With trans rights under attack across the country day after day – and this Friday being Trans Day of Visibility – there’s no better time to be discussing the place of trans art as activism, and the Sundance Institute has done just that, kicking off their Trans Possibilities Intensive at the start of this week as part of their nonprofit work supporting creative development in film and episodic storytelling, specifically uplifting and nurturing trans voices. And to bring broader attention to this Intensive and its goals, creator Moi Santos (Sundance Institute Equity, Impact, and Belonging Manager) hosted a conversation today with trans filmmaker Aitch Alberto (writer-director of the upcoming Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe) to “interrogate trans cultural production and representation [with] its limits and its liberties [and] its comforts and its confines” – and these were our biggest takeaways.
Trans artists need to show up as much as possible, now more than ever
When discussing her desire to be a filmmaker – and her participation in today’s discussion – Alberto noted how, growing up, she didn’t have trans people who were visible to her, or trans people she could look up to and aspire to emulate. Thus, her goal as a writer/director has been to “show up as much as possible,” as that visibility is the most important thing in the world to a young trans person still interrogating their identity or a trans person of any age struggling to dream big and know what’s possible for them.
Art is a trans person’s political act and radical existence
One of Alberto’s strongest statements came at the start of the discussion, when she explained why trans art has persevered, and why it was important that it continued to do so as well. Queer and trans art has always naturally been born out of the everyday social resistance to “the other,” and it has evolved and grown from that. Furthermore, Alberto stated that “[her] political act – and radical existence – is [her] art.” It’s how she – and all trans artists – let the world know who they are and that they won’t be erased.
The increase in trans visibility has created a pressure for artists to be an “exceptional trans person,” but don’t give in
As moderator Moi Santos noted, over the past few years, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of trans stories being shared across film and television (even if there’s still so much work to be done). Because of this rapid increase in trans visibility, she inquired whether that makes trans artists like Alberto feel pressure to be “better” and be this “exceptional trans person.” Alberto pushed back against the idea, noting that she is “a human being first and foremost,” and her trans identity “informs [her] perspective, but isn’t [her] whole story.” She further elaborated that trans people are “messy and complicated,” and they’re “not a monolith” – she’s only ever “speaking for [herself].”
Don’t let the fear of failure define you – cishet people don’t
Both Santos and Alberto noted that many trans artists sometimes shy away from sharing their stories or pursuing their artistic passions because they’re held back by that all-too-familiar “fear of failure.” However, Alberto sent a clear message to all aspiring trans artists by telling them not to let this fear define them – white people, cis people, and white cis men especially aren’t held back by it, so why should we be? “We should allow ourselves that same grace,” Alberto said.
When Alberto initially wrote the script for Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, she was told “you won’t be able to direct this.” However, when she got into the Sundance Episodic Lab and started writing for television (working with the likes of J.J. Abrams and Sian Heder), her profile rose, and she was able to pitch her vision for the project to Lin-Manuel Miranda (who had recorded the audiobook for Aristotle and Dante and was a producer on the film) and landed the job.
Lead the charge turning away from “queer trauma porn”
In Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, a key plot point is the fact that Aristotle’s brother is in prison for killing a sex worker after discovering she was trans. Though this event ties in with the book’s and film’s broader themes of bigotry and the importance of acceptance, Alberto knew she would never film a scene “flashing back” to said event in any respect to refuse indulging in “trans trauma porn.” Additionally, they did happen to shoot a scene that involved the “gay bashing” of the character Dante, but in the editing room, Alberto decided to cut the scene, arguing that they didn’t need to show the act for the audience to feel the effect of that event. She received pushback, but she held firm in her stance against perpetuating queer trauma porn, as queer and trans people are more than their pain.
Aspiring trans filmmakers: join forces and find the fan within yourself
When asked what advice she would give to aspiring trans filmmakers at the end of this discussion, Alberto made two major points. The first was that “there’s room for all of us” – join forces with your fellow trans artists and uplift their work and they will do the same. There are still too few out trans artists as is, but at the same time, there is strength in numbers. Lastly, she urged trans filmmakers to “find that fan within yourself,” since that’s the most important fan of all. Allow yourself to have “delusional confidence” and dream big, because if you don’t believe in yourself, no one else will.