As if her steller 2012 didn’t say it all, Kate Bornstein is nothing less than “a queer and pleasant danger,” and filmmaker Sam Feder has created a living portrait of this seminal LGBTQ community leader in their new documentary, Kate Bornstein is a Queer and Pleasant Danger.
The documentary is, in many ways, a cinematic rendering of Bornstein’s memoir, A Queer and Pleasant Danger: The True Story of a Nice Jewish Boy Who Joins the Church of Scientology and Leaves Twelve Years Later to Become the Lovely Lady She Is Today, and in this regard, for those familiar with her writing, may seem slightly underwhelming. This, too, may be a result of the fact that Bornstein is such a fascinating, brilliant person—the camera, and the audience, wants more of her, and definitely more than the 72 minutes provided to us.
Bornstein talks about her person and how it has flirted with a variety of identities throughout her life. She is self-fashioning and self-affirming. She is profoundly postmodernist in the sense that she understands the playfulness, and the constructedness, of language. Furthermore, she is cognizant of the precarious line she inhabits as someone who has been figured as a representative and leader of the LGBTQ community while intimately knowing she cannot—and does not want to—speak for everyone. “I do not speak for you,” she told a trans audience in Portland one evening in the early ’90s.
As she writes in her memoir,
“I was born male and now I’ve got medical and government documents that say I’m female—but I don’t call myself a woman, and I know I’m not a man…. I call myself trans, or tranny—and the latter angers a small but vocal group of transsexual women who see tranny as the equivalent of kike to a Jew. Right, I’m a Jew, and everyone knows someone who’s got a thing about Jews. I’m also a tattooed lady…. I’m a dyke on top of all this…. My right knee is titanium and space-age plastic and it never gets weak, and that makes me the bionic tranny.”
In the documentary as well we see Kate at various speaking engagements discussing her identity and it porousness—and how it’s gotten her “into big trouble on the interwebs,” and especially with the trans community.
Throughout, Feder focuses on creating the audience as witness to Bornstein’s reflections on her life, thus giving the documentary a noticeably memoir-like feel not distinct from the text itself. Towards the end of the documentary we find Bornstein at home, on the phone with her doctor, who tells her that she has cancer. This moment does and does not create a rift in the tempo of the documentary: the difference is that Bornstein’s reflections of her life now take on a more urgent tenor; they are now bookended by the reality of death. “For the first time in my life, I realize that I want to stay [alive],” she says, looking directly into the camera.
The first time I met Kate Bornstein, at a book signing in NYC, she gave me her telephone number and told me to ring her anytime I needed anything. I was absolutely floored by this show of generosity and kindness. This is Kate. This is why everyone—even those of us who have never met her—call her “Auntie.” And Feder successfully conveys the affection that she has for her LGBTQ family, and vice versa. “When people say Kate Bornstein,” she muses, “I want them to think eccentric, Auntie Kate; someone who looked after her kids. That would be good.”
Feder spoke with AfterEllen about the making of this documentary, and where you can see it this summer:
AE: What compelled you to make this documentary? What does Kate Bornstein mean to you, and what do you think she means to the larger LGBTQ community?
Sam Feder: I had to learn how to make life worth living. Kate models that queerness does not have to taper down. For some, assimilation is the answer; for others that’s a slow, painful, death. Kate has given me language, permission, and space to figure out my gender and how to move in the world. Kate is the auntie who gives you life saving advice while passing you a joint.
AE: The documentary’s method is that of an intense portrait — what was the motivation for this, as opposed to, say, having a series of interviews of other LGBTQ community figures speaking about Kate?
SF: It’s expected that “experts” or community figures will talk about the subject of a film as proof of their significance. For transpeople this is particularly problematic because other people are constantly talking for us, explaining us, validating us. I want to disrupt that expectation and let the subject be the voice and guide of her portrait.
That being said, I am working on a longer version of the film that includes people who have been influenced by Kate and her work. This will serve to compliment Kate, give a greater context for the film, and project her legacy. That will be released in another year.
AE: How much did Kate’s memoir factor into the making of this film, specifically the overarching narrative?
SF: I took cues from all her work. I want the film to complement her books and performances by adding another dimension of sound, aesthetic, and emotion of Kate’s personality and life to public memory.
AE: Did you have a narrative in mind? Was there a message? Or were you looking for vignettes?
SF: The scenes reveal the many facets of Kate’s life, love, history, influence, community, and her affect on thousands of people for generations. I wanted to do that it a multifaceted portrait, not in a chronological, linear narrative. The message is “do whatever it takes to make life worth living while coming to terms with your identity, desire, and power.” It’s for those of us who need more role models, especially, in the media.
AE: How did Kate’s cancer affect the making of this film? What is her current health status?
SF: I could not be the “director” when my friend was sick. I stopped filming after Kate’s first diagnosis. Kate asked me to film her the day of the magazine interview (at the end of the film) when the doctor calls. The current round of chemo and radiation will conclude the end of this month.
AE: Will this film hit the LGBTQ film circuit this summer? Where can we expect to see it next?
SF: The world premier was in London this past March. The North American premier is May 11th, in Seattle and then it’s screening May 18th, in Portland. The Canadian premier is May 24th, in Toronto followed by August in Vancouver. The NYC premier is in June. I can’t wait for that!
For more info on the film, visit the official website: katebornsteinthemovie.com/screenings/