This filmmaker is pushing beyond 'sensational' trans narratives with a love letter to their nonna
Luis De Filippis is taking 'For Nonna Anna' to Sundance — and breaking conventions along the way
Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.
"Films that attempt to tell trans narratives often represent 'being trans' as the main conflict of the film," filmmaker Luis De Filippis says. "Trans characters are alienated for who they are, with the resolution being that cis friends and family members resolve their prejudices and 'accept' trans characters by the end of the narrative."
This, as you might guess, is not the case in De Filippis' latest film, the short For Nonna Anna. Depicting the relationship between a trans girl (played by trans actress Maya Henry) and her Italian grandmother (Jacqueline Tarne), it breaks those conventions and tells a story where "being trans" is not the main conflict of the film.
"I wanted to tell a story about two women who recognize their struggles in one another while also presenting a trans character free of the sensational aspects that plague so much trans representation," De Filippis says.
They (De Filippis uses gender neutral pronouns) certainly succeeded — and did so in such a poignant way that For Nonna Anna caught the eye of programmers at the Sundance Film Festival, arguably home to one the world's most renowned selection of short films. Wes Anderson, Todd Haynes, Spike Jonze, Paul Thomas Anderson, Tamara Jenkins and Martin McDonagh are among the alumni of Sundance's shorts program, and soon Toronto-based De Filippis can add their name to that same list. All this comes after already screening at the Toronto International Film Festival in their hometown — a rare feat (the festival's shorts programs don't often cross over). While De Filippis is obviously thrilled, they're trying to keep things in perspective.
Our stories must be told by us and our characters played by us.- Luis De Filippis , filmmaker
"The recognition feels great," they say. "Getting into these festivals is so incredibly exciting and I am so thankful to have such a great platform from which to tell this tale. But I think as artists, we should also seek validation for our work from within ourselves. I am extremely proud of this project. The cast and crew were amazing — what we created in those three short days back in June 2016 has taken on a life of its own. For Nonna Anna's success is really a testament to all the incredibly talented and loving people who touched this project in one way or another."
Those people include include their own nonna (grandmother) and bis-nonna (great-grandmother). They say that while the film is inspired by the collective memories and experiences of the women in their family, it's more specifically based on De Filippis' relationship with these two women.
"A lot of my childhood was spent at my nonna's house," they say. "Though she could only boast the most basic education — equivalent to that of a second grader — my nonna was extremely encouraging when I started to experiment with gender. She never dissuaded me from putting on her dresses and played along when I went stomping through the house in her heels."
At this time, De Filippis' bis-nonna was living with their nonna.
"She had just suffered a stroke and her health was in decline," they say. "My bis-nonna was a whisper of the strong woman who had survived both world wars and had been considered the beauty of her village. The nonna depicted in the film is an amalgamation of both these wonderful women. Though both women were devout Catholics, they took no issue with what others would deem as 'sinful'. They loved me not in spite of their religion but because of it. 'God made you that way and loves you' is what my Nonna told me when I came out to her two years ago, followed by, 'I've known forever.' I wanted to capture this dynamic of unrelenting love. This film is really an ode to these two women, both of whom, were ahead of their time."
The film is also part of a relative surge in trans storytelling by trans artists — though De Filippis is quick to explain the complexity of that suggestion.
"Though media representation has indeed increased, a vast amount of said representation focuses on the sensational aspects of transition," they say. "We are eroticized and/or vilified, thus making the world a little less safe for trans and gender non-conforming people, especially trans women of colour. Our stories must be told by us and our characters played by us. This is why we enlisted the talent of Toronto-based YouTube vlogger Maya Henry. In order to accurately represent our experiences, trans people must reclaim their narratives. The most rewarding part of this journey has been when someone — a parent, a child, anyone — approaches me after a screening and expresses their thanks. For me, there is nothing more affirming than to see a piece of one's experience accurately expressed by another."
De Filippis looks forward to a time when trans filmmakers will be granted the same resources that are afforded to the cis men who tell trans stories and portray trans characters on screen
"Until then, trans filmmakers will continue to make work — regardless of the systemic issues that impede our way."
For Nonna Anna. Starring Maya Henry, Anna Pecchia and Jacqueline Tarne. Directed by Luis De Filippis. January 19, 20, 21, 22 and 26. Sundance Film Festival. www.sundance.org