Filmmaker has no problem leaving you with questions

It was the summer of 2015 when former U.S. Marine and world-record weightlifter Matt Kroczaleski was publicly outed as being transgender. Known for squatting 1,003 pounds, benching 738 pounds and deadlifting 810 pounds, she would now have to find a way to lift one of the heaviest weights she had been carrying around for entire life.

The reaction to the news was what many would expect – renounced by her parents, banned from competing and multi-million dollar sponsors quickly pulled their lucrative sponsorships.

She would change her name to Janae.

Written and directed by Michael Del Monte, BA’08 (Philosophy), the documentary film Transformer follows Janae’s journey as she attempts to find her place in society and continue a healthy relationship with her sons – all while dealing with the physical and psychological uphill battles that lie ahead.

Del Monte made the decision early in the process not to politicize or sensationalize Janae’s physical modification through the documentary, but rather focus on the inner transformation and emotional turmoil she wrestled with in wanting to be accepted for who she really was.

Winner of Best Documentary Feature and the Audience Choice Award at the Austin Film Festival this past fall, Transformer made its Canadian debut at the Canadian International Documentary Festival – better known as Hot Docs – earlier this month where it received the Rogers Audience Award for Best Canadian Documentary, which included a $50,000 cash prize. Del Monte also picked up the Emerging Filmmaker Award at the festival.

Western News reporter Paul Mayne chatted with Del Monte about his work on the documentary, just days after one of the biggest moments in the young filmmakers’ career.

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IMDB // Special to Western NewsWritten and directed by Michael Del Monte, BA’08 (Philosophy), the documentary film Transformer follows Janae’s journey as she attempts to find her place in society and continue a healthy relationship with her sons – all while dealing with the physical and psychological uphill battles that lie ahead.

That had to be one of the most amazing weekends for you. Safe to say the biggest thing to happen to you so far?

Well, I got engaged a few months ago, so that’s hard to compare. That would have to be first. This past weekend is a close second.

So how does a Western Philosophy grad end up finding himself behind the lens of a camera making documentaries?

After I graduated from Western, I went to Toronto to do my masters in philosophy of religion. I was runner at Western and continued with that at Toronto. That was really my goal – to make the Olympics. That was what I was driving for. But an injury sidelined me and I started making some videos of old running teammates back in 2012 and found my love for story-telling through the visual form. One thing led to another and I started making my first documentary (Transcend which told the story of 2012 Boston Marathon champion Wesley Korir). It was a passion for a passion. It’s been six years since then and, thankfully, I’m able to make a little bit of a career out of it.

How did you come to learn about Janae and her story? What made you feel you needed to tell this story?

The muscle aspect drew me. I had been interested in why, particularly men, try to build their external self, put on all this muscle. From interviewing a bunch of them, I realized there was often some internal insecurities they were trying to avoid, or protect, or hide.

So I was always interested in the subject of muscle as kind of a character-development notion.

I heard about Janae’s story in 2015 from a colleague who filmed her when she was professionally lifting. I watched an interview where she said, ‘I am interested in getting rid of the muscle and become more of a typical girl.’ I immediately knew that was not going to be possible because nobody spends their whole life building muscle and then all of a sudden getting rid of it.

That was the initial draw for me – to see somebody struggling to fight to figure out who they really were. We exchanged some emails and shortly after that I drove down to down to meet her.

Janae resonated with my vision of wanting not to make this a political film, but to really show the struggle someone goes through, particularly the fact no one would want to be transgender. It’s not something you’d ever wish upon yourself. It’s not something she would ever hope her sons to have to deal with.

I felt the media had done a poor job in explaining that. It was often the opposite of that, about celebrating who you are and be happy. I really wanted to show the before steps of that and the journey Janae was about to go on.

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How did you remain focused on telling the story? A former U.S. Marine and champion body builder transitioning to a female would seem an easy trap to fall into sensationalizing the journey.

You have to make choices from the start in terms of which road you’re going to go down as a filmmaker. It wasn’t interesting to me, the sexuality, the whole sexual reproduction, the surgery, that wasn’t nearly as interesting to me as her relationship with her sons, her relationship with her family.

