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FLOAT Interview at BFI Flare 2016: London LGBT Film Festival

A four-minute experimental short film shot completely underwater of trans and genderqueer folks swimming naked set to music by trans musician Rae Spoon.

Hey Sam, thanks for talking to tNC, how's things been?

Things are great, thanks!

Congratulations on having Float selected for the 30th BFI Flare how does it feel to have your film part of the festival?

I am thrilled to have FLOAT screen at the BFI Flare and to be able to share its beautiful, powerful message with the world.

Have you been surprised by the response the films has been getting?

I have been delighted by the response that FLOAT has been getting! At its heart, the film sends a universal message about celebrating all types of bodies, so I had hoped it would resonate with a very wide audience. So far it has!

Your premier at OutFest went really well, did you expect to get this type of response for Float?

FLOAT had its World Premiere at Frameline in San Francisco in June 2015, its Los Angeles Premiere at OutFest in July, and its New York City premiere at NewFest in October. I was beyond thrilled to screen at these amazing festivals and have continued to be overjoyed at its continued festival success.

How important was crowdfunding in getting this film made?

Crowdfunding was extremely important in getting FLOAT made. It turns out shooting underwater is quite complicated and expensive! (j/k) What started out as an idea with a Go-Pro and a snorkel really turned into something much more professional and I am extremely grateful for our Kickstarter backers who made it possible for us to create such a high quality film by covering costs that included renting a private house with a heated pool, scuba gear, underwater housing for the camera, and being able to pay trans musician Rae Spoon for the perfect soundtrack, “Glacier Step.”

As well as beating your target you also become a Kickstarter Staff Pick, what did it feel like to get the type of recognition for your work?

I was unbelievably honored to be chosen as a Kickstarter Staff Pick and very grateful for the additional attention that brought to our campaign. To me, it really showed that all different kinds of projects have worth and deserve attention, plus the opportunity to educate wider audiences, and I was super appreciative for the highlight.

Tell me a little bit about Float, how did the film come about?

FLOAT is a 4 minute experimental short film, shot completely underwater, featuring trans and genderqueer people, swimming naked, set to music by trans musician Rae Spoon.

I have known for a number of years that I wanted to make a film celebrating gender-variant bodies swimming naked, but it was never the right time and I wasn’t sure what piece of music would fit. I remember distinctly when I realized that ‘Glacier Step’ byRae Spoon would be perfect for this piece: I was on a bus from Downtown to West Seattle at sunset driving over a bridge with gorgeous views of Puget Sound with my headphones on listening to Rae Spoon’s new album My Prairie Home, the soundtrack for the documentary film of the same name in which they are the main subject. ‘Glacier Step’ came on and I instantly felt calm, peaceful and contemplative, the exact mood I wanted my not-yet-shot film to evoke. I began picturing the underwater swimming while I listened and got goose bumps. That’s when I knew. Goose bumps never lie. A few weeks later when I returned from Seattle to my home in Berkeley I wrote up a treatment for FLOAT and sent it off to Rae, asking if I could use their music. They wrote back soon thereafter saying they would be honored if I used the piece in my film. I continue to be immensely grateful for Rae’s music and the mood it helps create in the film.

It was very important to me to put together a crew of gender-variant people to help create a safe space for the participants so I also sent the treatment off to my good friend and cinematographer, Avery Hudson, who pretty much instantly agreed to shoot the film and, unbeknownst to me, also knows how to scuba dive! What a lucky coincidence!

What was the inspiration behind the film?

As a gender-variant person, recognizing myself on-screen and being able to relate to the characters is unbelievably affirming. FLOAT is inspired by some amazing experiences I’ve had swimming with other trans and gender-non-conforming people: folks who ordinarily would avoid swimming and bathing suits altogether who able to swim without any fear of judgment. It’s like a glimpse of a Utopian safe place, where everybody, in various stages of transition or not, hormones or not, surgeries or not, are just humans enjoying the magic and beauty of water. So I reimagined it!

What were some of your restrictions in filming underwater?

SO MANY! But we took them in stride and were constantly reminded that the entire film and experience was an experiment. The biggest restriction was communication. I wasn’t able to say “roll camera” and “action” as I would on a regular set, so we devised a team communication system: Avery would position themselves underwater and when they were framed-up they would give the “A-OK” hand signal to another crew member who was in the water with a snorkel. That person would shoot their hand up out of the water with the same hand symbol. I was positioned outside of the pool and would then shake an underwater rattle three times to signal to Avery to “roll camera.” Then I would verbally queue the participant to “swim when ready.” I felt the word “action!” wouldn’t give the right calm effect and might cause the participant to rush and not take a deep enough breath. After their swim, those of us above water would wait for a hand signal telling us if we got it, or needed to do it again, or do it again slower. Once we got it, Avery would come back up to the surface and take out their mouthpiece with quite often a giant smile saying “hi!” It was a glorious collaboration.

What was the most challenging scene for you to film?

The most challenging scene was one that actually ended up on the cutting room floor—where the entire cast jumps into the water at the same time, once with clothes and once without. First off, coordinating 9 people to jump at once was hard! There was a lot of “wait, do we go ON 3 or AFTER 3?” Second of all, it was the only time the whole cast was naked together outside of the water. I’d say it was potentially the most vulnerable shot for the participants. Which actually leads me to the most challenging aspect of making the film: Creating a safe space for gender-variant people to be comfortable being naked in front of others and on camera. This was my number one most important part of making the film, plus I think it shines through in the performances. I put together a completely trans and queer crew, we held a get-to-know-you/planning workshop beforehand where the cast and crew collaborated on our Safe Space Guidelines, we had a closed set in a private location, and we had an on-location Safe-Space Facilitator for folks to go to if they got triggered, needed to talk, or just wanted down time. As one participant said, it was the most prepared they had ever felt to do anything!

