Kimberly Reed, Prodigal Sons
As a theme in Western art, sibling rivalry is as ancient as the Hebrew Bible or the internecine blood feud that shapes the destinies of two sisters in Sophocles’ Antigone. In her utterly absorbing family portrait Prodigal Sons, which won the FIPRESCI prize at the 2009 Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival, Kimberly Reed (“25 New Faces of Independent Film,” Summer 2007) revisits this archetype with honesty and courage, grappling with questions of identity as she details how life-changing transformations have affected her relationship with adopted brother Marc McKerrow, a soulful hard-luck character who has long felt he was living in her shadow. The wheels are set in motion with Reed’s decision to attend a high-school reunion in her hometown of Helena, Montana, with Marc, from whom she’s been estranged for over a decade. Then comes the first big reveal: Kim is transgender and used to be Paul, a popular, all-American high-school quarterback and model student, evidenced by a quick shuffle of old family photos and degraded home-video footage. Marc’s own transformation hinges on the head injury he suffered in a car accident on his 21st birthday, which has resulted in seizures, wild mood swings, and explosive outbursts that a cocktail of meds keeps only partly under wraps. As Reed (who narrates) tries to reconcile the past she’s labored so long to forget, Marc—a beautifully expressive, entirely self-taught pianist—decides to seek out his birth legacy and turns up a rather startling connection to Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth. Full of surprising revelations and agonized turnabouts, Reed’s film is impressive as a personal document about self-definition and as a uniquely intimate tale of searching compassion.
Filmmaker spoke with Reed about past selves, gender transition, and the ethical challenge of representing family members on film.
Prodigal Sons opens Friday in New York City.
Filmmaker: I read that, initially, you wanted to make a film about your adopted brother Marc’s search for family ties. How far along were you in the filmmaking process before you became part of the story?
Reed: It was really from the outset that we were focusing on both stories. Probably the biggest turning point was me getting the nerve to go to my high school reunion. We actually knew who Marc’s grandparents were shortly before the reunion. So it all came together really quickly. But I think given our really complicated past, and the resentment and rivalry that was there, [with him] resenting this perfect guy from high school who no longer exists, it was clear there was a story about identity, mine and my brother’s. Which for me was very important. We were going to have a chance to start over. And I think a lot of family members can relate to that. We all grow up and leave home. And then you come back and have to figure out how you’re going to renegotiate your relationship with this place that remembers you one way, but you’re different.
Filmmaker: How did you introduce the idea to your family that you wanted to film them?
Reed: When I was young, I was always running around with a camera, and they were used to that. My dad built me a darkroom in the attic. He was an ophthalmologist and he was fascinated with these visual systems—still cameras and video cameras—and I was too. My dad was the first guy on the block with one of those massive VCRs. That’s where all the football video [in the film] comes from. So our family is used to cameras, which is not to say it was easy to adjust to the process. But I think they gave me a lot of leeway and trust and faith, and that’s immensely important and very courageous. The DP, John Keitel, was an important factor because he melted into the shooting well and could be unobtrusive, so that kind of started off the film on a pretty intimate basis. I think what a lot of people wonder about is my brother Marc and how he felt about it. And the thing you really have to understand about Marc is he wants his story told. He always has. The story gets really rocky along the way, and you have to ask yourself, as I did in many dark hours, is it okay to show this? Is it okay to show our family coming apart at the seams like this? And one of my strongest guiding lights during those dark hours was Marc, and knowing that if we focused on all this hardship, we would also find a much more poignant and beautiful love in my family.
Filmmaker: When you were editing together some of the more difficult moments, especially with Marc’s meltdowns, did you ever feel the need create a cushion of protection around him?
Reed: I think when you work in any art, especially nonfiction, there’s a big difference between reality and truth. If your job is to condense reality, whether it’s a magazine story or a documentary film, you’re never going to be able to present reality as it appeared right then in the same way that life happens to us. You have to make choices [about] what you think the truth of that scene is, that moment, that month you spent with your family. When you’re trying to represent people that you know and love so well, there’s a lot of conflict. But Marc’s someone I’m immensely close to and always have been. We were in the same grade, we had the same friends and rode to school together every morning. We were kind of twins, in a way.
Filmmaker: And this is one of the reasons he won’t let you let go of your past.
Reed: Exactly. Because in doing so, I’m taking part of his past. It was difficult for him and he’s still wrestling with it. For me to erase that past and take it away from him becomes a major theme in the film. As well as the debate about that, about who owns that past—is it mine or yours? If I want to forget this photo, can I make you forget that photo? So you’re absolutely right. I at least feel like I am constantly trying to cushion Marc from the world and protect him. He wanted me to go to Croatia for that reason, because I would help him figure out what gate the next flight was leaving from or how to order something from a menu. Despite all of these things that are different about us, I think he knew I would be there to help him through stuff that could be jarring or uncomfortable. So I think there is some of that going on but—and this is my whole philosophical rant about truth and reality—the guide for that is trying to let some of what goes on constantly in our family come through in the film. Sometimes that means showing the cracks in Marc. And it means showing the cracks in me too.
Filmmaker: It seems the process of making this film was one of self-discovery for you as well.
Reed: Absolutely. The film becomes almost this archaeological record of me becoming more comfortable documenting my past. [Laughs] It’s full of me being uncomfortable with these images, and so much of the plot turns on that. What I really like is that one all-important image—the tuxedoes, right? The first time you see it, it upsets me. It actually inspired a very beautiful, kind of philosophical response from Marc, where he says, “I don’t know about you, but the truth is the truth.” For me, the film is very much about that delta, between where I was when that first happened and was uncomfortable, versus where the film [closes], basically presenting this image unabashedly and saying okay, this is where we can end up.
