Jessica Dimmock On Documentary Film, The Transgender Narrative & That Pesky Gender Divide

Jessica Dimmock is a badass. If you’d like to dispute me on that point, which I encourage you not to do, I’ll direct you to her decorated career as a photographer. In 2014, Infinity named her the photojournalist of the year. How’s that for bad? For her work on the film Without, Dimmock won Kodak’s Best Cinematography award. And before her lauded foray into journalism, she used to be a teacher.

Like many of today’s boundary-breakers, Dimmock doesn’t subscribe to one title. She’s a producer-director-photojournalist-author-teacher — she’s a modern woman, and modern women are multi-hyphenate. This is why Dimmock’s voice is so essential, and why she’s one of the directors participating in Refinery29’s Shatterbox Anthology.

Shatterbox Anthology seeks to tip the gender scale in film toward women. The films in the anthology are directed by some of today’s most important voices. Dimmock is in good company — Chloë Sevigny and Gabourey Sidibe also directed films in the series.

The decorated photojournalist directed The Convention, which is available today. The short film details the Esprit conference, a four-day convention in Tacoma, WA, for transgender women.

For Dimmock, this is familiar territory. In 2016, she directed a feature film called The Pearl, which follows four dedicated attendees of the conference over an extended period of time. The Convention has a wider lens and a shorter shelf life. It stays within the confines of the conference itself, inviting the viewer to participate in what is for many of these women an annual escape.

We spoke to Dimmock about her film, the conference, documentary filmmaking, and the importance of women in cinema.

All About Her Short Film, The Convention
Jessica Dimmock:The Convention is about the annual Esprit conference that happens in Port Angeles, Washington, every year. It's been going on for a little bit over 25 years. And it is a conference that draws transgender women primarily in mid-to-later years — so 50s, 60s, 70s, sometimes even 80s — from all around the Pacific Northwest. It's open to anyone from any part of the country, but it really tends to kind of draw this regional crowd. And what's unique about is that, because of their age, most of the trans women that attend are not out full-time or even close. For some of them, they spend half time in female mode, half time in male mode, because of work or things like that. For others, their wives have no idea where they are.

"And [the convention] becomes this place where they get together for a week of camaraderie, community, support, a fair amount of shared pain. For many of them, this is the only week of the year that they can express who they are. And so the film is really about looking at this one weeklong event, and the kind of emotional complications that go with it. There's the tremendous amount of exhilaration and joy and fun and dancing, but there's also a real undercurrent of pain, because no one there would be there, in some ways, if they didn't need to be. Which is inherently the problem.”
Conference attendees enjoy a game of pool in "The Convention."
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On Discovering — Or, Rather, Stumbling Upon — The Conference Itself
JD: “About five or six years ago, I went hiking in this town in the Pacific Northwest. I went up to my balcony to just take a look at the parking lot. I had checked into a pretty large, crappy hotel in some really small logging town. And I went out to the parking lot and saw all of these women walking around with very big biceps, and they were somewhat struggling to walk in high heels, and their gait was a little bit different. I had just randomly come to this convention by accident, and had no intention of making a film about this community. I had just kind of stumbled upon it, and from there, I made a documentary film with my co-director Christopher LaMarca. And we followed a few people that we met there for a few years, but I wanted to come back and do a film just on this place. Because I was always so drawn to this place, and we don't really have the time in the film to really explore and unpack it.”

On Why The Esprit Conference Matters
JD: "[The conference] attracts about 150 transgender women that are all in their 50s, 60s, and 70s, most of them are not women full time, and so there are people who have incredibly strong and developed male identities. They've been living as men since birth, and they've always known this about themselves, they always knew that they were women, and they grew up in a time and place where that was not something that you ever told anyone. So, at 4 or 5 or 6 years old, they knew who they were, and they knew that was just not gonna be okay. And so they shoved it down — most of them for all of their lives. So when you've got these very fully formed male identities, and everyone knows you as men — you've got children, and relationships, and a spouse, and employment, and all of this based on your male identity — to kind of take that off is very difficult. So I was really drawn to the complexity that this presents. And the fact that I felt like I just never saw transgender stories about people that were older.”

On The Transgender Narrative The Media Neglects
JD: “A lot of transgender stories focus on the very young, and the very passable. I think that there's a fascination with the very young, because people — rightfully so — are interested and fascinated by the idea that this forming of identity happens at such an early age. And that's a very important thing for everyone to kind of know about. But I think that there's also this thing where when you have have younger trans people, even in their teens, 20s, they're just going to be more passable. When you've got 50 or 60 years of testosterone pumping through your veins, it changes your body. You're gonna have incredibly masculine features.
One of Dimmock's subjects.
"The women of my film are not your effeminate hairdresser that you're kind of curious about, like, 'What's going on here?' These are big, burly men from logging towns on their exteriors. They've got facial hair. They've got strong jawlines. I think that's a little bit of a harder pill to swallow. And I think it's a little bit more confusing. But their stories are just as valid, and in a lot of ways, the stakes for them are even higher. It's not to diminish the stakes for transgender people at a younger age, because it's incredibly complicated no matter what. But when you have everything to lose, everything. You could lose your wife. You could lose your home. You could lose your job. You could lose all of your friends. The stakes are just so high. And so I think it's a story that's been a little bit ignored and a little bit pushed off to the side. I really want to look at what it means to be a 75-year-old who comes out for the first time.”

On Documentary Vs. Fictional Narrative
JD: "I think the real things that happen in real people’s lives can never compare to the make-believe version of it. I love narrative film just as much as anyone else, and I love the kind of transformative and unreal qualities that they can have that will just bring you to something entirely unknown. But I believe in real people and their stories so much more. I just think that you can never mimic the look in someone's eyes when something happens in their real lives. An actor can get close, and an actor can do things that real people can't, but there's nothing — there's no faking it. You know when you are watching fiction, and you know when you are watching narrative. And that's because there's an authenticity to documentary filmmaking and storytelling that just can't be replicated."
On The Importance Of Female Directors
JD: "It's really important to have female directors, and it's not about the numbers. It's about the fact that women are really good directors. Women listen, women are intuitive, women are compassionate and empathetic. Women are sensitive and patient and deeply artistic and lyrical. Women are just incredibly expressive. And so therefore they will make incredible films — incredible films. I'm so proud to be a female director.

"People will always kind of assume that the men around you know more, can do more, are more capable, have more experience — and that's not necessarily true. It's a real uphill battle to be taken seriously. And the more women that create good quality bodies of work, the more that taboo and that assumption will just kind of fall away. But it's definitely there, and it has to be pushed against and pushed against real hard."

Watch The Convention in its entirety, below.
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Women accounted for only 13% of the directors on the 700 top grossing films in 2014 — and only 7% of the top 250 films. Refinery29 wants to change this by giving 12 female directors a chance to claim their power. Our message to Hollywood? You can't win without women. Watch new films every month on Refinery29.com/Shatterbox and Comcast Watchable.
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