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Powerful documentary to premiere at 'TransReelization'
by Gretchen Rachel Hammond
2016-10-26

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In one of the most powerful moments of the award-winning documentary film Free CeCe, transgender activist and civil rights icon CeCe McDonald talks with award-winning actress, activist and executive producer of the film Laverne Cox about her dreams while McDonald spent 19 months at the Minnesota Correctional Facility ( a level IV men's prison ) for defending herself against a brutal attack by a drunken group of white individuals outside the South Minneapolis Schooner Tavern on June 2, 2011.

"All I dreamed of being in there was to be this more glamorous person and appreciate my femininity and my womanhood," she said. "I guess it's the policy with the entire Department of Corrections where things are very misogynistic. Unfortunately, as a trans woman, they still view us as men and we aren't entitled to those things that women have; I couldn't wear my clothes a certain way or shorts or things that accentuate my body."

"They hypersexualized me in their own manner because I was a woman in a men's prison, McDonald added. "By creating these policies around just me. They would say, 'It's for your safety. We're doing it to protect you.' It's like, "Honey, I'm in prison. If somebody wants to jump off, they could.' I feel like a lot of things they did were created to take away my trans-ness and turn me into a man."

The film shows McDonald attending a party celebrating her 2014 release, her dreams suddenly and gloriously real.

Wearing a glamorous dress and showing off all her curves, McDonald joins performers on a stage, dancing with unrestrained and ecstatic freedom from often months at a time of solitary confinement which she described as "no contact with anybody at all. It was really depressing especially knowing what their reasoning was. I feel like they made you try to hate yourself as someone who's nonconforming."

Free CeCe is a film that takes audiences on a visceral journey through the mental and physical suffering that occurs throughout the course of a grave injustice and the once-impossible dreams of a trans woman of color locked up for trying to live an authentic life.

It warns of the absolute worst that society can do to the civil and human rights of an individual.

The residents of the TransLife Center at Chicago House have at least some defense against society's ceaseless attacks upon their personhood.

So, it is only fitting that the third annual TransReelization fundraiser benefitting the TransLife Center to be held Nov. 5 at the Music Box Theatre will serve as the Chicago premiere for Free CeCe.

School of the Art Institute of Chicago ( SAIC ) professor and TransLife Center advisory board member Mickey R. Mahoney has served as the co-curator of the event with fellow board member Karin Winslow for each of TransReelization's three years.

"Because I teach a trans film class at the Art Institute, I know about the films coming in," Mahoney said. "I'd been wanting to get my hands on [Free CeCe] for a long time. It is such a powerful piece and relates to everything the TransLife Center is about. It brings to light all of the things that happen to trans women of color and I am thrilled we have it."

The screening of the feature-length documentary is a departure from the fundraiser's traditional menu of short films dealing with trans issues.

The format of the event has also changed.

Following an afternoon matinee of Free CeCe, a VIP after-party will be held at the Kinowerks studios, offering a once-in-a-lifetime, intimate look at the breathtaking work of award-winning filmmakers Lana and Lilly Wachowski, an opportunity to meet McDonald alongside Free CeCe director and producer Jac Gares, a silent and online auction that includes an original painting by Lilly entitled Duck Call of Cthulhu ( a reference to an H.P. Lovecraft story ) and a sneak preview of the second season of the hit Netflix series Sense8.

"We decided to expand TransReelization to make it an option for people who couldn't swing a $500 ticket," Mahoney said. "So this is going to be something completely different for us."

For Gares, Free CeCe is the culmination of over three years of work that began when she was a showrunner for the LGBT-themed PBS show In the Life which ran for an extraordinary two decades.

"We were kind of like a rebel crew," she said. "We didn't have a lot of money to make the show but what we put out there, we wanted to be ethical, factual and something that amplified the voices of those who are marginalized in society and certainly within the LGBT community."

Following the segment A Conversation With Janet Mock and Isis King, which dealt with moving past Trans 101 narratives and representations, Gares began working with Cox on ideas for In The Life.

Cox immediately brought up McDonald.

