Arts·Queeries

Juno-nominated trans artist Ali J. Eisner is making an easier world for kids to be themselves

The puppeteer, musician and filmmaker has spend two decades making sure the kids are alright.

The puppeteer, musician and filmmaker has spend two decades making sure the kids are alright

Ali J. Eisner. (Jennifer Rowsom)

Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.

For two decades, Ali J. Eisner has been working in front and behind the camera in a pretty extraordinary variety of capacities: director, producer, writer, puppeteer, musician. And it's through a combination of a few of those talents that they are having a considerable moment right now. Eisner directed, produced and served as the puppeteer on the truly wonderful music video for Bahamas' single "No Depression," which has just nabbed nominations for both the Prism Prize and the Juno Award for Canadian music video of the year. 

For Eisner, the recognition has felt "lovely" for a few reasons.

"I'm super jazzed to get an opportunity to have more folks see my work," they told CBC Arts. "And I also hope being transgender/non-binary can bring more awareness to folks that artists like me are out there, making stuff."

Another thing Eisner says has felt "super groovy" is that after spending over 20 years creating work for corporations who own their work, they've now received "a giant thumbs up for making the choice to work hard at being my own boss."

Being their own boss in this case had Eisner collaborate with Bahamas (a.k.a. Afie Jurvanen, himself up for 2 Juno Awards this year), who has been a friend for many years and who Eisner calls a "funny, kind human."

"The process in working with Afie was dreamy," Eisner says. "He's not precious, so he really trusted me to explore whatever I wanted."

Eisner calls themselves the "type of the director that comes in prepared, but also likes to allow for enough room for things to grow so we can improvise." So in both being the director and puppeteer for this video, they had a lot of leeway to play.

"I love working in that space," Eisner says. "Some planned ideas stayed the same. Some grew while filming. Some brand new ones just appeared. When working in nature especially, elements change so quickly. It's rad never knowing what the sky or water is going to give you. I'm a real nature lover, so creating a video deep in Ontario's north added so many good feels to project for me. While we hustled very hard to make our days, on breaks we went for lake swims and had bonfires."

Ali J. Eisner and Jay the Blue Jay. (Jess West)

Though there's no reason kids wouldn't enjoy watching it, "No Depression" is a rare example of Eisner's work that isn't geared toward children — an audience that has played a big role in the direction of their career.

"The drive to create for kids has always been very present for me," Eisner says. "I grew up as a weirdo kid playing with puppets, taking photos, renting a billion musical instruments and claiming ownership over my dad's video camera so I could film and edit footage all day. When I was 21 years old, I auditioned for YTV. I ended up as on on-air host there for a bunch of years — it was from there that things took off like a rocket."

After that stint at YTV, Eisner started working both in the U.S. and Canada, creating all sorts of different work for TVO, PBS, NBC, FOX and even here at CBC. 

"I've been ping-ponging all over North America working with wonderful, different teams trying to embrace environments who allow me to grow as an artist," they say. "It's been a crazy ride. More goodness has led to more goodness. One thing I'm grateful for is that I really enjoy doing more than one thing — the different outlets speak to different parts of me that have different things to say. Composing music feels different than puppeteering. Directing feels different than writing. I really enjoy working with or for people who recognize what I love to do and are keen on letting me grow — I've been pretty lucky in that department."

It would be wonderful if we could all work harder to help kids see their true emotions and experiences reflected back to them so they don't feel so alone — see that these emotions also have a rainbow of variety, and that every colour is beautiful.- Ali Eisner

Of course, a lot of that work has been through corporations, which Eisner says has had its pros and cons.

"While you can quickly reach a large audience, you also jump through hoops in hopes that your vision stays true," they say. "But the happiness? From what I see, there's a change happening. Things are slowly evolving. It really is slow, but it's happening. This is exciting to me. Corporations are trying be more inclusive, even though they still fear taking risks because they want to stay on top. But places are trying. There isn't enough diversity in terms of seeing characters that are people of colour. Most characters are still straight. Most characters fall inside a stereotypical binary way of being. Boy equals blue and baseball caps. Girl equals pink, with eyelashes. I want to challenge these stereotypes. I want to make room for everyone — to represent and tell stories of those who are different." 

Mamma Yamma and Ali Eisner. (© David Leyes)

As a trans person, Eisner says they grew up fighting a "deep battle" that they weren't consciously aware of until they were "much older."

"That quiet isolation is a very vulnerable place as a little kid," Eisner says. "That space needs support. It would be wonderful if we could all work harder to help kids see their true emotions and experiences reflected back to them so they don't feel so alone — see that these emotions also have a rainbow of variety, and that every colour is beautiful. The more kids can see themselves reflected and accepted, the more adjusted and self loving they become. The less isolated they feel, the more they embrace their own experience. The more kids learn about those who are different, the more comfortable they become with acceptance and grow a desire to learn about each other. All littles deserve to be seen and heard. Also, they are cooler than adults."

Eisner's mission to better the lives of children hasn't always been easy. In work settings, they're often the only LGBTQ person in the room.

"I'm used to it now," they say. "Sometimes there might be one more besides me. What does this say? We have to actively stretch out to hire more people from my community to tell our stories. We have to gently try to understand why the umbrella of change is still so slow and so afraid of what viewers will think when we take risks to actively share kids stories from the LGBTQ community. For me as an artist, the thing that feels best to make a difference is to stay true to who I am. To truly be myself and to bring that to work. To be authentic."

Eisner brings up a character they played, Jay on TVO Kids.

"Jay indirectly made waves in the learning about gender department," Eisner says. "For 14 years, people debated as to what Jay's gender was. They had no idea! I loved that. It made me feel good that kids would watch Jay and just connect with Jay's personality. Kids don't care about gender and putting things into boxes until we teach them to. Jay is an in-between vibe sweet firecracker who tells jokes and loves to sing. Jay is just simply Jay. And Jay is still on the air."

Thanks to Eisner, here's hoping more and more Jays find their way to the air.

Cheer Eisner on at the Junos on March 17th, and find out more about them here.

About the Author

Peter Knegt has worked for CBC Arts since 2016, writing the LGBTQ-culture column Queeries (winner of the 2019 Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada) and playing integral roles in the launch and production of series The Filmmakers and Canada's a Drag. Beyond CBC, Knegt is also a stand-up comedian, the filmmaker of numerous short films and the author of the book About Canada: Queer Rights. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter with the same obvious handle: @peterknegt.