“Passing Ellenville” is a documentary film project that explores the lives of two transgender young people, James and Ashlee, living in Ellenville, New York, which is described by the filmmakers as “a small, economically-depressed town 90 miles north of New York City that time has passed by.”
A joint collaboration between writer and co-director Gene Fischer and cinematographer and co-director Sam Centore, the film stems from a documentary photo project originally conducted by Fischer before the pair met at a lecture.
“Passing Ellenville” follows both Ashlee, a 22-year-old trans woman who struggles to align her orthodox Jewish faith with her gender identity, and James, a 22-year-old trans man who is coping with a history of abuse and familial problems, as well the complicated way in which the experience of his gender identity has been influenced by his tumultuous past.
Though the film has met its modest Kickstarter goal, Fischer and Centore hope to raise additional funds in order to broaden its reach at various film festivals, as well as eventually incorporate it into schools and educational institutions as a resource for students. Fischer and Centore believe the film presents a different form of trans narrative, one that has often been overlooked within the sparse representations of trans people in the mainstream media: the story of transgender individuals whose gender identity intersects with other aspects of marginalization and disenfranchisement and who are forced to live on the outer fringes of society.
The Huffington Post caught up with Fischer and Centore to discuss “Passing Ellenville,” what inspired the pair to become involved in the lives of Ashlee and Sam, and the role that they see their film playing in the larger mainstream conversation forming around transgender identity.
The Huffington Post: Can you give us a bit of background on the film — your inspiration behind it and the overarching goal that you’re trying to accomplish?
Gene Fischer: My inspiration is based on how I relate to these kids, because I am not transgender but I’m a 40-some year old gay man who 25 years ago experienced a lot of prejudice in my life. I was sent by my family to a gay rehabilitation group. The ex-gay movement is now being sort of outlawed but that was a long time ago; I was young — about 21. So, when I met these kids and saw what they were struggling with it just reminded me so much of what happened when I was their age. I feel like the LGBT movement and gay people have made so much progress since that happened to me when I was 21 but it feels like the transgender movement is back to where I was 25 years ago with that lack of acceptance.
Sam Centore: My inspiration for making the film, besides Gene’s photos, [stems from how] this was the first time that as a gay man I could think about how we identify LGBTQ people in a very concrete way. I guess a way of coming at it is I’m in art school and I make experimental films about queerness and all this stuff, but actually seeing these photos of these people’s real lives was really inspirational to see in a concrete form.
The Huffington Post: In terms of James and Ashlee’s stories, how would you say that they differ from mainstream representations of transgender people in the media and how are they framed by the rural setting that they’ve grown up in?
Fischer: I think this also goes back to that inspiration question, where what I’ve witnessed in mainstream media with transgender youth has been very positive. On March 18 The New Yorker had an article about a female-to-male trans high school student whose parents were helping with the hormones and getting him to transition. Katie Couric had a show with lots of transgender kids and The Trevor Project [highlights] kids whose parents are helping them transition with hormones and things like that. Whereas the kids that we’ve met — and I think you know that this started originally as a documentary photography project of mine before Sam and I met — they are living the exact opposite. These are kids that were kicked out of their homes or ran away from their homes, ended up on food stamps and Medicaid and they have no one helping them. I feel like they’re very disenfranchised and not what we see in the media and we’re giving them a voice.
Centore: The way I’ve kind of come at it is we’ve seen very sparse examples of transgender people in the media. When I told my family about this they brought up, “Oh that makes me think of Bradley Manning.” It was the one kind of example that they found. I feel like in the news, when you have these very sparse examples of a type of person, like a transgender person, that becomes their primary identifier. Like James, one of our subjects, [said] “Being transgender isn’t my problem –- it complicates things.” I’m more looking at observing their struggles, how being transgender complicates that, how transgender is actually a secondary characteristic of how they describe themselves.
The Huffington Post: How would you say that the experience of transgender youth growing up in a rural setting is different from that of a trans person in a more urban setting?
Fischer: I think there are a couple of things there. Some of it has to do with economics — in these little rural towns, these kids come from fairly low to middle income families in general. Also, a lack of access to education and lack of access to medical care. Whereas I think if you go down to Christopher Street in New York City, you see a lot of trans people and there’s people in the West Village that don’t look twice as them. They don’t care — it’s just part of the scene. There are resources here in [New York City] that I know of, like Apicha, that focus on low-income healthcare for trans people. These kids don’t have any of that sort of access. So not only do they not have the parental help, but they don’t have access [in general]. In the film, there’s a day where we document James when he gets his first hormone treatment in Manhattan. Getting him into the city — he can’t even afford the bus fare. So he had to bribe a friend to take him to a into the city to see the doctor and they just happened to find a doctor in the Upper East Side that takes Medicaid for trans people… So it’s transportation, it’s income, it’s acceptance.
