Southern Comfort Behind the Scenes Notes From the Director
For over ten years I've been making films about misunderstood people on the margins of society, beginning with "Girltalk," a feature documentary on runaway teenage girls. The way minority groups are mistreated has always seemed to me to be closely tied to ignorance, and so my approach to my film subjects is to move in very close, to take audiences into the personal space of those considered different, a place where it becomes harder to shut the door on them.
I met Robert Eads in 1998, at an FTM (female-to-male) convention in Maryland, during a shoot for an A&E film on gender rights which I produced with my husband. Over coffee, Robert spoke about his ovarian cancer, how he was denied treatment, how he felt like a traitor to his body while giving birth to two sons. I called him a week later, and he agreed to go public for the first time in his life. "I knew you'd call," he said.
But the production was a risky proposition. Robert was dying. I had no time to raise money, and I was entering a delicate emotional situation out in rural Georgia, far from my own New York family . Furthermore, being mostly a director and editor, I had scarcely shot anything. But intimacy was required here. I bought a DV camera and did the filming myself, sometimes while recording sound as a one-person crew. Over Easter, we filmed the first shoot out of six over the course of 12 months.
Robert lived in the farmland of Taccoa, a small dot on the Georgia map. There we met Max, Cas and the others, all of them closeted. Their decision to participate in the film was major, but they felt that Robert's story was important, and took the risk. My co-producer, Elizabeth Adams, and I slept at one end of Robert's trailer home, always on-call, listening through the rooster crows outside for any movement. At dawn, we would jump up, sieze the equipment and film in our pajamas. In public, we told store owners that this was a film about our friend, awkwardly leaving out major details. At the Southern Comfort Convention, our filming was almost entirely restricted, since participants could lose their jobs and families with one slip of the camera lens. On top of this, jealousies threatened to split up the group, and Robert was slipping in and out of consciousness.
By winter, we balanced shooting with administering medication and backrubs. It was a rollercoaster. Every shoot seemed it would be the last one. But as if secretly choreographing the film, Robert would suggest the next scene. "We have to arrange for you to film my son..." I grew to love Robert, and it stretched me to the limit to watch him die while still acting as film producer. But as Robert once told me, "If this film helps one other trans-man go to a doctor, or changes the heart of one straight person, then it's worth it."