An interview with The Most Dangerous Year director Vlada Knowlton
by Sara Michelle Fetters -
SGN A&E Writer
SEATTLE QUEER FILM FESTIVAL
THE MOST DANGEROUS YEAR
AMC PACIFIC PLACE 11
The 23rd annual TWIST: Seattle Queer Film Festival kicked off last night with a gala screening of writer/director/star Rupert Everett's wildly amusing, emotionally shattering examination of the last days of the great Oscar Wilde's life. After it come 10 straight days of cinematic goodness that run the entire gamut of the LGBTQ experience. Documentaries. Features. Shorts. Dramas. Comedies. Thrillers. Romance. It's all here, including the local gala closing night premiere of Rafiki on Oct. 21, a searing drama and love story that was banned in its home country of Kenya due to its lesbian content, only to have the government rescind the ban for less than a week before reinstating it again, all so they could submit it as the country's Academy Award entry.
But there's so much more to talk about, not the least of which is the gala centerpiece presentation of Australia's Riot, the story of that country's gay rights movement during the 1970s. The documentary centerpiece also couldn't be more timely. Transmilitary is an examination of Trangender soldiers currently serving in the U.S. military. Other highlights include the North American premiere of the George Michael documentary, George Michael: Freedom - The Director's Cut; the inspiring Tongan entry, Leitis In Waiting; ambitious collections of short programs from all around the globe; the Austrian motocross drama, L'Animale; LA Outfest audience award-winner, Tucked; the bracing AIDS melodrama, 1985; the 20-years-in-the-making documentary Shakedown; and a documentary about the Imperial Court System and its founder José Sarria, 50 Year of Fabulous. There are also a number of workshops and special programs, not the least of which is the return of the popular, informative and free 'How to Be a Trans Ally' with representatives from Gender Diversity on-hand to answer attendees various questions.
Speaking of Gender Diversity, returning to Seattle after its triumphant debut during this past summer's Seattle International Film Festival is local filmmaker Vlada Knowlton's stunning documentary The Most Dangerous Year on Oct. 18. Screening at Pacific Place, the film is a thought-provoking, incredibly nuanced chronicling of the various so-called 'bathroom bills' and initiatives that were put forth to both the state legislature as well as almost to a popular vote in 2016. What makes the documentary so successful, however, is how deftly Knowlton weaves in the story of her own family, including that of her young daughter Annabelle. Along with succinct, heartfelt and knowledgeable insights from Gender Diversity founder Aidan Key, it is this focus on the human familial experience that allows this story to resonate with audiences as it has.
As difficult a film as this was for me to watch, I was blown away by, not just its numerous insights, but how Knowlton goes out of her way to allow all sorts of voices, even the negative ones, to say their peace. By doing this, she deftly showcases the numerous inherent hypocrisies and uninformed fallacies driving just about all of these 'bathroom bills' and anti-Transgender initiatives. Before this year's TWIST began I had the chance to talk about this and so many more aspects of her film with Knowlton. Here's just some of what she had to say:
Sara Michelle Fetters: With this story being so personal, when did you know while you were filming that all of this was going to end up being a feature-length documentary like this?
Vlada Knowlton: I wasn't completely sure about what I was going to be making until I finished filming the initial Senate hearings in January of 2016. Aidan Key had come to me right at the end of 2015 and said, 'There's this stuff about to happen. There are all these bills coming to our state legislature and other states across the country and this is going to be a really, really dark time this year for us.' He knew I was a filmmaker. He thought it would be a good idea for someone to document what was going on.
He didn't mean specifically the political story. [Aidan] wasn't sure what he meant. He just meant things were about to change and it would be great if somebody could document it, and I had to agree with him. But I was only going to make this film if I could find the story. As a filmmaker, as a storyteller, I'm not going to actually carry through with a project unless I think there is a story there worth telling. And Aidan is a friend. He trusted me.
So I started shooting his work. When I finished shooting the summit hearings, I think at that point I knew there was going to be a story that I could tell. At that point I already had started to hear some information about a potential ballot initiative coming up if the Senate bill fell through, so I knew this was going to be a really tough year.
At that point I also realized that I was going to put myself and my family in the film. That was never my plan initially. But I realized if I was going to tell the story, as a filmmaker, one of the most important things you have to do is to be able to tell a story honestly, to make it obvious that it's an honest and authentic story. That it isn't contrived. I knew that if I told this story passively without talking about my own participation and what was affecting me and my family so personally then it wouldn't ring true to the audience. I decided, even though we didn't initially want to, that we needed to make this a personal story and I had to tell it from my own perspective. That was the most honest thing to do.
