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Effective Trans Storytelling Starts with Authenticity

By Stephanie Ornelas

Today is Trans Day of Visibility, a day to honor the contributions and existence of our trans community — from artists to colleagues to friends and family. At a time when transness is being vilified, visibility alone is clearly not enough — and indeed not always possible. As champions of preserving artistic expression, we believe that supporting authentic voices yields the ability to broaden our minds: engage, provoke, inspire, and ultimately, connect us. 

At Sundance Institute, trans storytellers will always have a place to cultivate their artistic craft, their sense of community, and most importantly, their joy. Supporting trans storytelling is critical work we do as a nonprofit all year round at Sundance. Join us in uplifting underrepresented artists by making a donation today here.

Sundance Institute’s 2023 Trans Possibilities Intensive concluded with a powerful discussion between writer-director Aitch Alberto (Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe) and Moi Santos, founder of the Intensive and manager of Sundance Institute’s Equity, Impact, and Belonging Program. Now in its second year, the Trans Possibilities Intensive is an immersive three-day virtual program focused on advancing transgender storytellers of color and their projects through creative development support. Alberto is one of four advisors who led this year’s Intensive.  

On Wednesday, Santos met virtually with Alberto for Sundance Collab’s Trapped In Transit: Transgender Storytelling with Visionary Filmmaker Aitch Alberto, and during the conversation, they discussed the pressure trans artists often face in filmmaking, the difficulties of navigating a predominantly cis industry, and the challenges Alberto overcame while writing and directing Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. Her upcoming film, based on Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s New York Times bestselling novel of the same name, was produced by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Eugenio Derbez and had its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. 

“An initiative and conversation like this is absolutely essential,” Alberto stresses at the beginning of the session. “Not having people who were visible to me when I was dreaming of doing this, I think it’s really important for myself and for people like me to show up as much as possible to give. We talk about visibility and whether it’s the answer to it all, and of course it’s not. But I think visibility is important for the young trans person, or any trans person of any age, that’s struggling to sort of dream big as to what’s possible. I’m a big proponent of not letting my identity sort of define me or limit what I’m capable of or what I can dream of.” 

Affirming that the trans community still faces an uphill battle when it comes to getting authentic representation, Santos shares some crucial statistics with Collab participants, including the 490 anti-trans bills that have been introduced across 47 states in the U.S.: the 23 that have passed, the 44 that have failed, and the 423 that still remain active.   

Moi Santos, founder of the Intensive and manager of Sundance Institute’s Equity, Impact, and Belonging Program, speaks to Collab members about how we can challenge the industry to champion trans storytellers.

“We are beginning this conversation at a very intense moment,” explains Santos. “People are calling for the eradication of trans people and transness from public life. Last year alone, there were at least 47 known killings of transgender people across this country. It’s definitely a complex and difficult moment when thinking through white supremacy, state violence, queer and trans visibility, joy, and ultimately, life.”  

And although Alberto admits that, as a trans artist, it can be a challenge to navigate it all, she sees hope in the future and encourages all trans artists to find and share their voices to challenge what she considers, “resistance to the other.” 

“History repeats itself,” Alberto explains. “And we’ve seen this happen in other marginalized communities. There’s always been resistance to the other and we sort of evolve from that, we grow from that, and then it’s undeniable that we exist. But it’s up to us to be present and be a voice in that. There’s no way of eradicating me or anyone that I love. That’s just not going to happen.” 

But as much as her perspective as a trans person informs her stories, Alberto finds it important to make sure that’s not her only lens, as she explains how crucial it is to not limit herself to solely trans-centered narratives. 

Aitch Alberto talks about how she deals with pressure as a trans artist in a predominantly cis industry.

“[The story] really just has to speak to a personal part of me. It has to unlock something in me that feels undeniable. My lens will always be trans. My lens will always Latinx because that’s what I am. So I really try to be open to what genre it is, what type of story it is, and not limit myself in any capacity with just telling a trans story or a queer story or a Latino story. Then it innately becomes a trans story because I’m at the helm of that,” she says. “I’m a human being, first and foremost, and my transness plays this much of my storytelling and my art. It forms my perspective but that isn’t my whole story. That’s another thing that I try to look for in a story. It doesn’t have to be about identity or transness.”

While we’re certainly witnessing a growing movement when it comes to trans visibility in film — seven films that represent the trans experience screened at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival — there is still work to be done. 

“There’s such a void of trans directors and writers actually working in the industry because the opportunities just haven’t existed,” Alberto explains. “I just really tried to let that go because I don’t want to other myself in any capacity.” 

