In Aurora Brachman’s short documentary Joychild, it explores an 8-year-old child coming out as transgender to their mother. Through voice-over narration trying to put their feelings into words over footage of them playing, it’s a compelling short doc told in a unique way.
Through e-mail, I was able to chat with Aurora about her short documentary, which premiered earlier this year at Hot Docs and is now available to watch on The New Yorker. Find that conversation below:
Daniel Prinn, Filmcraziest.com: Hi, Aurora. Nice to meet you. First, I’d love to start out by how I start most of my interviews for documentaries. How did you learn about the story of Joychild? Did the family reach out to you or did you reach out to them?
Aurora Brachman: I first became interested in making a documentary about a gender-expansive child after my romantic partner came out to me as transgender. Initially, it was very challenging for me and making Joychild was a part of my process of coming to understand them and learning how to love them unconditionally through it. Ultimately, the film became like my love letter to them. I met the child we hear from in the film through a play group for gender-expansive kids and their parents in Berkeley, California. I was introduced to the family through that group and then came to learn more about their experiences as I got to know them over the course of making the film.
DP: Neat. Was Joychild hesitant to share their story in documentary form, or were they excited because it could help other kids like them?
Aurora Brachman: I approached several different parents and kids about the film before meeting Lou (the child in the film). Most were very hesitant, but Lou was thrilled to be a part of the film. They’re very proud to be trans and they were excited by the opportunity to share their experience and potentially be a resource for other children who may be going through the same thing.
DP: Can you talk about any major challenges telling this story?
Aurora Brachman: Initially, the biggest challenge was access. I reached out to many families with gender expansive children, and most were not comfortable with being a part of the project. As difficult as that was, I understood what I was asking was a scary and vulnerable thing. Many parents wanted to protect their kids from any potential harm that could be caused by being so public about their story. Other parents were apprehensive about having this permanent document of their child as trans. They were concerned that someday their child may want to medically transition and pass in the world as cis, and they didn’t want to be somehow limiting their child’s life’s possibilities by participating in this film. This was all a reminder of the unfortunate social conditions we live in, that young children and their parents are forced to grapple with these realities.
DP: As much as it is about a young person embracing their gender identity, it’s also about a mother’s love and acceptance. As even from the opening lines, it’s so nice to hear how patient the mother sounds. So what was it like getting to know the family?
Aurora Brachman: It was such a beautiful experience to get to know the family. We spent quite a bit of time together just talking and getting to know one another before I ever turned the camera on. I would spend time in their home, and we would eat ice cream together at their dinner table, or just hang out and play make believe. The mother and child have a very beautiful relationship and it was a joy to witness it and to be able to be a part of their family for that fleeting time. Lou was eight years old at the time we shot the film and Lou was the most emotionally intelligent child I’d ever met. Lou and Lou’s mother are incredibly brilliant, gentle, empathic people and it was such an honour to be allowed into their lives in such an intimate way. Through witnessing their family and how they responded to this precious and vulnerable moment in their child’s life, I was very much inspired to model what I learned from them within my own relationship.
DP: What went into the structure of the film, as it’s told with the conversation between Lou and their mother over B-footage with Lou at different stages of childhood, before telling their mom and after telling their mom.
Aurora Brachman: I always knew I wanted to have imagery of children at play in the film, and to have the film bookended by images of parent and child. As I was developing the film, I was inspired by an area of psychology called attachment theory. Attachment theory believes that a parent should act as a safe haven for their child.
In doing this, the child has the confidence to explore themselves and the world because they know they always have the safety of their parent to return to. In the film, I wanted to explore the idea of a mother as a safe haven while a child explores their gender identity. Because of this, I wanted the majority of the film to depict children at play, fearlessly exploring themselves and the world around them. But I wanted the presence of the mother to be there at beginning and end, as a signal of the love and safety they can depart from and always return to.
DP: As well, do you often like shooting in black and white?
Aurora Brachman: This was actually the first ever film I shot in black and white. It was shot on 16mm black and white film on a Bolex camera. The intention of this medium was to emphasize the timelessness of this story. Trans kids have always existed, and will continue to exist, and I wanted to evoke that feeling with the film. I also wanted the film to have a quality that felt like memory and nostalgia, and I think the grain and imperfection of film does that so well. Since making this film, I’ve been very interested in shooting another film in this medium.
DP: Finally, did you have a favourite part about making this project?
Aurora Brachman: My favorite part of the project was getting to meet so many brilliant parents and children through this process. They taught me so much and encouraged me to grow as both a filmmaker and as a person. I am so proud that this small but mighty film has been touching so many hearts and minds. It is critical that we listen to trans people. This film is my contribution to that. I am also incredibly proud of the children and parents in the film who spoke their truth so fearlessly and allowed me to share their stories with the world.