened. Doctors can refuse care to trans people. Shelters can refuse care to trans people. It’s just across the board. It’s ridiculous, inhumane, offensive.

I think Disclosure is a way to have these conversations in a way that is not as accusatory as many of us would like to be. Telling people: this is just unspeakable violence towards trans people that's happening.

When we start to look at the history of representation, at how we've again and again been portrayed as not real, that we don't actually exist, you start to understand how these conversations can even be had.

From my point of view, rather than just pulling my hair out, I can just be like, ‘Okay, this is why the world thinks this of us. This is a way we can have this conversation and move past it, finally.'

Can you give us overview of the film's journey, from genesis to Oscar consideration?

The genesis is interesting. It's a film I've been thinking about my whole life. I grew up in the 80s/90s with talk shows my companion after school. Phil Donahue, Jerry Springer, Oprah. There were a lot of trans people on those shows; moments where you feel embarrassed because you're identifying somehow, but also repulsed and disgusted, because you don't want to identify.

So it's push-pull, but also empathy, because the way the audience laughed and pointed was mixed in there. Even outside of trans stuff, so many emotions attached to trans people, talk shows and the permission of the hosts; the way the hosts were sort of choreographing the zoo, right? The circus of freaks.

At the same time I'd go to see movies. I was about 15 when The Crying Game [below] came out. That's when I first saw a trans [character, Dil, played by Jaye Davidson] on screen that wasn't in the talk show format. There’s a scene where she disrobes in front of her boyfriend for the first time. His reaction was just burned into my brain. You can see the disclosure. He strikes her across the face and throws her in disgust because he saw that she had a penis.

At the time, I didn't have the language or understanding of my gender to understand that, even though I was a trans guy and this was a trans woman, there was this sort of understanding that my body might shock people at some point.

I didn't want to be associated with people whose bodies evoked vomiting. So I internalised that shame, deeply. And I didn't meet a real trans person until I was nearly 30 years old. That's a long time to walk around with how you think people are going to react to trans people.

When I was a teen, I was also studying photography. It was the height of the AIDS crisis. I became politicised through AIDS activism and seeing how stigma shaped the way the public understood HIV and AIDS. I simultaneously started to understand the transformative potential in seeing yourself in the ways you may want to exist. 

Laverne Cox on the set of Disclosure

There's this line in Disclosure that mirrors what I was feeling. Yance Ford quotes Marian Wright Edelman: “Children cannot be what they cannot see”. Yance follows by saying: “It's not just children, it's about all of us.” We cannot be a better society until we see a better society.

That was really the way that I was looking at the possibilities of creating images. And you know, my first two films [Boy I Am and Kate Bornstein is a Queer & Pleasant Danger] are for trans people, creating images for us to start to see ourselves in the world.

I finish my second film, it's 2014, and I saw Laverne on the cover of Time Magazine. It was in that moment that this lifetime of walking through the world not really understanding who I was, and being trans and not understanding what that meant, the implications of navigating the world as a trans person and being a filmmaker… suddenly, there's this trans woman on the cover of a magazine that says, This is the transgender tipping point.

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Fears and questions converged. What does this mean for trans people to have mainstream attention? While I felt excited to see Laverne as the first openly trans woman to be on the cover, and I’d known her political activist advocacy work that she'd been doing for years in New York, I was also scared about what this meant for people who are not in her shoes.

When we look at history, we know that whenever a marginalised community gets attention, backlash ensues. I was trying to understand this sort of liminal space I found myself in, being in this paradox of excitement around an increase in visibility, but also fear around impending social and legislative violence. At this time, trans people had barely been acknowledged by the mainstream media, let alone celebrated. 

The public knows so much about trans people through the media they've seen, which has been so distorted, so I wanted to understand why the mainstream media was declaring a change for a community it not only had distorted for so long, but had so little connection to. I thought, creating a history of trans representation from that perspective, of that unique moment, I can start to provide the context.

That was the bingo moment?

Right. That was the beginning of the film. Then, you know, the next five years making it, doing all the research that had to be done, because there wasn't a book. I thought there'd be a book on the topic the way that Vito Russo wrote the tone Celluloid Closet that became a documentary. Ethnic Notions was also based on a book of the history of Black people in film and TV. I thought there'd be a book. There wasn't. 

Chaz Bono on the set of Disclosure

Then it was a hard, hard film to make, to raise money for. We had very high expectations of how I wanted it to look, to be edited. I wanted the crew to all be trans people. And if we couldn't hire a trans person, we mentored a trans person, and everyone was paid their day rates. I really felt that this film had to be emblematic of how I want the industry to treat trans people. Not only on screen, but behind the scenes as well.

The film made it to Sundance...

I was so thrilled: that validation, that excitement, potential. I was knocked off my chair, laughed for hours and cried and thanked everyone who ever I'd ever met.