Offering a valuable piece of advice to the industry, Santos explains how we can challenge and also champion the current representation of trans stories. 

“Part of why we find ourselves in this moment that has yielded great visibility but yet hasn’t materialized for a lot of trans people is because trans people have not necessarily been at the helm of that representation,” says Santos. “Transness is represented really through a cis imagination, which we know is not capacious enough to hold the entire potentiality of what it is to be a trans person. That’s where I really see the value in authentic storytelling in letting folks come in with their full lived experiences to be able to tell whatever story they want to tell. And not necessarily a preconceived story based on identity.” 

Shining light on the fact that there are significantly fewer trans directors and creators in the industry, Alberto undoubtedly has felt the pressure that comes from being a part of this moment, and she admits it weighed on her for a long time. That pressure became a big topic of conversation between the advisors and fellows throughout the Trans Possibilities Intensive. 

“It came up with the fellows a lot about the pressure to be this exceptional trans person because we’re still defining this narrative around us. But trans people are also really messy and we’re really complicated and I think those stories have value. In that is this normalization of our existence. We aren’t a monolith. We don’t exist the same way. Our experiences are different and our privileges are different, and I think story and art should also reflect that back,” stresses Alberto.  

“That’s what has lessened the pressure for me. I’m allowed to show that messy trans person that makes mistakes because that is part of the nuance of who we are,” she explains. “Don’t let the pressure of having to be exceptional hold you back from what you want to say. The fear of failure, it happens. White people, cis folks, white men especially, have failed and tried again, and we should allow ourselves the same grace.”

Santos agrees: The best way to champion trans storytellers and their narratives is to let the artists tell their stories authentically. 

“We do encounter a predominantly cis industry that is still not necessarily understanding or getting us,” Santos explains. “I think that the more a trans person feels confident and comfortable in saying, ‘This is a story that I want to tell, and you can’t tell me how to tell it,’ that’s where I see the real potential of storytelling to counter some of this.” 

Lessons learned from Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe 

When Alberto discovered Sáenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe in 2014, she was captivated by the book and immediately wanted to share the story with the world. “It became my obsession. There was no way that I wasn’t going to find a way to tell this story whether I was directing it or not.” 

The coming-of-age film is centered on two Latinx teenage boys as they intimately explore their friendship and the road to self-discovery. 

Throughout the Collab event, Alberto took participants on a deep dive of the film, exploring metaphors, differences between the book and her project, and even which character she relates to the most. 

When asked if she wrestled with the decision to make adjustments to the story, she explains, “I wanted to make sure to be as inclusive as possible. Because [the film] is really not just for boys, and not just for cis gay boys, it’s for all of us.”  

“I have like 30 drafts of that script and I was a genuine fan of the book. So I wanted to not only honor the book but I wanted to honor the book as a fan because it’s just so beautiful and so gentle and I wanted to make sure the film and the script reflected that back. At some point I had to let go and make sure that it was my own. But that took a really long time. It was a seven-year journey. There was a process, and I had transitioned through the making of the movie and the script and trying to get the movie made.” 

The film also chronicles a particularly contentious time period for a lot of those in the LGBTQ+ community. Addressing one scene from the book that she ultimately decided to leave out of her film, Alberto explains what it was like for her to revisit this piece of history as well as the pushback she received from executives to leave the scene in. 

“I cannot participate in the trauma porn of this anymore. We’ve seen it so many times and it’s just my responsibility as a director to sort of veer away from that as much as I could. So that was never on the table to revisit the murder of a trans woman. And I know I will hopefully never do that when it comes to my work.” 

Sharing what she learned through her own journey transitioning, Alberto says, “When I first read the book, I thought I was a Dante (Reese Gonzales), but the reality was, I was an Ari (Max Pelayo). I was very much angry and dark and didn’t have the courage to see myself or walk through that truth. It was something that I lived with every single day for the entirety of my life. I then made the decision through that process of transitioning, and I looked at myself in the mirror and I said, ‘I can’t die like this. I need to honor the little person in me.’ In that moment, the whole world opened up. And I think it’s such a mirror into what Ari goes through in the movie and in the book.” 

“It’s an example of how we have to live authentically. It wasn’t until I transitioned that all the opportunities started coming to me and the movie found its way, and it was so obvious what was holding me back.” 

Sign up for a Sundance Collab membership and listen to the entire session featuring Aitch Alberto and Moi Santos here

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