This week sees the launch of the Alliance Française Film Festival for Perth. As part of the cavalcade of French films hitting our screens for March 14 to April 4, there is a strong line up of LGBTQI films running throughout the festival. Coby is one of these, a documentary charting a personal voyage through gender reassignment, and how Coby (subject Jacob’s chosen name during the period of transition) changed the attitudes and lives of his family. Through video logs, and interviews we’re are given an intimate insight of their thoughts and feelings. DAVID O’CONNELL spoke to Christian Sonderegger about his first documentary, and the personal subject matter at its heart.
How did you become involved with Coby?
He’s my half-brother, you know. I’m born in France, but I was given up for adoption by Ellen (my mother) who you see in the film. I met my birth family 20 years after my birth. So I met Coby (Jacob) when he was 12 years old. Since then we are meeting once a year, either in France or over there. On the day he decided to do his transition, he asked me as a joke, “why don’t you do a film about that?” For me, I’m not a director of reality show, and I thought it would be a very classical film about transition. I had seen a couple of them, and I didn’t want something like this. So I told him I didn’t want to do the film. He started posting YouTube videos, and only five years after, I was looking at how he’s changed. And his family had changed and transitioned with him.
Then I saw – there is the film.
When I told him, he asked why I was doing it now? “The thing is done now”. But that is what I want to film. The light that I saw in the family now, it was the beginning point of the film.
So you obviously had to alter from your original plans for the film?
Exactly. I’m from another generation than Coby, I’m 20 years older. I went to nightclubs in Paris, and I had another idea of transitioning. So my point of view changed dramatically. It’s like in the end credits when you listen to his voice changing (Coby records the effects of testosterone on his voice over time, which are used in the end credits – DOC). Exactly like this for me, it was incredible. When I saw them overcome the fear everyone had in the beginning-that was what I wanted to make a films about. Not only Coby, but his family and the whole society transitioning with him.
How important was Coby’s video log as a resource for you when creating this documentary?
He had 85 youtube videos on the internet. 16 hours. All the voices he recorded when the voice changed. That’s why it was really important to use it in the film.
I was going to ask how you got such an open and honest account from the family, especially Ellen (Jacob’s mum), but you have already explained that to some degree with your special connection to the family.
That’s her, she is very honest. It’s funny she saw the film last year. It was at Cannes, and she didn’t see it till then. I rented a theater, and surprised her. I was very nervous and excited, because I didn’t know how she’d react. She saw the film, and after 20 minutes she began to cry, because she had never seen the youtube footage! Can you imagine?! She never surfed the internet, and never saw the intimate insights that Coby is showing on youtube. So I was very nervous about how I was telling her story, but she said-that is me, that’s exactly how l am. So she was very supportive from the beginning. I’m a very special kid from that family because I met them when I was 32 years old. They wanted to give me a gift, and help do this documentary for them, and to be honest with me.
What was Coby’s point of view going into filming?
Coby wanted to do this film, to show it is something normal. I’m not sure how it is in Australia, but in France people think about transitioning very differently than they do in the United States. We are a very Catholic country, and though we look very advanced when it comes to looking at sexual thing, but not when it comes to transitioning. I wanted to have another title for the film – Nothing Is Wrong With Coby, but he didn’t like it. There is nothing wrong with transitioning. If something is not right at the beginning you change it, but it is not a social problem at all.
(a brief explanation of Australia later, with some attention paid to the SSM survey)
Same in France, people had to take to the street man attempt for Marriage Equality. It was a big fight.
Especially on the internet.
Now it is changing very fast in France. That’s why the film is going to be a big success here (France). I think the internet is the first reason for it.
So what are you planning for the future, will your next project be a documentary?
I’m more a narrative guy and I was working on fund raising for my first feature when I started this film. That’s why it looks a little more like a narrative film than a documentary. My next project is going to be a narrative film, about my first meeting with this same family. It’s going to be very different for people when they first see.
At the beginning I didn’t want the interviews. It was just the fist way into the story; but when I saw what happened in the interviews I couldn’t get away from them, and needed to find a way to put them in.
You can certainly see that strong visual narrative in the beginning shower sequence and the reveal of Jacob’s very feminine tattoo from his past life.
It’s what is not in the film that makes the film.
Given the 60 odd hours of footage you had (as well as Coby’s youtube account) how was the editing process?
We had a lot of footage. The first time Coby saw it he exclaimed “all this work for only 77 minutes”. This film is almost all about nothing, meaning l don’t have a very strong story. After a couple of minutes you see the guy and you know what is happening. But the little things inside the film, all bring it together, and we have something intimate and emotional, rather than a big dramatic story.
The 29th Alliance Française Film Festival runs from March 14 to April 4 at Cinema Paradiso, Luna on SX and the Windsor Cinema. Tickets are on sale now.