Trans youth documentary debuts in New Hope

“Passing Ellenville” is a documentary about two transgender youth, James and Ashlee, living in the small town of Ellenville, N. Y. The film, from co-directors Gene Fischer and Sam Centore, made its East Coast premiere at the New Hope Film Festival July 31.

“Passing Ellenville” opens with shots of the New York countryside: rolling green hills titivate the landscape behind boarded-up shops and graffitied brick walls of abandoned buildings. The film delves into the struggles of James and Ashlee with their families, personal relationships, health-care issues and Ellenville community members.

The documentary started out as a still photo-essay project from Fischer, which he worked on for about a year. The photos chronicled three transgender youth, but one young person had to decline participation in the documentary because his family did not support him.

Fischer met Centore, a graduate of the film program at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, through a mutual friend, and the two decided to start filming because they felt the stories were so riveting. Fischer said he had a good working rapport with Centore and they shared a similar vision for the project.

“Our primary goal is awareness,” Fischer said. “Ideally, you want to create awareness on a larger level. It’s to make people see what they don’t see in the media. All you see in the national media are these really positive stories. This piece shows what people don’t see — the in-between. What it’s like when you’re queer and transgender in small, economically depressed towns. I think Ellenville can represent much of America.”

In terms of the actual production of the documentary, Fischer and Centore were grateful for their Kickstarter contributions, which helped to fund the film. Beyond the struggles of funding the project, the co-directors described the difficulties of triaging the large amount of scenes and storylines they filmed to keep the documentary to under 20 minutes — necessary for acceptance into certain film festivals.

“I think a main challenge making the film was to take this broad theme of what it’s like to be transgender in a small town and make it into a short piece,” Centore said. “We need to let the viewer experience their space and just observe them, but we don’t have a lot of time to tell everything we want to.”

Even with the short amount of time allotted to present Ashlee and James’ stories, “Passing Ellenville” presents the cruel realities of transgender life in the United States. Both directors felt these stories do not get enough attention and are often overshadowed by the celebration of various transgender celebrities.

“I had people come up to me after Laverne Cox was on the cover of Time magazine, and I think people see that kind of stuff in the media and think, Oh, things are great — but I think it creates a false complacency,” Fischer said. “If you interview James and Ashlee, they wouldn’t be so quick to say things are positive. They met when they were at the same teen shelter, and they still struggle with acceptance in their own families. So, you might see these nice things in the media, but it’s not really like that.”

Centore echoed his co-director’s sentiments, commenting on why he thinks the media tends to focus only on the positive when it comes to transgender issues.

“I think it has something to do with people’s willingness to skip ahead,” Centore said. “We’re still discussing gay marriage, but then people want to say that everyone accepts transgender people. I don’t think that’s necessarily true, but I think we accept it in a very superficial way.”

As the co-directors look to the future of their documentary film project, they hope to find more funding for a longer version of “Passing Ellenville.” Fischer said they have talked to one cable network so far, and the main goal will be taking it to the next level of awareness.

Fischer and Centore also have another project in the works, “All About Amy.” Amy is a 53-year-old transgender woman who helped James and Ashlee through their struggles in Ellenville.

“Passing Ellenville” will be shown at various film festivals throughout the next year, including the Rhode Island International Film Festival on Aug. 5.

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