Here we Interview with Eric Juhola, director of Growing Up Coy, which won Best Documentary at this year’s Raindance Film Festival…
Eric, thank you for making time to speak to us! Can you tell us how the Mathis family’s story came to light, and what made you want to document their case?
When we started filming with Coy and her family in early 2013, transgender issues were not yet in the mainstream media. The US Supreme Court had recently ruled in favor of same-sex marriage, but it seemed that the “T” of the LGBT community had been left out of the fight for equal rights. I knew I wanted to make a film about a transgender person fighting for their rights, and when the family’s lawyer told me about Coy and her parents, I thought it could be a really interesting way to explore the issue – through the eyes of an all-American family navigating what “trans” means like the rest of the world, and what happens when they stand up for their kid’s rights in a conservative community.
When did you first realise that this story had gone beyond local news and would have such huge impact globally?
We knew pretty early on that the story had gone beyond local news. After the Mathis family went public, all you had to do was Google Coy’s name to see that their story had been picked up around the world, including here in the UK. The impact of the case however, would take much more time to realize, and perhaps we are still feeling the ripples. One thing that we learned about US law is that courts look to precedents that have already been set before deciding on new cases. And so even though the outcome of this case affects Colorado law, other states will look to the outcome to decide their own laws. In fact, a few months after their win, the state of California enacted its own law to protect its own transgender students.
At what point do you think the Mathises realised the social and political ramifications of their decision to go to the media with their story?
I think at first the Mathises were only interested to sway public opinion in their favor and get Coy back into school using the girl’s bathroom. They may have realized the broader effects when other parents of transgender kids came out of the woodwork to contact them, asking for advice and/or thanking them for what they were doing. It became clear that Coy was not the only transgender student in the area by far, and that the ruling would help hundreds or thousands of current students, and also those coming up behind Coy.
I think watching the film, it is clear that you wished to document the family’s story without passing comment or judgement, but there are poignant moments, when the children hug reporters for example, which suggest it must be difficult to maintain professional distance when dealing with subject matter of this nature. As filmmakers, how do you strike a balance between telling the story in an impartial and objective fashion, and witnessing the disintegration of a family unit you have lived so closely with over a prolonged period?
It was really important for me to include the moment when Coy hugs the reporter. When I first met Coy and her parents, I also received a hug from Coy – a hug that melted away any preconceived notions about her. I knew after that moment that we would take a fly-on-the-wall approach, being as sensitive as possible, and never asking Coy any difficult questions on camera that would make her feel singled out or different for being transgender. We spent many hours off camera with the Mathis parents, discussing our purpose for making the film, and it’s something they agreed to in their desire to educate people about transgender issues. In the end, it was essential to include their difficult moments with the good moments because it was honest. I don’t think audiences connect with or care about “perfect” people – they connect with authenticity, and people who have flaws and go through life experiences just like everyone else. And so the balance came from always making sure the Mathis family were comfortable with what we were filming when we were filming it, and then always putting the story first in the edit room, in an honest, respectful way.
What were the biggest challenges you faced when making Growing Up Coy?
The biggest challenge was lack of funding. We were based in New York and the family was based in Colorado, and so every trip we made (12 total!) cost a lot of money. We were fortunate to receive grants from the Sundance Institute, Tribeca Institute, and Frameline Fund, but we did ultimately need to spend much of our own money in order to finish the film. Another challenge was figuring out when we had enough footage to tell the story and stop filming. Many advisers wanted us to continue filming with Coy through puberty and into her teenage years. In addition to not having the resources for such a long production period, we ultimately decided that this was not a story about Coy going through puberty. There are other films and television shows out there that deal with transgender subjects at those ages. This story focuses on a 6-year-old going through very specific obstacles at this time period in her life and so we decided to focus on that.
Since the verdict, there has been something of a backlash in the US, with ‘bathroom bills’ now in the news, and several states suing the Obama administration for its anti-discrimination directive, as well as many shifts in the wider political landscape. In light of this, what role do you think filmmaking has in educating and highlighting LGBT issues? Do you think of yourselves as activists first, or artists?
I think the most powerful part of filmmaking is that it can create a strong sense of empathy, leading to understanding of an issue an audience might never have considered before. GLAAD reports that 84% of people (in the US) have never knowingly met a transgender person before. This means that most people’s knowledge of transgender issues comes from the media and what we see on TV and in movies. This highlights the potential for Growing Up Coy to make a difference, particularly in the minds of lawmakers who are introducing the so-called “bathroom bills” and school administrators who are creating non-inclusive bathroom policies. I think of myself as a storyteller and artist first, before an activist. If you don’t have an engaging story, the film’s potential to change hearts and minds will be limited.
How did Coy’s age affect your decision making (if at all) throughout filmmaking process? Do you feel her youth simplifies the issues you wished to highlight, or adds complexity?
Coy’s age affected many decisions throughout the filming process. For one thing, we decided never to ask Coy any questions directly about her gender that might make her feel uncomfortable. We also gave all of Coy’s siblings equal attention, and filmed with all of the kids equally so as to not single Coy out or make the other kids feel jealous. We approached the filming as a documentary about a family, not just about Coy and we very much deferred to Coy’s parents about what was ok to film. For me, Coy’s age really does simplify the issue in a lot of ways. People tend to conflate the idea of transgender with sexuality, and the truth is that they are not directly connected. If one thing is clear, I hope it’s that Coy is simply a little kid who wants to be like any other little kid and not focus on why she’s different. I think the complexity in the film comes from Coy’s parents. There are so many ideas and judgements about how to be a good parent, and what the right thing to do.
What’s next for Growing Up Coy? Where can people catch it?
Growing Up Coy will continue to play in festivals the fall, all over the world. Our website, www.growingupcoy.com lists all of the upcoming screenings. We will also be doing some additional fundraising to bring the film specifically to states in the US that are suing the Obama Administration’s trans-inclusive stance on bathroom use in schools where we can follow each screening with a community discussion. Beyond that, we hope that the film will have a wider release in 2017 so that it can be seen by everyone, throughout the world.
Read our review of the film – Here!