The Huffington Post: James and Ashlee have a transgender mentor in Ellenville. Could you talk a bit about this person that they have in their lives and the role she plays?
Centore: Their trans mentor, as they say, her name is Amy. Amy is significantly older, in her early 50s, and James and Ashlee are in their early 20s. Also relating this to your last question, what I find to be the biggest difference between the rural town versus the urban environment is they have this kind of micro community where Amy is their mentor and she helps James and Ashlee and others in Ellenville transition by helping them with name change, license change and these things that in an urban community might be more clinical through larger support groups. What we found was how they’re kind of defining themselves by these very personal relationships with Amy who we interview more in-depth in the film.
Fischer: Besides the tactical mentoring with how to do your license change and how to do your name change, she provides almost a parental figure to them because they’ve had such problems with their families. She is also the age of their parents. In the film you find her to be very positive and warm and loving towards them and she’s been a great help.
The Huffington Post: In terms of James and Ashlee’s individual stories, Ashlee comes from an Orthodox background and a lot of her struggles center around trying to align her gender identity with her faith and spirituality.
Fischer: Ashlee became more involved with her Jewish faith as part of her identity as a trans woman and it’s provided sort of a guiding light for her as a way to act, a way to behave and a way to dress. So she hangs on to that as part of this identity and through that she’s had a lot of problems with her local temple where people don’t accept her, they question her background — they question her faith as well as her gender identity. Sam and I have been with her when we’re out in public and she might see another Orthodox or Hasidic person and will approach them, as she speaks German and Yiddish. She tries to relate to them on that level, but just by the way she looks they will not speak to her.
Centore: We found her biggest identifiers are her boyfriend, Jimmy, and her religion. It’s kind of really heartbreaking — in the film we’re interviewing her in front of her temple and a patron from the synagogue comes out and kind of shoos us away and it was kind of heartbreaking. It hits me on a personal level because I grew up in a Catholic church and I found that as I got older and even graduating high school, I was really clinging to my Catholic roots. I have friends who are also Catholic who would question me and say, “How can you call yourself Catholic if you’re also gay?” I felt like within the ideals of a faith, at the core, that shouldn’t matter. I found this really big rift there within myself, so I was relating to Ashlee by seeing her have these core beliefs but not being able to express them through relationships with other people her age.
The Huffington Post: In that same framework, I’m curious to hear more about James’ experiences. You pinpointed his identifiers as a history of abuse and family problems.
Fischer: It’s a short film and if we had more time we would maybe expand on this some more. It comes through in the film but there’s more probably there than even comes out. He suffered physical abuse from the time he was six from a neighbor. Then as he got a little bit older, at about 15, he was abused by a non-immediate family member. He admits that’s sort of guided him in his journey, even in his trans journey. He admits that it sort of stunted him to mature as a physical being, both in relationships and as a transgender person. He talks in the movie about how he relates to his physical abuse as a woman and how he saw that as part of his delay into transition as a man. He didn’t know where to blame [the abuse] on, and it sort of got in the way.
Centore: He met Ashlee and wasn’t sure if he wanted to transition because that’s who he truly was or if it was a direct result of being abused and it would be safer to be a man.
The Huffington Post: What do you hope that this film will contribute to the larger, mainstream conversation that’s taking place in regards to not only gender identity but also what it means to be a transgender person?
Fischer: This is our first Kickstarter, both of ours. So we were nervous and made the minimum goal lower than we really needed it to be because we figured something is better than nothing. So, we’re happy that we’re making the $5,000 [as of the time of this interview]. I think I wrote on there that we’re really hoping to get closer to $8,000… I presented this at the Empire State Pride Agenda and in April they have their annual Equality Day up in Albany. When I presented just the photos [before beginning the film] and I had James and Ashlee with me, we had about 100 kids show up –- teenagers. We were planning for about 60 or 70 and we had probably 100 teenagers and another 30 adults, and I saw the importance of getting this into schools to help young teens. Not just New York City schools — but schools in the rural areas to help kids start to understand. Sam’s cinematography is really beautiful so it makes really striking film and the story is really emotional — I think it can serve as an educational tool to young people.
Centore: In an overarching sense, what I’d like to come from this is I’d rather show a glimpse of their complex lives rather than trying to provide this simplified film that people might not be able to relate to. I’d like to provide a personal narrative of these kids in order to make transgender people more –- to have a story where it’s not the primary characteristic of their identity but a secondary characteristic.
To learn more about “Passing Ellenville” or to contribute to the project itself, visit Fischer and Centore’s Kickstarter page. Any press inquiries should be sent to the film’s publicist Chris Alleri at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Check out the trailer above and stay tuned for more to come from “Passing Ellenville” in the future.