In his documentary essay “Desire Lines,” in development and presented at Ji.hlava New Visions Forum: U.S. Docs, Chicago-born Jules Rosskam speaks about something he says is an “open secret” among transgender men: that after coming out, many of them develop an attraction for other men.
“This idea is the driving force of the film. Everyone jokes about it but no one is really talking about it,” Rosskam tells Variety. Now 42, he came out as trans in his early twenties.
“At that time, in North America, trans people were subjected to the Harry Benjamin Standards of Care, which required you to be straight. You would be asked who you were attracted to because, God forbid, we create a queer person by letting someone transition. It was dangerous to be open about your desire and that narrative has remained in the community,” he argues.
Interweaving performed scenarios with interviews and observational footage, Rosskam – also behind 2008’s “Against a Trans Narrative” and 2013’s “Paternal Rites” – will invite transgender and cisgender men to read exchanges from hook-up apps in front of the camera, talk about their experiences and explore the significance of bathhouses in queer culture, also during the HIV/AIDS crisis.
“In the 1980s and 1990s, lesbian and gay educators worked to get people to understand that gender and sexuality were different things. I think they worked maybe a little too hard – yes, they are different, but they are not disconnected,” he says.
“There is this assumption that people are straight unless stated otherwise, or that all trans men were lesbians before they came out. Which is not true – it’s a stereotype. With some people, their sexual orientation stays the same. With others, they might have felt an attraction towards a man, but as one of my interviewees describes it, it was like having horse blinders on. It’s not ‘allowed’ in that category. Once you make the decision to shift your gender in some way, it can be easier to let go of other rules.”
The film will also include erotic encounters, shot in an abstract way which will create a “sensory experience” for the audience.
“They are shot very close up. Sexual encounters, if they are positive, can produce this ‘collapsing of space’ between bodies. In my earlier film, ‘Thick Relations,’ we attached small cameras to people’s bodies and talked to them about what kind of sexual encounter they wanted to represent. Then we left, saying: ‘Call us when you are done.’ It produced this really beautiful footage,” he says.
“I am interested in ways performative strategies can be used to get at a real, lived-in experience. I don’t have an allegiance to the capital ‘T’ truth of the documentary.”
His protagonists reached out to Rosskam directly, from all over the world, and while ‘Desire Lines’ is not an international project at the moment, it may change in the future. Medical professionals and health experts will be featured too as HIV infection rates among transgender men are rising, states Rosskam.
“I wanted to get to the people I wouldn’t normally get to, because I never set out to prove a point. I make films because that’s how I learn about the world: I am interested in representing a wide array of voices,” he says.
Another person he would like to reach out to? Elliot Page, who came out as trans in 2020.
“I think he is a great performer, so I went: ‘Somebody put me in touch with Elliot Page!’ But also, at this point, Elliot is the most well-known transgender man in the world. I would like to talk to him and see how he can get involved in projects coming out of the trans community. We have hardly seen any trans men in the mainstream media, which is not true for trans women. We need more representation, showing trans men having a full range of desires.”
“Desire Lines” is produced by MamSir Productions and set to premiere in February 2024.