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Navigating Transgender Identity in 'Becoming Johanna:' A Q&A with Director Jonathan Skurnik

Johanna Rodriguez poses with Angels of Change models for a photo. | From "Becoming Johanna"
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What do you do when your mother prays for you to be someone else?

"Becoming Johanna" is a compelling film that intimately explores transgender identity through the lens of Johanna, a 16-year-old transgender Latina, who gets kicked out of her home and school as she begins her transition. But Johanna rises above rejection to march forward in her journey to becoming comfortable in her own skin, and finds a foster family who loves her and a supportive school principal who helps her graduate and thrive.

This documentary was directed and produced by Jonathan Skurnik as part of the Youth and Gender Media Project. Read a Q&A with Skurnik below.

And to join a live, online Q&A session with Skurnik on June 23 at 9 p.m., click here to RSVP on Eventbrite.

What sparked your drive to create this documentary?

Jonathan Skurnik: Trans youth of color are more susceptible to violence, self-harm and suicide than nearly any other population. By telling Johanna’s story, I was hoping to build empathy and compassion in audience members who want to be better allies for young trans folks.

Were there any challenges you faced along the way, either on a production, social, cultural standpoint?

JS: Making any long form documentary consists of many challenges. When I started production on "Becoming Johanna" nearly ten years ago, funders were not yet interested in trans stories, and so I had a very hard time raising money for the film. Even progressive funders were surprisingly transphobic in their responses to my proposal. Fortunately, by the end of production, many of those funders had come around to understanding the importance of these stories and I was able to raise the money to finish the film.

This film was produced as part of the Youth and Gender Media Project, which you founded to foster a safe and inclusive world for gender expression — in what way does “Becoming Johanna” align with the project’s values and goals?

JS: The Youth and Gender Media Project consists of four short films aimed for different audiences in a typical K-12 community: teachers, parents, middle school students and high school students. "Becoming Johanna" is the film aimed for high school audiences, and I’m pleased to say that the film has screened in hundreds of high schools all across North America and in the U.K. and Australia. Another goal of the project is to empower trans youth to tell their own stories. During our two years of audience engagement and outreach work, Johanna traveled all over the country screening the film, conducting Q&As and leading workshops; work that was a significant source of income for her.

Johanna Rodriguez modeling. | "Becoming Johanna"
Johanna modeling. | Still from "Becoming Johanna"

A couple major subjects of this film are navigating and exploring transgender identity, as well as the importance for transgender people to find a sense of belonging and acceptance in their community. As we see, Johanna’s journey was not the easiest; how did you approach capturing her moments of vulnerability, and what were your own thoughts while doing so?

JS: In order to effectively capture those moments, the subject of the film needs to trust the filmmaker to tell their story with compassion and honesty. I spent many years with Johanna building that trust and connection so that when the time arose to film those moments, she felt comfortable. In addition, during the entire production process, we had an agreement that any time she felt uncomfortable with either what we were filming, or with the entire film as a whole, we would stop the process. This agreement empowered her to do what she thought would benefit her community and potential audiences.

You’ve been a long-time supporter of gender expansiveness. At the end of the day, what do you hope viewers take away from watching the film?

JS: I was a gender fluid child who loved both “boy” and “girl” things, but at a certain point, I was bullied and teased pretty ruthlessly, and chose as a form of survival to conform to an oppressive binary conception of gender. My life has been much poorer for this. What I hope viewers take away from "Becoming Johanna" and all the films in the Youth and Gender Media Project is that a strict binary conception of gender hurts every single human on this planet, and hurts trans and gender non-binary folks the most. I hope that before too long, we will understand, as Dr. Browers says in the film, that being trans is a gift.

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