Filmmaker: When you went to your high school reunion, were you surprised by how accepting your former classmates were of your new identity?
Reed: I was, yeah. I was expecting some bumps in the road. You know, so much of that stuff is what you bring to it, and I was bringing a lot of anxiety and nervousness. And it was just fine. [Laughs] It’s such an interesting lesson, too. Early on, I had to drop the bomb and tell people, Guess what? This is where I’m heading, this other gender. And then for a while, I had to drop the bomb where I’d say, Guess who I used to be? Hopefully I learned a lot from that. Because if you walk into that all messed up, apologetic for who you are and guilty and full of shame, of course people are going to respond like this is a horrible mess you got them into. How you approach things has so much to do with what the outcome is. I was walking into with a bit of anxiety, but at the same time, a lot of that had been diffused a few years earlier when all of a sudden, boom, my father dies, and I was back in my hometown.
Filmmaker: You spoke in the film about the tortuous phase in your life when you took the field every week in football gear, and how this went against the grain of who you felt you were. But did you ever experience a sense of satisfaction at the sports you practiced in your youth? Because you didn’t just go through the motions as a quarterback, you actually excelled at it.
Reed: You know, I didn’t. And I think that’s pretty sad. If it was something I really loved, it would have been more rewarding. We had a beautiful interview with [high school friend] Tim where he was talking about football when we were young and how we kind of sucked, actually. [Laughs] He said football is so much fun, even when you’re losing, and then he moved on to something else. And that just floored me. I didn’t get it. I was like, You mean you were having fun all of those years? That’s really not a word that I associate with what we were doing out there. For me, it was some kind of testing ground. Or a way to prove to other people and hopefully yourself that this is who you are. If I’d been having fun, it would have been rewarding in the way it was for Tim. But for me, I’d just move on and think about the next thing.
Filmmaker: At what point did you realize that changing your gender was an option for you, a life choice you could make?
Reed: It’s been there for as long as I can remember, as this unnamed weird thing about me. It was, like, how can I repress this or keep people from finding about this horrible thing? But when I realized it was a choice and I could kind of wrap my head around it was when I was 6 or 7, maybe. Renée Richards was on the Today show or something. It was like, whoa, that’s it—now I get it. Then imagine trying to find as much information as you can about transvestism, as it was called at the time, or transsexualism, in the Helena public library, which had several books on [the subject]. I read all of them cover to cover like nine times. There was no Internet, and I would pull the books out and hide them behind other, bigger magazines so no one would see what I was reading. So it was tough to put a name to it and not attach a lot of embarrassment and shame. That’s why you have to come out and make films about it. [Laughs]
Filmmaker: As a creative person, you have to be faithful to your own vision, to art and self-expression. Did you also feel a responsibility to the LGBT community when you were making Prodigal Sons?
Reed: My way of dealing with that is not to think about it and just try to tell a story that anyone can relate to, because that’s how acceptance happens. That’s how the film is structured. You enter into the point of view of somebody whose position you probably haven’t considered or thought about. And to me, there’s something very powerful about letting people forget that they are seeing the world through the eyes of somebody they never thought they would see the world through. That’s where compassion comes from. That’s going to make the point more than any kind of hard sell or wagging your finger and saying, Now, be nice to transgendered people because they’re just like you!
Filmmaker: Is Orson Welles’s longtime partner Oja Kodar still in touch with Marc or your family?
Reed: Oja is as lovely as she appears in the film. And she really tried, and still tries, to stay in touch. But [the family] didn’t reciprocate all that much. There’s a line of voiceover in the film that says, “Marc seemed to forget about Orson Welles.” And there are a number of reasons for that. It was not an easy journey for him to go on. He was more interested in trying to figure out, Where does my piano ability come from? Where do my varicose veins come from? Am I going to lose my hair? Very practical, very basic stuff.
Filmmaker: It was a nice touch to use his piano music in the film. His playing is so naturally poignant.
Reed: I remember him getting upset when he was younger, and he used to go play the piano. I used to think of it as a lullaby he’d sing to himself, and I think it still functions that way. You know, Marc is a very complicated character. As a filmmaker, how can you not use this unadulterated expression that’s pouring out of him? It really lets you tap into him, it really lets you feel him.
Filmmaker: You went into publishing after studying cinema at San Francisco State University. What gave you the confidence and desire to move directly into filmmaking after you’d moved to New York?
Reed: Basically, I went to film in San Francisco in the early nineties and everybody was talking about this crazy idea of editing a film on your computer. I was in the right place at the right time and on the cutting edge of that, doing some of the early multimedia stuff. I had amassed this specialized knowledge about it at the time I was transitioning. So it worked out very well for me, being a recent film-school graduate trying to freelance as an editor. It’s hard enough to do that, but I was trying to do it with two different client bases, one as male, one as female. [Laughs] And it’s expensive to transition—you need health care, everything you spend is going toward [it]. I basically found this career in publishing that let me use this knowledge that not a lot of people were doing at the time and apply that in a group comprised of a totally different set of people. Moving to New York wasn’t really the kicker, because I’d transitioned in San Francisco. What’s really behind me coming out was just this sneaking suspicion about what did I leave behind? A big part of that is, I’m from Montana, and we’re pretty proud of our state. My great-grandparents homesteaded at the farm you see in the film. So kind of feeling banished or exiled, whether or not it was self-imposed, was this growing feeling. I was trying to work it out in narrative form; I was confronting whether or not I could talk about this stuff myself. But frankly, unless my father had died, I don’t know how long it would have taken me.
Filmmaker: You made a conscious choice not to dwell on the specifics of transitioning in this film. Why is that?
Reed: I think other people have made films that focus on that stage. There aren’t as many films that focus on what happens after, especially ten years after, when nobody really knows [about it]. And who are you then? I thought it was more important to tell that story.