"We both knew of the story when it broke in 2011," Gares said. "I was outraged that a Black trans woman who was defending herself and trying to get away from one of her attackers would have to spend time in jail. We saw the misgendering [of CeCe] in the mainstream media and I was frustrated by that coverage. It was why I wanted to do this story so badly and do it right. Laverne is not only a gracious, incredible collaborator and human being, she's also a fierce advocate. So it was a pleasure to make this film with her and really be able to lift up CeCe's story."

The first shoot in that task involved Gares travelling with Cox to the prison in St, Cloud, Minnesota, where McDonald was being held at the time—access for which Gares credits both the reputation of In The Life and the rise of Cox's career through the phenomenally successful Netflix series Orange is the New Black,.

"Neither one of us had ever set foot in a prison before," Gares said, "So it was uneasy for us to go through everything to get in. We had to be very low impact. I could only use DSLR [Digital Single-Lens Reflex] cameras and that determined how the rest of the film would be shot. When they brought CeCe to us, which you see in the film, it was incredible to meet her. I thought 'Why is this woman in a men's prison?' She had a beautiful energy and was so kind and with a generous spirit."

"I knew it was going to be powerful to put Laverne and CeCe together," Gares added. "I didn't realize how powerful. There was just a beautiful exchange between the two and an outpouring of love."

But immediately following the meeting, the reality of McDonald's situation was brought home with cold indifference.

"When CeCe had to leave us, we were hugging her and [correctional officers] came in and started saying things like, 'He needs to be strip-searched now before he goes back,'" Gares said. "Immediately the misgendering happened and we were crushed. But CeCe just smiled and waved goodbye to us. She is an incredible human being with an indomitable spirit."

Despite her involvement with each of the issues covered by In The Life, the production of Free CeCe provided Gares with an unexpected and harsh education.

"I really learned how much of a problem people have with human rights," she said. "It really just struck me how people were not seeing CeCe as a human being. Because she had been put into the criminal injustice system, she was seen as less than human in many people's eyes. What surprised me is how much that propelled me to listen to CeCe's story."

"There were times when Laverne and I would be talking to people at the The Sylvia Rivera Law Project or the AVP [New York Anti-Violence Project] and asking questions like, 'What does safety mean? and 'What does violence mean to people in the trans community?'" Gares added. "There were things that we had ideas about and things we had no idea about. So the ability to go deep on a lot these issues really carried over to me in making the portrait of a Black woman as a human being especially in a society that really does not value trans women."

For Mahoney ( a longtime friend of Gares ), Free CeCe is a major accomplishment.

"I knew about the film, as Jac was making it," Mahoney said. "So I was keeping up on its progress. I kept thinking, 'How did you get footage like the [police] interrogation of CeCe?' It's amazing that Jac was able to pull that off but, at the same time, it makes my stomach turn when I watch it because it's so horrific the way she was treated. I'm glad that it was all brought out in the way the film is structured."

"The only thing I felt that I could do was report the facts," Gares said. "I wanted to represent the violence and the remembrance of trans women who are victims of brutality but I didn't want to do it in a way that would distance the audience. I wanted people to connect with CeCe in her moment of remembering and memorializing."

Because the film is to be screened at the Music Box, rather than in the smaller audience capacity of Kinowerks, Mahoney hopes that particularly students will take that opportunity to connect with McDonald's story.

"There's student discounts," he said. "If they enter the word 'college' on the Transreelization website, they can get tickets for $15. The screening is a community event and a celebration of sorts that is also educational and impactful. That and the VIP party are different events but still super-important and a really fun time."

People will need to move fast if they want to experience it. According to Chicago House Corporate Relations Associate Anthony DiFiore, tickets to TransReelization are going to sell out soon.

"We've already had a huge amount of RSVPs," he said. "So we're really excited."

He hopes that TransReelization will raise $100,000 for the TransLife Center.

"I think for anyone who is a person of color or a trans person of color, Free CeCe is really about the commonalities of CeCe's life whether you are young or old," Gares said. "I hope these commonalities will further the discussion and shine a light on local policies that will make change and a difference in this community. I want people to see how a human being was treated by the justice system for defending her life. My hope is that they will become agents for change on a large scale."

For more information, visit ChicagoHouse.org/home/transreelization.


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