‘Coby’ is a respectful and captivating depiction of a transgender journey

There’s no shortage of dramatic and documentary films that aim to capture what its like to transition from gender to another, but Coby, a documentary from French filmmaker Christian Sonderegger, shares that experience is a respectful and nuanced way, that avoids the usual storytelling gimmicks.

The film premiered at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival and has been garnering acclaim on the festival circuit. Perth audiences will have a chance to see the film as part of the 2018 Alliance Française French Film Festival.

The film begins with a brief clip of a young man making a YouTube video, Coby has just started taking injections of testosterone and is documenting his journey.

Suddenly we cut to a paramedic in his 20’s desperately trying to help a young boy who has had a seizure, we follow him working in the back of an ambulance, it’s potentially a moment of life and death.

We follow the young man home through the snow covered landscape of Ohio, and it takes a few minutes but you realise that this is the same person we met at the beginning of the film. We’re not going to be following the predictable journey, the journey is already over. Cody is living his life as the man he wants to be.

We meet Cody’s partner Sara, his brother Andrew and his parents, Willard and Ellen. Each share their thoughts on the last few years of their lives, the things they’re proud of, the moments they regret.

His mother tells of a time she said she could accept her daughter becoming a butch lesbian and using a different name, but she drew the line at a gender transition, she reflects on her poor choice of words.

We follow Cody and Sara as they weight their options for having children, we meet his brother who is full of admiration, and his father, Will, has no shortage of profound observations.

“Changing has consequences, but not doing it has also consequences.” Willard says during an interview, and you realise that while Coby has had a massive physical transformation, all of his family have been on a journey of change.

Surprisingly this French production, that screened at Cannes, and is showing at the French Film Festival, is in English, and shot in Ohio.

Chatting to director Christian Sonderegger, listening carefully to his thick French accent, we discover his personal connection to the story. Coby is is half brother.

“He’s my half brother, Ellen is my mother. She gave me up for adoption in France by her, and I tracked her down twenty years ago. I was born in France, and adopted by a French family.”

Christian said he catches up with American family regularly, and had known Coby since he was twelve years old. Being a member of the family offers some explanation on how the director managed to film such intimate and moving scenes.

“I’ve never lived with them, but it explains why sometimes you have something very intimate with them, and other times a very distant way of filming.” the director said.

When Coby first started his transition Christian said he should just come and live in Paris, where people are far more accepting of someone who is transgender, rather than living is a small rural area of Ohio.

When Coby proposed the idea of using his YouTube videos to make a film Christian at first turned down the proposal. He said it was only later when Coby was happily living his life as a man that he realised the change all of the family had gone through.

“We were all against it in the very beginning, now we are all going with the flow, and even happy that it happened.  That’s why I filmed it after the transition has happened so we could look back with the knowledge that we have today.”

The landscape and the weather play a big part in the film, the early scenes are filmed in winter. The landscape is covered in snow, it’s blisteringly cold. As the film progresses later scenes are shot in summer and the images are filmed with a warm golden glow.

“I wanted used the weather as a metaphor for transition.” Christian said. “First there is snow and everything is freezing, and then later on it’s summer and the rain is coming down. For me changing and transitioning, it’s like a change of state, from ice to melting water, I wanted that visual reminder, it’s just like changing from being a man to a woman, or a woman to a man.

“It’s natural and fluid, I wanted to show that, its not harsh like people want us to believe.” Christian said.

The film is concise running at tight 70 minutes, but Christian reveals he shot 85 hours of footage over a six week period, plus he had access to sixteen hours of YouTube footage that Coby and Sarah had filmed over several years.

“Editing the film was 18 weeks of my life,” Christian said, “It took a lot of time to work out where to put every scene, which one would be the first one, which one would be the last one?”

Christian said he is now enjoying seeing the reactions the film provokes as it is screened around the world, and he notes that there is a clear generational difference in how people feel about gender.

“For the young generation, for them it’s just normal life. That’s what they think of transition, but for older ones they feel different, especially parents. Now I see a lot of parents coming to be after the show and they say, ‘You know what, now we are not afraid any more, if our kid comes to us and says he needs to become a man, we’re not afraid to help out.”

Catch Coby at the 2018 Alliance Française French Film Festival. It’s screening at 11:00am on Wednesday 21 March at Luna SX, and again at 1:00pm on Thursday 29 March March at Cinema Paradiso.      

Graeme Watson

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