Interview: 'The Most Dangerous Year' director Vlada Knowlton
In 2016, the state of Washington was closer than most people realize to becoming one of the states that passed a "bathroom bill," laws that legally mandate that people use the bathroom that coincides with their birth sex. As a number of states considered, debated or passed these co-called "bathroom bills" in recent years, the Human Rights Campaign identified 2016 as the most dangerous year for transgender Americans.
Filmmaker Vlada Knowlton sat down to discuss the documentary "The Most Dangerous Year" (world premiering at the 44th Seattle International Film Festival on May 29). The film follows local families as they fight against several "bathroom bills" proposed here in Washington state - laws that, if passed, would directly affect their transgender friends and families. For Knowlton, who wrote and directed the documentary, the film is quite personal - in 2014, Knowlton and her husband discovered their youngest child was transgender.
Knowlton: The fact that I had to make this movie is a tragedy. In a perfect world, I wouldn't be making this film. We wouldn't be living in a world where these innocent people's civil rights are up for discussion at all. When we were living in our own family bubble, our goal was get through that personal trauma first. When we found out, people didn't know much about what it means to be transgender and we had to work through that ourselves. Then you get through that in your own family bubble: our child is happy, healthy and has a future. Ideally, ignorance would be bliss at that point - your community supports you, your school supports you - then you're done. But I had to be pulled into this project, and then your eyes are opened to a lot of bad stuff. But you have to incorporate it into your mental schema of "how the world works" and realize you have a huge battle to fight, probably for the rest of your life. You're never going to stop fighting for your child's life. You have to reconcile yourself with that fact. There's nothing good about finding out that people will look at your child as sub-human, as somebody whose civil rights are a legitimate topic of discussion. Nobody's civil rights are a legitimate topic of discussion.
Question: The film broadly addresses the proposed Washington state "bathroom bills" but it also prominently features your daughter and family. What inspired you to make this film so personal?
Knowlton: It's always a more compelling story when it's honest and authentic. I don't think the film would have been as honest and authentic if I wasn't talking about my own experience inside this battle. As a storyteller, you know you have to make a story that will resonate with people. You have to do something the audience can relate to. It was a reluctant decision: I didn't really want to make it personal. You're putting your child and yourself out there, exposing people to risk - but as a storyteller, that was my job.
Q: How did you prepare yourself while researching the groups supporting the "bathroom bills"?
Knowlton: People are trying to say your child is not fully human and that she doesn't know who she is. If there's a group of people who are denying your own child's identity, trying to spin narratives why it's okay to deny their core identity and subjugate them to second-class citizen status, you can imagine what that's like. It's devastating. However, if you're going to fight the fight, you have to brace yourself. If you're going to make this film, you can't let this devastation take over - I have to tell this story the way I think I need to tell it.
Q: Who is the intended target audience for this film?
Knowlton: It's fairly large but it's that audience in the middle. It's mostly probably parents - the people who don't know really what it means to be transgender. They don't know what information to grab on to. I see a lot of fearmongering and it does make me nervous. "Do I send my kids to school when the school is supportive of LGBTQ kids?" "Do I have to worry about that?" "Why are these bathroom bills important?" "Who cares really?" It's the mainstream audience who are trying to figure out 'what does this all mean?' It's meant to inform and education people who could understand but they just don't have all the information.
Q: How did you go about tackling such a multi-dimensional, complex subject?
Knowlton: That was really tough. Writing the screenplay and editing the film was difficult. You can't just call this a 'transgender film' because like cisgender people, transgender people have an infinite number of stories to tell. This is a very specific story about a very specific group of people. The story became taking every anti-trans argument - every argument from the people who supported these bills - and addressing them one-by-one, explaining why the arguments wouldn't hold up in the end.
Q: The film is specific to 2016, but how is it still timely?
Knowlton: It's important for a story to be contained. I wanted to make sure this was a contained story about a particular group of people and a particular time as they worked toward a particular goal. But, pretty much every topic that was discussed in this film relates to the overall civil rights fight for transgender people. It's always going to be about fear, fear of people who are different, whether or not its okay to discriminate against a person, misinformation about the threats that certain minority populations pose. The same kind of fearmongering tactics were used against gay people, black people. These tactics are tried and true discrimination tactics. These themes are repeated over and over again in history.
"The Most Dangerous Year" screens at the 44th Seattle International Film Festival on May 29 and June 2. Tickets can be purchased at siff.net.