Realising that Disclosure would have that sort of platform was everything we had hoped for. Our premiere was thrilling. We have really, really, really long credits because I wanted to thank every trans person that had helped with this project, which is nearly 200. And I wanted to thank every trans person who's ever been in film and TV whether or not we were able to include them in the film.

So when it ended, there's a standing ovation, people just kept clapping and standing. I was worried about them! That they're gonna get tired!

Then COVID hit. And everything changed. But we got this incredible platform at Netflix.

Candis Cayne on the set of Disclosure

What was the hardest obstacle in getting the film made?

I've avoided this response for so long, because it feels so obvious. But the truth is transphobia. It just is. And racism. 

[...] When it came to selling the film, everyone said they already had a trans film. They didn't want to oversaturate their market. One buyer said they bought a trans film four years ago, they didn't need another.

When I was in the middle of these conversations, on the one hand, I just was so irate, because I knew these were ridiculous responses. But I also internalised it a bit and thought, well, maybe the film is just not good enough and this is their way of saying that.

Now, with some distance, I'm able to realise just how blanket and overtly transphobic that is. Just how myopic and limited that type of response is. Nothing like this exists. This history has never been told. For that to be their excuse, it’s just so obvious what that means. And the money we were offered was so insulting. This is when Laverne had to step in and be like, 'welcome to the world that I'm in of having to deal with not only transphobia but racism as well.'

That being said, those were our hurdles. It shouldn't be a surprise, but it is. It shouldn't hurt, but it does. But here we are. We've done really well. And I'm thrilled, proud, and our team is proud. And I know it's gonna be easier for the next filmmaker, the next team.

Lilly Wachowski on the set of Disclosure

What was the highlight of the shoot?

We did three shoots over about two years. You have your set, everyone's rummaging around, you get ready for the interview. It was me and my DP, my PA, my sound person, we're all trans. Then the interviewee comes in. You know, usually you’re the only trans person in a room. We are constantly looking around to see: who's gonna have my back? Who can make a joke with us if someone says something offensive?

And then here we were, a group of trans people waiting for an interviewee to come in. The lights go on, the room gets really quiet and someone like [codirector of The Matrix] Lilly Wachowski comes in. She never does interviews, right? But she and I had a friendship and she wanted to be part of this film.

I saw her walk in. I knew she was nervous. She's very private. Then when I saw her look around and realise that everyone she'd be talking to over this next hour was trans, you can just see that sigh of relief. Her shoulders relaxed, she smiled.

Yance Ford on the set of Disclosure

There's just this knowing space, the shared laughter, the shared pain, the nodding along, these ‘aha!’ moments where someone is saying something they've never said before. And the rest of us are like, Oh my god, yeah, that really resonates. You get chills.

I didn't plan for this to be healing - for me, for my crew, for the people we were interviewing. 

What were Netflix like to deal with?

Amazing. Their platform, it's like over 190 million viewers. You know, from the get, the team that we've worked with, everyone had their own personal story about why Disclosure resonated with them, meant so much to them, and the people in their lives they wanted to share it with.

Now, with the awards team, they are so thrilled to be able to be part of our team, to be part of this historic moment of having Disclosure being in the public discourse in the way it is now. It's been a dream to work with the people at Netflix.

Does Netflix stream any titles you think contain content that is harmful to trans people? Would you like to see that content removed, or to see disclaimers?

There’s just one title, actually, that comes to mind. It should never been bought: Girl. There are so many things that have been bought in the past. Honestly, though, when we talk about censorship - that's complicated. These films have been made, sold, bought, supported. All of that speaks volumes about what people think about trans people. That is part of our history. And I feel these need to be in a context. Like, we can't pretend these things haven't happened. But I would love for a platform like Netflix to add some commentary to films that have been really violent and a disservice for trans people.

Whether video commentary, written commentary, that's the world I'd like to see. Like, let's not pretend these horrible things haven't happened. But let's put them in a context and talk about them and understand why they can never happen again. I have a lot of faith that going forward, if people see Disclosure, they're going to be a lot more careful about what they buy.

What are your hopes for the future?

That more people mentor, give opportunities to and ask trans people to tell their own stories.

I've been invited to talk to workplaces about our hiring practice, and you know, how we prioritise hiring trans people, mentoring trans people. It's been very exciting to have these conversations, because I know people want to do better, they just often don't feel confident, they're afraid of doing things wrong. They don't know what they don't know. So I'm excited to see all industries, all workplaces reach out to and mentor trans people. Because we are so disproportionately underemployed. Trans people are three times more likely to be unemployed than the national average. Four times if you're a trans person of colour. It's really hard out there to make ends meet, to pay your bills, to take care of yourself.

That's one thing I want. Then, for me, I've got a few projects in the line, things I'm pitching these next couple of weeks, that you'll hear about fairly soon!

Disclosure is available to watch now on Netflix.

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