against a trans narrative (Dir: Jules Rosskam, 2008)

Country of Origin:
Running Time: 61 min

Still featuring Jules Rosskam (filmmaker) and his girlfriend in a confessional-style scene


Through reenactments, interviews, and both informal and structured conversations, filmmaker and subject Jules Rosskam deconstructs the idea of a singular trans narrative. His reflexive film acts more as an intersectional conversation and discussion instigator than as a traditional story-telling documentary. The scenes in the film, which vary in type from confessionals to individual/group interviews to reenactments to dinner table conversations to “behind the scenes” footage, not only respectively contain challenging and controversial conversation, but also engage in conversation with each other, working cohesively to deconstruct the idea of one cohesive trans experience.

Rosskam, often using his own experiences, aptly addresses some of the most pressing, yet coded and hidden topics of FTM trans experiences both through reenactments and his own narrative. These topics include navigating the healthcare system as a transperson, transitioning while in a relationship, evolution from one part of the queer community to another, personal physical comfort in contrast with social perceptions, and constructions of both feminism and masculinity. While representing several experiences of FTM folks and those who surround them, the film also seeks express the importance of individual experiences and the multifaceted and varying aspects of physical and social gender transition.

The film also captures sociopolitical stances of a time around 2008 through its subject’s statements. This was timestamp was particularly noticeable in a conversation about feminism; a group of men are prompted to discuss feminism, and one states, “I wouldn’t go out and say I’m a feminist… I identify as a feminist but I don’t know if that’s a thing I should say.” Rosskam, who certainly engages with more current ideas about feminism and gender, introduces ideas that are just now (in 2015) starting to enter more mainstream vocabulary. Most prevalently are the concepts of passing and an idealized narrative; “the idealized narrative of what it means to be trans has become so pervasive that ultimately we’re all in process to get to a certain endpoint, and that endpoint is to be passable and read as a man or a woman in a world. And then if you’re not passable and read as a man or woman in this world, then clearly you haven’t finished yet.” Rosskam further challenges the binary that sits at the core of the idealized narrative, using footage of himself talking to his girlfriend about his social transition: “I’m afraid you’re going to lump me in with men – and I don’t see myself that way, I don’t identify myself that way.” Furthermore, Rosskam directly confronts the intersectionality that is too often ignored when discussing trans issues and narratives by asking his subjects “how do you think that your race and class impact your transition?” and related questions.

While Rosskam’s film is not a comprehensive view of trans lives, it offers a glance at many pivotal (and often silenced) issues. His involvement in the film (which ranges from confessional footage of himself, to vlogs with his girlfriend, to him appearing on screen to sync sound with audio) gives a humble tone of reflexivity and determination for self growth within an ever-expanding, intersectional, and complicated community that exists within a world designed to work against exactly the identities fostered in his community.

Related Subjects: Gender Studies, Feminist Studies, Queer Studies, Health Studies, Identity Politics

Critic Responses:

“Employing roundtable discussions, confessional on-camera monologues, acted-out skits, rehearsals of the acted-out skits, and rather fine rap poetry, the film can be applauded as an important tool for classroom use, but as a finished product for mass appreciation, Against is too haphazard, too unstructured, too insular. It’s a slightly amateurish paean to academic solipsism broken up by numerous episodes of power.”

Brandon Judell, CultureCatch

“It is inarguable that documentary is meant to create a motion, but “Against a Trans Narrative” does more than this. It creates a conversation, which is the first step towards understanding. Watching films such as these will encourage people to push for an open dialogue about how to make not only Colgate, but society more accepting.”

Reyna LaRiccia, Colgate Maroon-News

Bibliographic items:

Raun, Tobias. “Out Online: Trans Representation and community building on YouTube.” Roskilde University.

Rosskam, Jules. “The ties that bind are fragile and often imaginary: Community, identity politics, and the limits of representation.” Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory.

William, Gabe. “How I knew I was Trans: My Story and the Trans Narrative.” Youtube.


The Business of Being Born (Abby Epstein, 2008)

Country of Origin:
Running Time: 87 min
Producer Riki Lake and Filmmaker Abby Epstein

Producer Riki Lake and Filmmaker Abby Epstein

Format: Color, DVD

The Business of Being Born acts as a long-form argument for the expanding and liberalizing of the American birthing experience. The film follows Maya, one midwife, through a series of home births and private interviews. Meanwhile, we learn from spliced-in interviews with dozens of talking heads about the logistics of hospital births, startling statistics surrounding the probability of c-section, and the harrowing history of the birth experience in America. From the opening, Epstein makes it clear to us that we should question the hospital sterility of certain experts and return to a trust and knowledge of the woman’s body and intuition in birth. In this way, the film is somewhat necessarily gender essentializing, arguing for a natural, wise, and exceptionally gendered experience.

Epstein sets up a constant juxtapositional tug: the audience is swept back and forth from sterile, brightly lit, clearly suspect hospital interviews to graphic but ultimately victorious scenes of women’s home birth experiences. The sheer number of home births prominently featured in the film is impressive, most often including multiple cuts of interviews with the featured mother-to-be. More memorable than the home birth scenes, however, are the shots of hospital births presented. As various radical birth activists within the medical community narrate the seemingly impossible degree to which the typical hospital birth is unnatural, emotionally and literally scarring scenes of women in violent labor or graphic depictions of c-section procedures flash across the screen. Contrasting these scenes with Maya’s incredibly soothing, calm, and wise demeanor, it is clear whose side the audience is supposed to take.

