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Stories, Weekly Interviews, things to see and footnotes.
Stories, Weekly Interviews, things to see and footnotes.
Stories, Weekly Interviews, things to see and footnotes.

July 3, 2019

Stories

Pride in Film - Introducing filmmakers Laura Madalinski and Fiona Dawson 9 minute read

Still from Two in the Bush

As part of Pride, we are celebrating two filmmakers featured in BFI Flare: London LGBTQ+ Film Festival: Laura Madalinski, director of the romantic comedy Two in the Bush: A Love Story, and Fiona Dawson, director of the documentary TransMilitary. Both women found a way to share their stories of self-discovery through film.

Madalinski’s Two in the Bush is filled with dry humor that explores the self-reflection in intense relationships and how sometimes love breaks you apart before it leads you to your intimate and creative path.

Filmmaker, producer and advocate, Fiona Dawson, created the New York Times Op-Doc short, Transgender, at War and in Love, highlighting the story of a transgender couple and the challenges they face serving in the military. She then went on to co-direct and produce the award-winning feature documentary, TransMilitary. The United States military recently returned to the era of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” by passing new policies banning transgender service members, and it’s clear we still have a long way to go until trans people feel accepted in society.

We spoke with both filmmakers about a range of issues, including trans rights, self discovery, and what it means to love.

Interview Rosie Anne Footitt

Laura Madalinski, director of Two in the Bush

Filmmaker Laura Madalinski was inspired to make Two In The Bush by personal heartbreak. The film follows the protagonist on a road to self-discovery as a first-time filmmaker while falling into a polyamorous relationship.

RThe film digs into a woman’s journey of finding her creative voice, and not just the romantic relationships she navigates...
LThis makes me so happy because—yes, it was! I find that in a lot of love stories, the character loses themselves in the relationship. So it was very important to show how healthy relationships should nurture you, not consume you. I love how we see the main character struggling with making her film, but encouraged and inspired by her support network to continue trying. Even when she breaks from her romantic relationships, she uses the time to work on herself.

What do you think those new to polyamorous relationships can learn about respect in those relationships?

The fact that open and honest communication is key in all relationships, including the one you have with yourself. You have to dig deep inside and find out what you want and need, and then be able to communicate that.

The film definitely has a dry humour—would you say this is part of your humour?

When my partner, Kelly Haas, and I were writing the film, we’d grab a bottle of wine and some takeout, sit at our kitchen table and just try to make each other laugh. We both really enjoy this kind of realistic humour, where you see the comedy in your daily life, even when at times it can be painfully awkward. Our favourite filmmaker is Desiree Akhavan. We binge-watched The Bisexual on Hulu and loved her style of wry, self-aware humour.

How was the writing process in making the film?

I wrote the first draft of the script and loved it, but it was too short for a feature, then I wrote the second draft and hated it. I turned to my partner Kelly and asked for her advice. She suggested that the protagonist meet and fall for the two people, but that those two people were in a pre-existing relationship. This worked much better, and it also created an immediate point of conflict that the character may feel like an outsider in their collective relationship.
As a writer, my strengths are definitely in character development and in writing a strong scene, but my partner Kelly is much better at being able to see the big picture and create a compelling, cohesive storyline and structure. We make a really wonderful team, and this movie would not have happened without her coming in and writing it with me.

Do you feel men in the industry are supporting LGBTQ and female identifying to feel safe?

I’ve seen men being awesome on set. I was a digital imaging tech on a shoot, and I was working with a director and a DP (both men) that I’ve known for some time. We had a very young and inexperienced PA who was non-binary and used they/them pronouns. These men did such an amazing job of including the PA in the production. Including them in every aspect of their process. The PA learned so much and beamed with confidence by the end of it. It was really very moving for me. I wish I had experienced more of that kind of support when I was young.  

Polyamory, as displayed in the film, seems to bring to surface issues a lot quicker. What did you learn from polyamory?

I feel like when you first start dating someone in a monogamous relationship, there can be this tendency to want to only show your best to the person you’re dating. That desire is there in polyamory too, but it’s really difficult to hide who you are when you’re dating multiple people in an open and consensual way. Honesty is paramount, as is knowing yourself and your needs. 

Can you tell us about how you used your heartbreak as inspiration for the film?

It was the first time that the actress Sarah Mitchell had ever cried on camera and she was really nervous that she wouldn’t be able to do it well and asked me for some motivation. I told her how I felt betrayed, abandoned, unloved and alone. I was tearing up as I told her all of this, and she started to tear up as well. We immediately went into the kitchen and started filming, and it just came out beautifully. I found that being willing to be vulnerable can be a very powerful directing tool.

How was it finding funding as a first-time writer/director?

Our total budget was less than $50,000, and we were completely self-funded by myself and my DP/Co-Executive Producer, Robert Stockwell. I used my life savings, credit cards, and every favour I had earned over 15 years in post-production. I knew it had to be this way because I was a first-time writer/director with a very unconventional script.
I also want to say, even though we had such a limited budget, every single person working on this film was paid. They may not have received their full rate but they were given something, because I think that is very important. It shows that their time and talent is respected.

What are you looking forward to in the DIY Chicago film scene and the future of LGBTQ film?

There’s so much to look forward to in the future of filmmaking. Some of the most interesting stories I’ve seen lately have come from web series produced by Open TV. Brujos, The T, Brown Girls—just some of my favourites. The work that they’re doing, along with other queer content creators in Chicago, inspires me every day.
Over 75% of our cast and crew were women, queer, and/or people of colour. It was very important for us to have a team as diverse as the communities we were representing.

