In 2012, director and producer, Shaleece Haas chronicled the journey of Bennett Wallace, a then-19-year-old transgender teen and his mother, Suzy.
In the documentary film Real Boy, mother and son navigate through their relationship, his gender-reassignment surgery and Suzy's eventual acceptance of her trans son. Haas talked with Windy City Times about the family dynamics, the challenges of making the film and what awards mean to her.
Windy City Times: What made you want to become a filmmaker?
Shaleece Haas: I've always been a storyteller from the time I was very young and I've always loved to learn about experiences to have a deeper understanding of peoples stories. I used to be a still photographer, [and] worked in radio and oral history; documentary was another form of storytelling that really moved me.
WCT: Is it true that you spent four years making Real Boy?
SH: It was three and a half years between the beginning of filming to the time we finished our edits.
WCT: How did you meet Bennett Wallace, the transgender young man whom the documentary is based on?
SH: I met Bennett through Joe [Stevens], his mentor, the older [transgender] musician in the film and I was really moved by the music and the friendship forming with Bennett and Joe.
WCT: Initially, Bennett's mother, Suzy was not happy about her son's plan to undergo gender-reassignment surgery ( GRS ) but she eventually came to terms with it. Did it take a long time for her to come around?
SH: I think Bennett and Suzy have always loved each other very much, but there was a lot of needing to understand more and really get clarity about old feelings and work through her own feelings, expectations and ideas. She had to change her attitude and she did. It was a gradual process. Today Bennett and his mom are very close.
WCT: What was their reaction when you approached them about doing the documentary?
SH: Bennett and Joe were open to participating in the project early on, but with Suzy it took a little more time to be comfortable with me as a filmmaker and to be comfortable with me as a person and get used to the idea of being part of it as well.
WCT: Throughout filming, Bennett's dad was not supportive of his son and, at one point, he wasn't even talking to Bennett. What is their relationship like now?
SH: Today, Bennett and his dad are much closer. His dad has really come around and is very supportive of Bennett. Bennett is very happy to have that relationship with his dad now.
WCT: Did Bennett or Suzy ever ask you to take certain things out of the documentary or did you hesitate about what to keep in or take out?
SH: They never asked me to not put things in the film but it was very important to me to be very thoughtful about how the story was told and what was the best way to tell the story in a way that was truthful and honest that really honored and respected them.
WCT: Were they always comfortable with a camera being around them during both the good and bad times?
SH: We had a very close relationship by that point, so in many ways it wasn't just the camera that was around it was also me, and I think that helped. And oftentimes when they were having difficult moments they weren't really thinking about the camera, they were thinking about what was going on in the moment.
WCT: Since you filmed Real Boy for over three years, did you ever consider turning the documentary into a TV series?
SH: Not really because we were very clear about what we wanted to tell, even though there was a lot of filming that didn't make it into the final film. It was a very straightforward story, and there were a lot of issues beyond just coming to terms with Bennett's transition, there are lots of storylines that deal with addiction and recovery, mentorship and music. We wanted it to be a compact story, but I don't think that we thought of it as something that would make sense as a series.
WCT: What was the most challenging part about filming Real Boy?
SH: As I was the director, producer and camera operator, there were times when I really had to figure out which of those roles I was playing at any moment. It was a lot of work to edit the film and figure out how we were going to tell the story.
WCT: This film has garnered about 20 awards, such as the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the Austen Gay & Lesbian Film Festival. Is there one award that means the most to you?
SH: That's hard to say. I really feel grateful that the film has resonated for so many people and impacted so many people and has felt significant and important to audiences around the world.
WCT: After filming this documentary, what is one thing that you learned about the transgender community that you didn't know before?
SH: I'm a queer woman and much of my community who are friends and collaborators are also trans. I spent a lot of time talking to them listening to them and having conversations about gender identity and gender expression. I don't think that I learned through the film necessarily, as much as through the people in my life who shared their stories with me.
Real Boy premieres Monday, June 19, on PBS. For more info, visit PBS.org .