In France Michelle is a Man’s Name officially takes place in the generic rural American West: A sandbox that director Em Weinstein uses to explore the themes of trans identity, masculinity, parenthood, and the price one is willing to pay for acceptance.
But those familiar with the Columbia River Gorge might notice some familiar pieces of scenery: The exterior of Pat’s Ranch Mart in Goldendale in the opening shot; some of Tygh Valley’s hills in the background as the protagonists drive down US 197; perhaps even the old blue pickup that the crew rented last minute from a man in a local diner.
The 12-minute film — shot in September 2019 in The Dalles, Tygh Valley, Dufur and Goldendale, and at Mary’s Club in Portland — opens with an extended shot of a truck driver walking over to use a gas station bathroom, before the camera shifts over to Michael (played by Ari Damasco) exiting a stall. The viewer then follows Michael home to his parents’ house, where we learn that Michael is trans. The family stumbles through pleasantries at dinner and afterwards, Michael’s father (played by Jerry Carlton) takes him to a strip club as an attempt to connect with his son, and Michael struggles to balance his discomfort with his need for acceptance.
In France Michelle is a Man’s Name recently won the U.S. Narrative Shorts Grand Jury Prize at the Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ Film Festival. The prize officially designates the film as an Academy Award-qualifying title for the Best Live Action Short Film category.
The Columbia Gorge News sat down with Weinstein and Damasco via Zoom to talk about the film.
Editor’s note: Transgender, or “trans,” is a term generally used to refer to a person whose sense of personal identity and gender does not correspond with their birth sex; whereas cisgender, or “cis,” is a term generally used to refer to a person whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex. Weinstein and Damasco are both on the trans-masculine spectrum: Weinstein is nonbinary and uses the pronouns they/them, and Damasco is a trans man and uses the pronouns him/his.
CGN: Can you talk a little bit about the role that the setting plays in the film?
Weinstein: I grew up coming to The Dalles all the time, and all over Oregon, my family’s from there, and has been in Oregon for over 100 years — they came from Russia and came to Eastern Oregon. And then my dad moved out to The Dalles, when I was a kid, and I just always knew I wanted to make a movie there. It’s so beautiful and so cinematic, and even when I was in high school, I would dream about making a movie there. And then, I really wanted to tell a story about this sort of clash of culture with family, with where you’re from versus where you’re going, and I thought: Oregon, that’s an innate story to Oregon because it’s such a diverse state, politically, racially, economically, that it just felt like the right place to set this story as well. And I’ll also just say that like the film community in Oregon is really great, so that made it really easy. Because we could have so much of the crew be from all over Oregon, which is something you kind of aren’t always able to do if you’re shooting in a not like major metropolitan area. So that was really awesome.
Damasco: I’m not from Oregon. I’ve visited a couple of times ... and the main takeaway, for me, is just this sense of community, of people pitching in and really making this project happen without even necessarily knowing what everything was about. So just that willingness to help was so accommodating and so friendly. It just, I think, really speaks to the spirit of of that area.
CGN: What was it like to be filming this out in the rural sections of the Gorge? You said that people were mostly receptive to the project and willing to help you guys out?
Weinstein: We only had good experiences with people. We shot all over the place, we shot in Tygh Valley, and we also considered shooting a lot of different locations. So, I really interacted with people all across sort of in a two hour radius of The Dalles, and it wasn’t just the places that we shot, it was the places that like offered us a shooting location … We had a truck break down and — there’s like this vintage truck in the movie, and we had one day to shoot it. Our truck broke down right, like, during the shoot. And we were like, ‘We have to find a replacement truck,’ and I really didn’t want to use my dad’s truck because it’s sort of this like, new Toyota I really wants to be an old truck. So, I sent my dad and a couple other people to the diner in Tygh Valley at six, seven in the morning, and they just walked in the diner were like, ‘Does anybody have a vintage truck we could rent, you know, for like 100 bucks?’ We had no money. And yeah, we found this amazing truck, this super nice dude who gave us his truck and we rented it from him and everything, but it really was like the most sort of small town, kindness of your heart, like, super supportive moment — he saved the movie. And it was just because like we walked into a diner and asked people for help. And that was just an amazing experience that sort of got repeated over and over again.
Damasco: Being the talent, I had more interactions with the crew and everyone from the crew … I’m still aghast at how many people it takes to create a single project, even as short a film as this. And the way that I was able to witness their ability to just come together and make this possible. It seems like magic because it was super quick ... I think that speaks to the spirit that is very much alive in Oregon of being community-based and making something happen that wasn’t there before. Just still so appreciative and in awe of everyone’s efforts.
CGN: The descriptions that I read about the movie said that it was the it was made primarily with a group of trans, female and queer filmmakers. How did having those voices at the head of the project impact the final product and the message you were trying to tell?