How was the reception and support at the BFI?

Our European premiere at BFI Flare was such an amazing experience. It was such a supportive and inspiring environment. I swear there is no better feeling in the world than when someone comes up to me after seeing the movie and is just like, “thank you for making this, I’ve never felt so seen.” I get chills just thinking about it because that’s why we made it.


Fiona Dawson, producer and director of TransMilitary

TransMilitary highlights the lives of four trans service members defending their country’s freedom while fighting for their own.
In July 2017, Trump first tweeted that he would ban trans military service. TransMilitary shows footage of the roller coaster each service member faced and the unfolding political unrest. The film includes the moment they enter the Pentagon for the first time to speak with leadership and the emotional highs and lows of being accepted then suddenly restricted from living their truth.
Fiona Dawson explains, “We thought we’d finished the film and ended on a happy ending and then, of course, Trump wanted to ban trans service members and it came as a huge surprise. We went back to re-shoot and re-edit the film. It wasn’t intended as a political film, but with Trump doing this, we had to demonstrate the fact that people’s lives were still on the line.”

RWhat led you to make this documentary?

FI wanted to redirect my career into media and film, and I had trans friends who were members of the military. Through storytelling, it evolved. When people are advocating and doing research as a driving force, together, you have potential action for social change.

Around October 2012, when the project started, even though I hadn’t lived in the UK since 1998, I’d grown up there and came to understand that (in the UK) trans people could serve since 1999, before lesbian and bisexual. So I decided to compare and contrast UK and US service members.
We started filming these people when they came back from Afghanistan and documenting their stories.

How did you find such a connection with the film? Why is it important for you to tell LGBTQ stories?

I came to the US in 2004 and found myself on a journey of a break-up and finding of self in 2012 when I came out as lesbian bisexual. Around this same time, military trans issues started. I saw how storytelling could elevate an issue.

Can you tell us about the journey of making the film? How have responses been so far?

After the first film demonstrated a significant impact and was Emmy-nominated, we knew people needed to hear these stories.
It was premiered at the SXSW Film Festival but it was special with my family being there at the BFI London Film Festival screening. It was really touching to watch it in my home country. It’s strange to draw a comparison between the UK acceptance of trans members and the US. A good friend of mine in the UK, Hannah Rose Brass (Jake Graff), is known as a transgender and seen as the highest serving member. Hannah was awarded an MBE by the Queen, where at the same time, my US friends are battling 2.0, which went into effect on April 12th.

The US military operates from a facts based perspective—it’s a more bureaucratic following of line and policy. The ban is blatantly unethical.

What makes commanders have more compassion and understanding for trans members?

Logan and Layla are a part of Sparta—a group of trans service members (now 800 members). We try to give representation to their stories and lives. It’s a mix, but a lot of the time trans members are actually supported by their team members because they care more about how they do their job. Despite race, sexual orientation or gender in a war zone, they want to know, “have you got my back?”

Logan took a bold step to acknowledge to the commander that he was trans before the ban was lifted. It was quite ballsy because he could have made Logan return home. The commander had no fear because Logan was outstanding at the job.
That’s the kind of strength you look to have as a leader.

How can we support trans people?

I am cis-gender bisexual, but I never want to speak for trans individuals. I just do everything in my power to give them a voice.  As an advocate and filmmaker, if you have the power to give a trans person a voice and they want to share their voice, we should give them a platform and lift them up. Help elevate each other, because when you’re seen and counted, you can actually be considered in social provisions and politics. It’s just about speaking up and calling transphobia out.

What are your plans for the future journey? Did you have a plan to become a director?

I didn’t set out to be a female documentary filmmaker. I love that I ended up in this position. It’s been the greatest joy in my life doing this project. When I came to the States, I was in my early twenties in the non-profit sector, always working in some form of storytelling. Simultaneously, I was speaking on TV and radio for these non-profits. I ended up working for a bank doing corporate responsibility, but it wasn’t fulfilling my soul, so in 2010, I quit my job with no strategic plan. I entered Oprah’s competition to have a show for OWN network. If I could do anything with my life, I wanted to host a show that focuses on the positive stories of how people are working to end social stigma and segregation. I think the news often focuses on negatives and instead, I wanted to create a show that shares stories of people doing inspiring things and make the world a better place. You learn about the negativity of an issue, but leave feeling inspired to do something about it. So I made a reel and submitted to the competition, and when I didn’t win, I had a choice to either go back to my job or decide to continue on and do it anyway. Through the generosity of friends in Houston, I raised money on Kickstarter and filmed stories in India on sexual trafficking, prostitution, HIV and AIDS.
I enjoy writing and directing, but I also enjoy public speaking and being a host on camera. Central to my core values is creating content that makes the world a better place. That will run true through every project I work on. I also directed a short narrative, More Than He Knows, last summer.
I’m going to try and create three starter episodes titled NOW with Fiona and push that out into the world and see if people like it.

What kind of conversations would that include? Spiritual? Social?

I really want to be able to work on any kind of stigma or discrimination. Originally, I wanted to be global, but I want to focus on the US. A charity called Back On My Feet helps homeless people train for and run marathons. It helps them to build their physical, mental and social empowerment.

For further information on the BFI Flare: London LGBTQ+ Film Festival, go to bfi.org.uk/flare