Looking back would there be anything you'd do differently on this film?

I would make it longer! In fact, I am working on that now. Rae has created an 8-minute version of the song and I’m excited to get started re-cutting it together.

Has it been hard to let go of the film?

Not at all! I am grateful and eager to share it with the world!

How did you get into filmmaker, has it always been a passion?

I didn’t always know I wanted to be a filmmaker. The magical inspiration moment happened when I was taking a Music in Film class at Smith College where we learned the basics of video production and editing to create our final project which was a music video. I shot my piece with a humongous camcorder recording onto a VHS tape (you know, the big kind that you have to balance on your shoulder?) and I couldn’t get enough of it. I’d even go back to the editing lab at night after dinner to keep working. My friends kept asking, “Where are you going? Let’s hang out.” I couldn’t help it; I’d fallen in love with filmmaking. Since then, I have worked on more films than I could count, completed the MFA program in Cinema from San Francisco State University, and had four successful short films in the festival circuit! I am also the Festival Director for Translations: Seattle Transgender Film Festival that happens each May where I am honored to curate a very unique experience for transgender and gender-variant folks to be able to come together and celebrate our communites through the power of cinema.

What are some of the themes you cover in your films?

As a queer, genderqueer, trans person recognizing myself on-screen and being able to relate to the characters is unbelievably affirming. My goal as a filmmaker is to create these special moments for the trans community and I am honored to be doing this work. I aim to provide a positive voice for the trans, gender-queer and gender-variant folks not yet represented on screen. I want to document our history, serve as a call to action to be recognized and respected by society at large, and force our culture to evolve. This means making films with gender-variant characters and themes (as well as making them BY gender-variant crews) that include safe access to bathrooms and inclusive in-take forms in GENDERBUSTERS, contemplating identity and perspective in PERCEPTION, navigating the world of dating as a trans person in DATING SUCKS: A GENDERQUEER MISADVENTURE, and meditatively celebrating all kinds of bodies in FLOAT.

I am super into making Trans New Wave work. These are films that assume the audience already has a basic Trans 101 in their back pockets so the characters are free to embody their sexual orientations and gender identities without calling attention to it— therefore giving the film the freedom to focus on the story. It is revolutionary!

How much as your style and approach changed since your debut film Genderbusters?

My films over the years have directly reflected where I am at with my own gender. When I made GENDERBUSTERS, I hadn’t yet decided to transition and was living as a visibly genderqueer person facing so many obstacles. I yearned for super heroes to save me from the restrictive binary mindsets and spaces in our culture. Once I began taking testosterone, I made PERCEPTION, which deals with the disconnect I felt between my own perception of self and how I was being seen by the rest of the world. Once I had my gender sorted out, I looked at the confusion in my dating life, specifically in relation to my genderqueerness and attractions, in DATING SUCKS: A GENDERQUEER MISADVENTURE. By that point, I was also able to laugh at myself which has proven to be quite therapeutic! By the time I created FLOAT, I was ready to represent so much more of the community as well as reach out beyond it.

In terms of style, GENDERBUSTERS is a live-action narrative, PERCEPTION is an experimental animation, DATING SUCKS takes a more hybrid approach with its animated documentary aesthetic, and FLOAT is pure live-action experiment. I made all of the films (with the exception of FLOAT) while I was in graduate school and I am very grateful for my years spent in the MFA program at SFSU because it is an environment that encourages unique styles. I loved developing my animated-doc hybrid style and am looking forward to creating DATING SUCKS EPISODE 2 in the next few years.

Now you can be reflective what advice would you offer aspiring filmmakers?

LOTS! Watch films. Lots of films. Figure out what you like and what you don’t. Are you interested in the acting? The cinematography? The editing? The score? Then watch some more films. Start making short films. Use any camera and editing software you can get your hands on. The technology is a lot more accessible now than ever before. Ask your friends to help out. Collaborate. Collaboration is a central part of filmmaking. Take some filmmaking classes—community college, adult education, weekend workshops, anything that you are able to access. There are tons of books too, but for me I learn best with hands-on classes. Even if you think you know a lot about filmmaking, there is always so much more to learn and to be inspired by. Volunteer or intern or PA for a film production company, film festival, or film production to get your foot in the door, start making your contacts, and get a sense of what the realities of a film career could look like. Did I mention watch lots of films?

And finally what do you hope people will take away from your film?

I have my own body issues as most everyone does. Towards the end of the weekend of filming, after so much nudity in such a supportive, safe environment, I felt much more comfortable in my body! I was blown-away by the diversity, uniqueness and beauty in my brave cast. I hope that the audience not only feels peaceful and contemplative after seeing the film, but also that they come away with an appreciation of all different kinds of bodies, and perhaps even more revolutionary, their own.


Sam Berliner

Shorts Programme | Trans America | BODIES

BFI South Bank

NFT 2 | 18:30 | Wed 23th

Studio | 20:50 | Thu 24th

@donutfilmsam #floatthemovie

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