As a filmmaker, I’m looking for things that make me think more than a few seconds and, to be honest, when you hear about someone’s sexuality, I don’t need to ask them any more questions, so I wanted to focus on things in her life which were going to people down a much deeper hole. That was my decision from the start.

Throughout the process, it became tempting, with people asking if you’re going to talk about this and that. You really have to stay true to what you’re trying to make and not let those hot-button topics change it.

This isn’t an FAQ film. We’re not answering all your questions on transgenderism in this film.

Is this more than just a LGBTQ documentary, which people may want to describe it?

Following the screenings, I would have members of the LGBTQ community, as well as conservative Christians, both come up to me and say the exact same thing, which was, ‘Thank you so much for telling this story.’ It speaks to the testament of committing to something without a political agenda and just telling the story – that’s often good enough.

We don’t always have to have a hard agenda. That was one of the highlights of the last couple weeks, was seeing it resonating with all sorts of people.

IMDB // Special to Western NewsWritten and directed by Michael Del Monte, BA’08 (Philosophy), the documentary film Transformer made its Canadian debut at the Canadian International Documentary Festival – better known as Hot Docs – earlier this month where it received the Rogers Audience Award for Best Canadian Documentary, which included a $50,000 cash prize. Del Monte also picked up the Emerging Filmmaker Award at the festival.

Nothing ever goes perfectly in putting together a documentary. Did you have any hurdles along they way? How did you overcome them?

I took a trip to Colombia on my own and that helped. I did need some breaks along the way because this is a tough subject matter that I was deep into for more than a year-and-a-half. The emotional struggle Janae was going through, I was experiencing it, too, in a much more minimal way, of course.

Documentary films do change you much more than a narrative film. It’s a different experience that is much more emotional. There are several highly emotional scenes I would bet most people would have a hard time not tearing up. You are sitting there the first time she meets her mother and her mother is saying to her my son is dead. You’re witnessing this.

You are going along on the story and experiencing it while it happens. There was a large sense of responsibility with making this film, in staying true to the finish, with not being political, and not bringing anyone else into the story. We made a conscious choice not to have any sort of professors, psychologists or transgender experts.

The struggle is what made it what it was in the end, which was a true, unbiased look at somebody’s journey. The fight and challenge along the way was to figure out how to let her tell her story without it feeling biased; making it authentic.

We watch a film or documentary and expect to be entertained and have all our questions answered. In your case, you seemed to create more questions to be asked. Was that intentional?

That was the goal. There are a few story beats in the film that go unresolved. For instance, when Janae was Matt, he was divorced. There was a question should we have the wife in it, and she didn’t want to be in it. Do I want to push this? Then started I realizing I don’t need anymore from her. I know they got divorced.

So you float over a couple things.

The biggest challenge for a documentary filmmaker, in particular, is you are left with more questions than answers. That means you’re going to be thinking about this and processing this way after the credits. With a romantic comedy, you experience an emotion, you leave and that’s that. Kind of like fast food in a sense – it satisfies you for a little bit and you’re left with nothing at the end.

So with a documentary, you’re trying to get into some deep thoughts so it resonates well after they leave the theatre.

You won major awards in Austin last fall and earlier this month in Toronto. Did you know you had something special as you were making the documentary?

Being recognized for your work, you don’t think about that while you’re making it. But it is in the back of your mind, trying to make a smart film you hope people may enjoy. The validation from both the critics and the audience is the ultimate thing you can achieve. As writers, filmmakers or any sort of artist, if you can get a bit of critical acclaim, as well as from audiences, it’s kind of what you hope for.

The only thing I knew from the start was there was great emotion as the base of this. That’s what I was trying to cover. In terms of the story – transgenderism, body building – I had no idea how that would be accepted. I had no idea if people were going to want to watch a guy who’s dedicated his life to basically building his own body for insecurity reasons. Are you going to feel sympathy for someone like that?

A lot of that stuff I didn’t know how it would be received, but the thing I knew we had, from my very first meeting with Janae, was someone going through something deep. There was a deep sense of uncertainty, of doubt and despair and angst – all the subjects I studied in Philosophy. But to see that actually embodied, in what looked like a superhero figure, that’s what I found to be the thing I needed to hold on to the most through the whole process.