Most interestingly, both Epstein and her producer, actress and talk show host Riki Lake, unexpectedly become pregnant over the course of shooting. The film features both women on screen prominently and often, tracing their own friendship and their prenatal planning. Garnering a lot of press was the scene in which Riki Lake appears totally nude in her own home giving birth, without makeup and shot on a home camcorder. The surprising normalcy of the scene, especially given the number of naked, graphic home-births featured earlier seems much more the point than does the shock value of a naked Riki Lake in labor. Epstein, too, decides on a home birth, but a rather surprising take-away message arises from her birthing experience. Her baby is in danger and premature, causing her, Lake(also present) and Maya to make the swift decision to transfer to the hospital where she delivers via emergency c-section, a procedure repeatedly demonized up until this point. We learn that Epstein’s baby was struggling with prenatal complications and that the c-section likely saved the baby. Only at this moment is the audience sure that the film acts not as a lengthy commercial for midwifery but as an engagement in a fraught argument, as Epstein struggles to reconcile her semi-traumatic birthing experience with the ultimately ideal outcome.

Watch the film on Netflix.

Further Reading:

Film Website:

Davis-Floyd, Robbie E.. Birth as an Americal Right of Passage. Berkely: University of California Press, 1992. Print.

Fox, Bonnie, and Diana Worts. “Revisiting the Critique of Medicalized Childbirth: A Contribution to the Sociology of Birth.” Gender and Society 13.3 (1999): 326-346. Print.

Holden, Stephen . “American Motherhood and the Question of Home Birth.” The New York Times 8 Jan. 2009, sec. Movies: The New York Times Online. Web. 24 Apr. 2011.

“International: Is there no place like home?; Home births. ” The Economist 2 Apr. 2011: Research Library, ProQuest. Web.  26 Apr. 2011.

King,  Kathleen J.. “Interview with Abby Epstein, Director of The Business of Being Born – Page 2 – DivineCaroline .” DivineCaroline: Relationships, Health, Home, Style, Parenting, and Community for Women – DivineCaroline . N.p., 1 July 2007. Web. 24 Apr. 2011.

Macdonald, Margaret. “Gender Expectations: Natural Bodies and Natural Births in the New Midwifery in Canada.” Medical Anthology Quarterly 20.2 (2006): 235-256. Print.

Martin, Karin A.. “Giving Birth like a Girl.” Gender and Society 17.1 (2003): 54-72. JStor. Web. 24 Apr. 2011.

Chloe Browne 2011

Salata Baladi

Country of Origin: , , ,
Running Time: 105 min

Nadia Kamel’s Salata Baladi is a documentary with a simple premise: recorded family history.  However, while the premise itself may be simple, Kamel’s film successfully touches on complex social and political tensions that have and continue to affect Egyptian society.  Responding to an increase in negative rhetoric directed at perceived “others” in her native Egypt, Kamel set out to document her own diverse family history by recording the memories of her mother, Mary Rosenthal.  Through these memories, we are transported to a time when diverse populations lived side by side in the neighborhoods of Cairo.  Immigrants from Syria, Turkey, Italy and Greece shared space with local Christians, Jews and Muslims.  Full of nostalgia, the film celebrates how this diverse environment allowed for the creation of families like Kamal’s which cross ethnic and religious divides.

However, the film moves beyond simply recoding a specific family history as Kamal’s family story inevitably becomes entangled with the wider politics of Egypt.  Through exploring her mother’s personal history, Nadia Kamel is able to document the change that occurred in the mid twentieth century as nationalism took hold of Egypt and foreign populations became excluded from a rapidly changing Egyptian society.  This witnessing of the effects of wider politics on the lives of everyday Egyptians finds emphasis during her mother’s trips to visit family abroad in Italy and Israel.  During her mother’s trips, Kamal had the opportunity to interview these relatives and hear their reasons for leaving Egypt as well as their lingering connections to the country.  The film especially touches specific history of Jews in Egypt and their relationship with Israel.  While Kamel’s mother chose to stay in Egypt and expressed a sense of disapproval towards the emigration of Jews from Egypt to Israel, many of her relatives chose to move during the 1940s and 50s.  Through her trip to Israel, we are able to hear from those who chose to immigrate.  Through their accounts of life in Egypt and vestiges of Egyptian culture, we are able to see their unique individual ties to both countries.  As a whole, the film serves to highlight the complexity of identity and belonging within the established framework of family.

Suggested Bibliographic Materials:


The Lost World of the Egyptian Jews: First-person Accounts from Egypt’s Jewish Community in the Twentieth Century by Liliane Dammond


Dammond, Liliane S. The Lost World of the Egyptian Jews First-person Accounts from Egypt’s Jewish Community in the Twentieth Century. New York, NY [u.a.: IUniverse, 2007. Print.

Sarah Dwider 4/19/11