Weinstein: I think it’s really important for the behind-the-scenes crew to reflect the story that you’re trying to tell in front of the camera. And I think especially I realized that when I made my first film, just how like … white cis male dominated the filmmaking space is … And so I think, you know, it shouldn’t really be a conscious effort, we should be able to hire diverse crews easily no matter what. And honestly, that was really how it came to be: I always am like, I want a queer trans female crew because these people are underrepresented and just as talented as everybody else. … But also I’m always surprised when we look back at the numbers and we’re like, oh, it was all queer people. It was mostly trans people and women because I’m like, yeah, those are the people I end up hiring without even really trying or meaning to, and I think for people who look at their crews and see a whole bunch of like white male faces, you know, that effort really needs to be made.
Damasco: As someone who is brown, who is queer, who is trans, being on set, surrounded by people who I didn’t feel threatened by, I felt very comfortable to just show up and be myself and you know, not expect these little microaggressions that aren’t so little that I experience on a day to day. So that was actually pretty refreshing, and to be able to step into this project and feel like there was an understanding of who I was and an ability for people involved to just see me without all of these other qualifiers. So as a personal experience, it was just wonderful. It felt like I could disarm myself.
CGN: There’s a lot of focus on the physical body in this film, particularly at the beginning with that gas station scene and then toward the strip club scene at the end of the film. How does this focus on the body contribute to this trans-masculine experience that the film was trying to convey?
Weinstein: I think so often, conversations around trans people especially, in cis spaces, are about their bodies and about like, you know, inappropriate questions about the body or just an obsession with the body, and I think especially in the beginning of the movie, I wanted to subvert that by placing the camera on a cis male body, which is the type of body that is least often, you know, the subject, and least often looked at, especially on screen. And often so much the sight of what we consider power. And so that was important to me. I mean, also, you know, when you look at old cowboy movies, like, the butt is very important … we framed the shot exactly as the shot was framed in several Westerns, so I think that we really were just trying to like turn the gaze around a little bit of the way with that. And and we also knew that there was going to disrupt something and we wanted to tackle that really thoughtfully. And we didn’t want to have sort of nudity for no reason. We wanted to tell the story in a way that was not necessarily about the women’s bodies, but about the men’s reaction to their bodies. So that was the thing we spent a lot of time talking about. We talked a lot with our actors about it. We talked a lot behind the scenes … I’ll just say it was very conscious and thought through.
Damasco: I’m only thankful that my body wasn’t on display. You know, it was me as a person but really, as someone who sometimes acts and consumes media and will watch other media where there are trans protagonists, or even just trans bodies on display, there often is this objectification … And I know because I trust Em, and I know Em that I wouldn’t expect this, but still knowing and showing up that there wouldn’t be a scene where I would be exposing myself somehow —that to me was a huge relief, because, I don’t know, somehow subconsciously, I’ve absorbed this idea that it might be an expectation to be out on display in the media world for other people’s consumption and the questioning of my own body, so this was truly a joy to not have to do.
CGN: What’s one message that you hope that people watching your film will take away, or a conversation that you hope people will have as a result of watching this film?
Weinstein: I always am changing my answer to this question. But for today, it’s that I think the questioning of assumption is something I hope people take away… A cis person of an older generation might say, ‘Oh, my God, I might have had that father’s reaction,’ but also, ‘Oh, I would have thought he would have been worse’ … I think also for young queer people, the assumptions of what or how a parent would react or what it would feel like to have that reaction also, I think the movie sort of complicates narratives around acceptance and around what coming out looks like, even though it’s not necessarily a coming out story … I want that narrative to be complicated and for folks to question what assumptions they went into it with and why they had those and what the undoing of those provokes.
Damasco: When presented this question, I also find myself thinking and approaching it differently, and I’ve noticed that it really depends on my mood any particular day, and also the level to which I miss my own parents. So I find that the times when I’m actually more homesick and aching for that connection with my folks, that I tend to look at the film as more focused on the dad figure … making this effort to connect with his son and then still missing the mark. There’s a bit of aching that I feel for that dad. But then when those feelings of missing home and missing my family are a little further away, I’m able to then connect with Michael, which is truer to my experience of that: ‘Here I am putting myself out there and I know you’re trying, but at each time you make an effort, you end up hurting me some way, or, you know, touching spots that are still raw and you still struggle to see me’ and so yes, I agree with Em. It’s about pointing out the nuance in these conversations and how people heal their relationships to one another, which will continue to be messy, and this idea, this concept that while you’re trying to reconnect, to heal a relationship, that inevitably you will continue to hurt one another to some regard, right? But with that larger goal in mind of finally reconnecting. So yeah, I’m left also with questions of, that I think I’ve heard Em mention before, what is it that we’re willing to compromise about ourselves to ensure that our relationship is healed, and to what extent those compromises can play into societal structures that are further damaging relationships and the status quo.
Weinstein is a writer and director from New York City and The Dalles, and Damasco is an actor and consultant from Aguascalientes, Mexico, and Southern California, who now lives in Chicago. Weinstein is currently working in theater and on a TV show, but said that they have aspirations to make a longer, feature-film version of In France with Damasco. A trailer for the short film can be found online at www.infrancefilm.com.