Sara Michelle Fetters: That's the thing, isn't it? I think this documentary ends up working so well because it isn't just your family, but it ends up being about all of the kids and the families we see. It becomes their story. How important was it to make sure that you focused on making things so personal? That you had to look at things in such an emotionally visceral way?
Vlada Knowlton: I think one of the biggest problems, one of the biggest challenges we have as a community of LGBTQ people, of transgender people right now specifically, along with their families, loved ones and allies, one of the biggest problems we have is that a large portion of the population doesn't have any direct familiarity, a direct connection, with actual everyday transgender people. People are leaving everything up to their imagination. When everything is kind of abstract and theoretical, it's a lot easier to believe myths and misinformation.
Obviously you have to have the audience connect with the people in the story and the characters. You need them to understand what it's like to be in their shoes. That's why you go on such an emotional journey. You have to enable the audience to feel those emotions through the characters. I just thought it was important for people to see what it's like to actually interact with regular everyday people who happen to be transgender, with children who happen to be transgender, and see how unfair this treatment is for them. How painful, how scary and how dangerous it is. Otherwise it's all just abstract, right?
Sara Michelle Fetters: I love that you bring all of that up. At the beginning of the film, you have those brief interviews with a group of people spouting all of these hurtful and hateful things, but doing so in a way that's just so simple, so matter-of-fact. It's surreal.
It's striking how much people just either do not know or refuse to want to know. Was this ever something that surprised you?
Vlada Knowlton: It didn't surprise me. It saddened me quite a bit. I know personally how important and how threatening these situations are to my child, to my family and to my friends. But people who actually are removed from these issues, they aren't touched by them in their everyday lives, that sort of sense of urgency isn't in them.
That sense of urgency is what brings about education and awareness which a lot of people, obviously, don't have. They react to others things that will make them feel that sense of urgency, and right now those other things that make them feel that sense of urgency are a lot of that fear mongering and misinformation. That gives them that visceral fear and they react to it. They don't bother finding out the truth.
That's why I thought it was really important to show people what happens in the moment. How it feels in the moment. I don't know if you remember the part in the Strawberry Festival, towards the end, when I'm confronting the signature gatherers. I think those are the kind of situations when you show them to the audience and they see what it's like to be in that moment they really start to understand what is going on. Having learned all that background information throughout the film that [confrontation] can sort of punch you in the gut, especially in that moment. That sense of emotion will force you actually to take the time to learn and educate yourself, to take the time to understand.
Sara Michelle Fetters: As part of that, you spend a lot of time with Joseph Backholm, the founder and former director of the Family Policy Institute of Washington. Why was it important to give him room to speak? To not just paint him as a monster?
Vlada Knowlton: There's two different aspects for me for that particular challenge. One is as a mother, as a human being with a brain and emotions and thoughts and feelings. So yet, treating him like that is extremely difficult. But as a filmmaker, as a storyteller, a job I take very seriously, I know that it's important not to inflict your own agenda onto the audience in a really heavy way. I always think that it's important to assume that your audience member is as intelligent as you are, as able to understand a situation as well as you can.
I don't know if you're for sort of the Jane Austen kind of democratic way of telling a story, but I think it's important to give every character in your story, whether they're the protagonist or the antagonist, the ability to tell the story from their own point of view. To speak with their own voice. From the beginning I felt that to do the entire story justice I'd have to allow the people on the other side of this debate to put their best foot forward. To deliver their most cohesive, intelligent argument to the debate. I felt strongly that if I did that the audience would be able to see right through them. I didn't think those voices would stand up to the scrutiny of an intelligent audience.
Sara Michelle Fetters: With that in mind, you do have to rely upon a lot of science to get many of your points across to the audience. Did you ever worry about these technical aspects? That the audience might suddenly tune out as if they felt they were being preached to instead of learning something new?
Vlada Knowlton: That was one of the big challenges. There is so much information in this area in general. There's so many different core themes that you can focus on when you're talking about civil rights for trans people. There's so many ways you could go. I wanted to stick to very focused story threads, to take the audience through narratives that they could follow. At the same time I wanted to touch upon some of these scientific facts because I did want this film to be educational. I think when you're arguing all these things without factual information, without a little bit of science, it's hard to back up your arguments without just going around in circles with people.
Luckily, I have a background in research and academia. I have a PhD in cognitive science, so that helped me figure out how to dispense all that scientific information and offer it to a lay person in ways they could hopefully understand. But it was a really tough thing to do. I wanted to introduce that information but also not make it too technical or to sciency. I needed to present it in a way that everybody could absorb. I thought that was really important.
I mean, I'm a big fan of science. No shock there. [laughs] So when I talk to people about these topics myself and I explain what we already know through science and research, I find that flips a switch in a person's minds when I'm telling them about it. They just get it, you know?
