Cinema has been fascinated with sex-changing and gender variance from its very beginnings. If you’ve watched Disclosure, the documentary released in June on Netflix that explores the long history of cinematic representation of transgender characters, you’ve already gotten a sense of this.
Disclosure is required viewing for anyone who knows and loves a trans person. A talking-head doc that provides a powerful introduction to the long history of trans representation in television and film from the perspective of trans artists on both sides of the camera, Disclosure sets the stage for more advanced inquiry into how trans people have been depicted for more than a century, mostly through the lens of narrative film—leaving open an opportunity for a deep dive into how trans people are represented in unscripted cinema.
Documentary is not entirely absent from Disclosure—the film devotes a good amount of time to Paris Is Burning, Jennie Livingston’s groundbreaking 1990 exploration of New York’s drag ball world, the subculture which gave the world voguing and gave rise to Rupaul’s media empire and the hit series Pose. Paris Is Burning secured its canonical place almost immediately upon release, although the film has always drawn scrutiny, particularly for its white gaze and cinemavérité approach.
Cinema vérité flourished in the 1960s as a documentary film form that aims to make the viewer the proverbial fly on the wall. Some of the greatest documentarians staked their careers on vérité filmmaking—Frederick Wiseman (Titicut Follies), D.A. Pennebaker (Monterey Pop), and the Maysles (Salesman, Grey Gardens)—and evolved the form into direct cinema. And while the form aims to present truth, the vérité camera almost always represents the perspective of the persons who set the shot.
The bell hooks essay “Is Paris Burning?” famously critiques Paris Is Burning for its perspective. “Jennie Livingston approaches her subject matter as an outsider looking in. Since her presence as white woman/lesbian filmmaker is ‘absent’ from Paris Is Burning it is easy for viewers to imagine that they are watching an ethnographic film documenting the life of black gay ‘natives’ and not recognize that they are watching a work shaped and formed by a perspective and standpoint specific to Livingston,” hooks writes. She also takes the press to task for its lack of criticality in covering the film, noting that many writers “act[ed] as though [Livingston] somehow did this marginalized black gay subculture a favor by bringing their experience to a wider public.”
The Right Girls, released in August by Baltimore’s Wolfer Productions, is a feature-length journey, joining a handful of young trans women from El Salvador and Honduras traveling with the epic 2018 caravan of asylum-seekers journeying more than 2,000 miles from Southern Mexico to the US border at Tijuana. At the outset, the filmmakers discover Joanne, Chantal, and Valentyna amongst the caravanistas.
These young women speak of their hopes for their lives should they be allowed to cross the border, as well as the abuses they are escaping. Joanne, exhibiting a maternal determination beyond her years, hopes to find employment sufficient to support her transition as well as her mother and sister back home in Honduras. Chantal is a savvy, empathetic entrepreneur from El Salvador who sells cigarettes to support her journey, and Valentyna—also from El Salvador—is a photogenic dyed-blonde ingenue, starry-eyed for New York City. Thrown together by circumstance, the trio opens the film speaking of each other in glowing tones. Joanne, already showing leadership, names the film by saying these are “the right girls” to make this journey together.
Over the next hour or so, the film sporadically follows the caravan, showcasing some of the conditions our protagonists endure: harassment from fellow travelers, haggling for food and transportation, being left behind by transports intended exclusively for women and children. Tensions rise and fall, with Valentyna repeatedly breaking away and storming off on her own. In one ugly scene the blonde, light-skinned Valentyna verbally attacks the braided, dark-complected Joanne with a colorist slur, summoning immediately to mind bell hooks’ warnings about the valorization of white femininity within the ball culture Paris Is Burning depicts.
The Right Girls falls victim to many typical vérité pitfalls, especially when the filmmakers’ ignorance of trans subjectivity is displayed on screen. These passionate, dedicated filmmakers have captured unforgettable moments here, and without their access we would never have met these women. Without trans persons behind the camera, however, the spectacle of The Right Girls offers few answers for those of us who have a personal stake in the outcome of this journey.
The Right Girls exists as a remarkably valiant attempt at telling stories that should be told, and highlights the need for trans people—particularly trans people of color—to be able to tell our own stories on our own terms.
I would have loved to hear more about each woman’s hopes for transition should they be able to cross the US border. I am left wanting to know how they each came to understand themselves as trans, and what resources were available to them in their home countries. We hear Joanne express some apprehension about what she can expect from the decidedly trans-antagonistic Trump administration, but she maintains a belief that it’s still a better alternative to her former home. The women speculate on how they are going to plead their cases for asylum, recognizing that failure means being turned away, but we leave with little sense of what that process is actually like for our heroines. The film does little to help the viewer truly comprehend the conditions these women endure while in ICE custody or afterward—and this is where the véritéform gets the better of The Right Girls.
More than anything, I want to know what happened when the group cohesion explodes towards the end of the film. One moment, the “right girls” are lighthearted and hopeful, peering through the slats of a weird Tijuana border wall that extends into the ocean. The next thing we know, there is gnashing and wailing, the camera jerking around a dimly lit room. Joanne and Chantal rage with betrayal, claiming that Valentyna is not a trans woman and is harboring an undisclosed criminal past. It’s a shocking and traumatic scene, and unfortunately, this shrieking is the last we hear from Joanne and Chantal. Their emotional state suggests that Valentyna has compromised their journey somehow, but the details and the nuances of this situation are not explored and the sorrow and trauma of the moment remain unresolved. What does it mean that they no longer consider Valentyna trans? Had there been someone behind the camera with an authentic understanding of trans subjectivity perhaps we could better understand this enormous moment.
The coda of the film reconnects with Valentyna months later as she is finding her footing in Iowa. She seems unconcerned with her former friends, and while the film assures us that the others are fine, the happy-ish ending is haunted by subsistence questions familiar to nearly every trans person. It’s hard enough for trans people without a language barrier or immigrant status to find employment, housing, medical care, documentation, and community. How harsh is Des Moines for trans people? Those of us who have been engaged in LGBTQI+ community-building know that communities are porous and temporary—especially when they comprise people just looking for survival resources. If Joanne, Chantal, and Valentyna don’t complete the journey together, and they are not speaking to each other in the end, are these “the right girls” the title promises?
In an interview, director Timothy Wolfer contextualizes his decision for finishing the film and choosing which subject to follow after the rift: an illness interrupted his filming for a week, and when he returned, Joanne and Chantal had already requested asylum, while Valentyna had not yet. Logistical issues aside, by selecting Valentyna, the film chooses a narrative of individualism over collective support, and it highlights the markers of white femininity over those of non-white femininity. As such, The Right Girls exists as a remarkably valiant attempt at telling stories that should be told, and highlights the need for trans people—particularly trans people of color—to be able to tell our own stories on our own terms.