Kortney Ryan Ziegler, director of the award-winning film, “Still Black“, a documentary about the lives of six black transgender men, is currently casting transgender and cisgender actors of color for his new feature length film, PASSION, set to start shooting in Oakland, California early next year.
Approaching his 30’s, Passion, a black trans musician two years into his medical transition, juggles his newfound identity as a black male and the societal expectations that come along with it. Though him and his ska band enjoy local success in Oakland, Ca, Passion is discontent with remaining local and wants to extend the band’s fame beyond the bay area. However, his best friend and band mate, Shields, cannot fully accept his transition which heavily affects the success of the group as he constantly pressures Passion into living stealth and adopting a misogynist demeanor. Afraid of ruining the chances of success for his band and feeling unsure of his own masculinity, Passion begrudgingly begins to closet himself. When he encounters a local queer activist named Uni that reminds him of the beauty of gender fluidity, it propels him to take action in his career as a musician, reconsider his friendship with Shields, and publicly embrace his trans identity and nonnon-traditional expression of masculinity.
I first met Dr. K Ryan in Boston; he was passing through the city with his partner on his way to Western MA (where he later filmed Louis Mitchell, one of Still Black’s subjects). A mutual friend was hosting him and his partner and so we all met up for drinks. I had just begun coming to terms with my gender identity then, and had no idea that the filmmaker I’d just met would be instrumental in propelling me from my place of awkward discomfort with my body and gender presentation to a shared awareness of the imposed gender norms that constrict us, and now liberated and intentional solidarity with other masculine of center women of color.
As a writer of color who’s also gender non-conforming, I’ve been impressed with — and personally touched by — Dr. Ryan’s unapologetic approach to raising awareness of gender and race issues through his writing (if you don’t know about his award-winning blog, blackademic.com, you should), but especially his commitment to creative growth and exploration through the medium of film. It was a pleasure to interview such a prolific media maker and learn about his no-nonsense approach to filmmaking. I believe we can all benefit from Dr. Ryan’s brand of bold. Enjoy.
It’s been a few years since you made Still Black: a Portrait of Black Trans Men, a documentary. PASSION is a narrative film. Why the genre switch?
Aside from STILL BLACK, I’ve made a number of experimental shorts but have always wanted to produce a narrative feature. To be honest, the genre intimidated me but now I feel that I am in the creative and intellectual space to literally follow my dream. I know that in order to grow as an artist, I must constantly confront my fears because I believe in dosing so, I produce the best work.
What did you learn about being a queer/trans black filmmaker that you feel will and/or already has been invaluable to your new project?
I think my identity has afforded me a different way to approach film because I want to see people who share a similar life experience as me on the big screen. This urge is what pushes me and has proven to be the most invaluable aspect of my career.
I first learned about your film through your casting call first black trans men. It made me think about films like Pariah and Transamerica in which the gender non-conforming protagonists were played by straight, cisgender actors. What are your thoughts on this?
I do not want to say that non-queer actors cannot play in queer roles because the essence of cinema is the notion of performance, which allows brilliant actors to represent something or someone other than themselves. However, I do think it is tricky to have cisgender actors in transgender roles if the role is strictly based on stereotypes–something which films with non-trans actors tend to do. I do know that with PASSION, I cannot see anyone else but a black trans male actor as the protagonist.
Is casting for a narrative film easier or more difficult than for documentary film in your experience so far? Why/ why not?
For the documentary it wasn’t difficult to find subjects because men like myself yearned to have our voices heard and overwhelmingly supported the casting call. With PASSION, I am experiencing the same amount of support. Perhaps the only difference in difficulty is having to weed through a larger pool of applicants because of the genre change. I am seeing that the trans community is filled with amazing actors who many of us don’t even know exists.
As a writer, I will often hear from publishers, what is the why behind your piece, story, book? Why now? What is the why behind PASSION? Why do you feel compelled to tell this story now?
It is time to tell this story for a number of reasons. For one, black indie cinema is revealing itself as an important force in the film industry. It is a great time in filmmaking where the thirst for stories of the black experience are being answered by black filmmakers with unique style and voices. Furthermore, with the success of Pariah, it shows that films about the black queer experience can be successfully marketed to all types of audiences beyond the LGBT film circuit. Basically, it would be silly of me not to produce this
project right now.
How has pre-production been funded/supported so far? How do you plan to fund the film?
Pre-production has been financially supported through my own company and private investors. Eventually I will begin fundraising most likely through a crowdsourcing campaign.
Are there any steamy sex scenes? Inquiring minds wanna know :-).
I don’t know about steamy sex but I will say that there will be some
scenes that are indeed, sexy.
Your film Still Black was a first of its kind, and sparked a lot of dialogue within the LGBT community, notably within people of color communities about trans masculine issues. Simply put, it was dope. Do you feel pressure to deliver another first?
I‘ve been lucky to achieve a number of firsts in my artistic and academic career, however, I do not feel pressure at all to continue this trend. I am simply driven by the desire to introduce audiences to alternative images of blackness without waiting for approval. If anything, I am privileged to be able to produce work that sets precedent.
What films by other LGBT POC, whether short, feature, or experimental do you? Which other filmmakers have influenced you?
A number of artists have shaped my point of view as a filmmaker but right now I am feeling incredibly inspired by fellow filmmaker, Tiona M. Not only because her work is important and timely but I am inspired by her business skills as a working artist. I respect her grind and always look to folks who understand that to be independent is to wear multiple hats and to wear them well.
QWOC Media Wire is the only platform that exclusively amplifies media – books, art, film, music etc – created for and by LGBTQ women and gender non-conforming people of color. As a black trans filmmaker, we’d love to hear how we (QWOC media wire and the community) can support you.
I think it is important to continue to provide spaces that highlight queer folks of color as I believe there can never be enough. Especially, since we are such a driving force in a number of creative industries. We have to continue to talk about one another for our own survival.
What would you say to young queer folks of color (or anyone for that matter) who’s interested in making films?
Do it, because your time on earth is limited; you are going to die. That may seem morbid to some but it is the reality and should inspire all of us to pursue our dreams.
Thanks so much for speaking with us! Any last words?
I’d like to put out there that I’ve slowly started to re-launch my award winning blog, blac (k) ademic in order to both chronicle my journey with the film as well as provide weekly critical essays on culture from a black transmale perspective. So, please visit! And thank you for carving out space for me to talk about my work!
To stay up to date on Dr. K. Ryan’s film projects, and learn about his radical black queer point of view, visit his blog, www.blackademic.com. You can read the full call for transgender and queer actors of color here.