Once you understand you just understand and you can't unlearn what you've learned. 'Your child was born a transgender? She was always a girl?' We get those questions so often. But when you explain that she has the brain of a girl to begin with? When you give them the science? It's often very easy for people to understand that.
Sara Michelle Fetters: I know Aidan Key. I've worked for Aidan Key. He's amazing. Just the epitome of a terrific, selfless and caring human being. But how did you know he could be a movie star?
Vlada Knowlton: I didn't. [laughs. My husband Chad did, though. He's a huge fan of Aidan's. He kept telling me, 'Aidan's just got this something. He's got this big aura.' I'm glad I listened to him.
I just think Aidan is the kindest, most thoughtful person. He's one of the kindest, most thoughtful people I've ever met. He helped us so much with our own child.
For the film I saw Aidan as like the Obi-Wan Kenobi kind of guru that could sort of take us through this whole journey. He's the one who ends up being the wise journey man, the one who helps the audience understand so much of what is going on. I'm just the mom who's trying to follow along and figure out what the heck is going on. [laughs]
Sara Michelle Fetters: On a lighter note, the kids are delightful in this movie. Did you ever stop and think to yourself at times that you could just sit there shooting these kids being kids? They're all stars in the making.
Vlada Knowlton: If I just let myself be a mom and not a filmmaker, I'd just probably make a big home movie about my own kid. [laughs] But, yes, they were all so cute! I couldn't get enough of them. It was awful because I had 80-plus hours of footage that I could use in order to make a 90-minute film, so a lot of that footage that was cut is basically the kids being kids and stuff with the families getting together and having that picnic.
It's so rough to cut all of that but you have to put your filmmaker hat on and realize you can't indulge yourself and just put all these scenes with my daughter or the other kids into the movie just because you want to. But I'm kind of a big structure purest. So I cut out pretty much everything in order to keep the structure of the story. That's the not-fun part of being a filmmaker. It's about killing all your darlings, right?
Sara Michelle Fetters: From a more serious standpoint, have you been surprised by all these positive reactions you've been getting at the various festivals your documentary has been playing at?
Vlada Knowlton: I'm going to jinx myself so I shouldn't say this, but I guess my only shock is that so far the reception has been really great. But having gone through all these horrible things I'm connected to such a huge network of parents across the country that have trans kids. So I see on a daily basis how horrible treatment of trans kids and their parents can be. There's just terrible things happening every day. So I've been bracing myself every time I go to a film festival for something dark or hateful, but so far we haven't had that happen. That's great.
I shouldn't even talk about that because now that I have something bad will happen. [laughs] But that's the reality of our life. We're living in this weird existence where you have to always be on guard for some kind of hateful person, somebody who doesn't want to understand, somebody who wants to come after you because of their own personal, hate-filled agenda.
Sara Michelle Fetters: You say that, and I immediately think how crazy it is we're talking about how terrific the reception to your film has been less than one day after the news broke of that Virginia middle school having an active shooter drill only to leave the school's lone transgender student all alone in the gym because they didn't know what to do with her. The whole story just breaks my heart and makes me so angry, both at the same time.
Vlada Knowlton: Exactly! It's completely ridiculous. It's ludicrous. I'm connected with that mom. I know her, and I can see what's going on with her on Facebook. It's very sad to me. I've been so immersed in this fight for such a long time, so I can't say what happened is actually surprising to me. It's par for the course, and if you step away from that bubble that we're in and you think about it just as a rational, level-headed human being it's absolutely insane. It's insane to treat a child, any child, that way. In what universe is that considered in any way acceptable?
But this is what we're living in right now. This is our experience. And this mom is great. Her child is great. They're wonderful. The fact that they have to fight this kind of ignorance is tragic.
Sara Michelle Fetters: Which is why it's a good thing your movie is getting out into the world, that it has these sorts of tough, no-frills conversations about what is going on in the world right now. But, more than that, it's also a triumphant story, which to my mind is equally important.
Vlada Knowlton: I think it affirms what I believe personally. Everything I say in that film is completely honest. From my standpoint, I think we've already won. My family. We won the second that we realized that our child is exactly who she is. We already won. It was game over at that point because we gave our child a life, gave her a future, the hope to have a happy, productive and successful life. That's pretty much all you can do as a parent. I think every parent that makes that decision, and more and more parents are realizing this every day, the victory becomes larger. Every day that my daughter is living as a happy girl, as a happy kid, with just a joyful childhood, every day she does that she wins. It's already a victory.
'TWIST: Seattle Queer Film Festival' runs Oct. 11 thru Oct. 21 at Seattle venues , including the SIFF Cinema Egyptian Theatre, AMC Pacific Place 11 and Northwest Film Forum. Schedule and ticketing information can be found at https://threedollarbillcinema.org/twist.
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