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She's a Boy I Knew
They say that when someone comes out of the closet, they can't stop talking about it. Vancouver filmmaker Gwen Haworth not only talked she made a movie. Using archival family footage, interviews, phone messages, and hand-drawn animation, Haworth's documentary SHE'S A BOY I KNEW begins in 2000 with Steven Haworth's decision to come out to his family about his life-long female gender identity. The resulting auto-ethnography is not only an exploration into the filmmaker's process of transition from biological male to female, from Steven to Gwen, but also an emotionally charged account of the individual experiences, struggles, and stakes that her two sisters, mother, father, best friend and wife brought to Gwen's transition.
Under Haworth's sensitive eye, each stepping stone in the process of transitioning becomes an opportunity to explore her community's and our own underlying assumptions about gender and sexuality. When Steven starts to wear his wife Malgosia's clothing, she struggles with whether Steve "wants to be with me or to be me;" when Steven changes her name to Gwen, her father comments, that's "when I realized I lost my son;" Haworth's gender reassignment surgery, or vaginoplasty, forces her sister Kim to grapple with her own experiences in the medical establishment and raises questions about the implications of the medicalization of gender.
In these tender and difficult moments, SHE'S A BOY I KNEW forces us to question our own assumptions about the role that names, clothing, and anatomy play in our constructions of gender identity. As her transition progresses, Gwen is forced to reckon with the end of her marriage and the loss of her status as son and brother. But in doing so, she also discovers that while the nature of personal relationships may change, the love and support present within those relationships can remain just as powerful and sometimes even more so.
At turns painful, funny, and awkward, SHE'S A BOY I KNEW explores the frustrations, fears, questions, and hopes experienced by Gwen and her family as they struggle to understand and embrace her newly revealed identity.
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“Honest, intelligent and absolutely clear-eyed. Unlike most autobiographical docu helmers, Haworth has a degree in filmmaking, and her thorough understanding of the medium results in a well-edited portrait smoothly interweaving talking heads with home movies while steadily moving forward both chronologically and emotionally. Humor is another unexpected plus, picked up on by brief animated segments ("How to Be a Girl," etc.) that provide just the right amount of leavening.”
Witty, brave, and vulnerable, Haworth gave us the most affecting and memorable documentary of the year."
- Vancouver Magazine
"Haworth creates an emotional space that engulfs the viewer in a way that's extremely rare in any film, whether fiction or non-fiction."
- Kevin Griffin, The Vancouver Sun
"Rarely does a film live up to its promotional tagline. She's a Boy I Knew guarantees to be "...the most compelling DIY, gender bending, feel good film directed by a transsexual you've seen all year!" And in this case, I can't agree more."
Sarah Caufield, CJSF RADIO
"A personal story of transexuality, becomes a tribute to family and in the truest sense, unconditional love."
Bethina Abrahams, SUITE101.com
"Unique among the slew of documentaries on changing one's gender, this film blends personal interviews with gorgeous animation, offering a rich and complex portrait of the effects transitioning has not just on the individual, but those around her."
Katharine Setzer, image+nation FILM FESTIVAL
"I loved 'She's a Boy I Knew' - made with loving care, it dares to reveal an inner journey without restraint. Beautifully executed, profoundly insightful. I found myself appreciating it as a mother, a friend, a sister and a filmmaker."
Anne Wheeler, BETTER THAN CHOCOLATE
If you want to see genders, identities and sexualities with an entirely new set of eyes, then She's a Boy I Knew is absolutely mandatory viewing. A breakthrough documentary of the transgender movement, She's a Boy I Knew goes where no film on this topic has dared to go before: the complex politics and emotions of the intricate, delicate web of family, friends, lovers and community. It's an eye-opening, engrossing odyssey through battles with the health care system, the physical challenges of surgeries, and the psychological pain of reclaiming one’s self and one's family. Adroit, sharp, and agile in its hybrid cinematic style, She's a Boy I Knew invites us into not only a life in transition but into activism. It's a family melodrama in the best and most political sense of the genre: it’s insistent that the intense contradictions between public and private, family and self, biological gender and sexual identities propel out into a larger world of connecting with others to move onwards to new lives and renewed depths!
Patricia R. Zimmermann, author, States of Emergency: Documentaries, Wars, Democracies and Reel Families: A Social History of Amateur Film, and coeditor of Mining the Home Movie.
With wit, intelligence, and emotional grace, She's a Boy I Once Knew traces the journey of film-maker Gwen Haworth as she comes out to her family as transgender and transitions from loving husband and only son Steven into Gwen. This is a moving story of self-discovery and individual becoming. But it is also far more than that. Haworth joins autobiographical narrative and home movies from childhood to interviews with friends and family. These creative juxtapositions open the film up beyond an individual story of change. We learn how Steven's transition into Gwen effects profound and sometimes painful transformations for the film-maker's circle of intimate others (Steven's wife, father, mother, two sisters, and best friend), who mourn Steven even as they lovingly welcome Gwen. One of the real strengths of She's a Boy I Once Knew is its ability not to judge any of its interview subjects. Another is its richly layered depiction of the social matrix within which gendered being unfolds, changes, becomes.
Ann Pellegrini, Director, Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality, New York University
She’s a Boy I Knew (Outcast Films): Gwen Haworth’s autobiographical documentary is one of the most tender, witty, forthright and accomplished films to portray the experiences of a trans lesbian. Hailing from Vancouver, Canada, film school grad Haworth offers her life as a complex intertext, Sandy Stone-style. Praxis-savvy, she follows Stone’s imperative to fellow trans people to “take responsibility for all their history” and to “write oneself into the discourse by which one has been written.” The film draws from a deep well of family home movies, photographs, sound recordings, quirky animated clips, personal voiceover and—most effectively—interviews with the family members and friends who supported Gwen through her transition from hetero man to sexy dyke. Never didactic, sensationalistic, or simplistic, Haworth carefully places her self-narrated story of wanting to change her gender identity from the age of 4 (and swallowing this feeling long into adulthood), alongside the expressions of hurt, misunderstanding, anger, insight and pure love that her loved ones expose to the camera. Most touching and emotionally difficult are the segments with Haworth’s ex-wife, Malgosia, who stayed with Gwen for years after the transition yet realized she was no longer sexually attracted to her. We experience Gwen’s utter heartbreak during their divorce. Importantly, the film makes clear the distinctions between sexuality and gender identity. In this case, Gwen remains as hot for women as Steven was. She also realizes she’s not comfortable living as a traditional girly girl. She identifies more with queer feminist subculture and comes into her own as a punk-inspired lesbian who occasionally throws on army boots. Watching this charming film feels like befriending someone you really want to know and being intimately welcomed into her life—her whole life.
Candace Moore CURVE, JULY/AUGUST 2009
Produced by Shapeshifter Films in 2008