Entertainment » Movies

Director Sabine Bernardi on "Romeos"

by Ethan L. McMahon .
Tuesday Oct 11, 2011

Female-to-Male transgendered people have not been a widely discussed topic, historically focus has been on the Male-to-Female, but recently there has been a shift in attention. A good part of that shift has been due to the public announcement of Chaz Bono transitioning from daughter of the superstar Cher, to son, causing no small amount of debate inside and outside the LGBT community.

Into this somewhat heated debate comes "Romeos", a fun and powerful little film from Germany, with a straight forward and honest perspective on what is a very internal struggle for most. Centered on the lives of young adults in Cologne, this film is young and hip, vibrant and occasionally reckless, and funny while at the same time very serious.

I had an opportunity to sit down for a chat with the Writer and Director, Sabine Bernardi, the day after its US debut. Bernardi is a self-avowed lesbian, petite and good-looking, with alert hazel eyes, a firm handshake, and a charming German accent. My first impression is that she is a person who knows what she is about, and loves what she does.

ETHAN: So, you had your US cinema film debut of "Romeos", at the Seattle International Film Festival on June 8th 2011, and you must be very excited about how well it was receive, yes?

SABINE: Yes, it was very exciting for me, I mean having the first screening here in the US, and I was really touched by the way the audience reacted to the film. It was a very wonderful response I think. I get a feeling that they loved it and they really got very interested in the topic, and so it was wonderful for me - also to talk about the film with the audience later.

ETHAN: Briefly, what is Romeos about?

SABINE: Romeos tells the love story of a 20-year-old guy who was born female, and he's falling into love with another guy, and this causes for every character [many] questions [about] identity and how to find the right one, how to find their own identities. It's a love story. But it's also very funny, like a romantic comedy.

You have a very fine way of handling how awkward the situation is and yet making jokes about it that I thought came off rather well.

SABINE: Thank you, thank you very much. I really wanted to tell the story. As a film maker I really want to entertain people. I mean, people are going to the theater and want to watch a film so I was absolutely clear that even when I have chosen this topic I want to also make the people laugh, to smile. But still I really like to make them think, and I think humor is a good way to transport ideas.

ETHAN: Coming to this debut, what was your worst fear, about how the reaction might be?

SABINE: When I finished the film I didn't have so much fear, I was much more interested in how the people would react.But after writing the screenplay, when we start the casting process, then I got a little bit [scared], because I knew I had to find someone who fits into this role. [Can] I find someone and how can I direct him? So [that] was pretty much a challenge for me. When the film was finished we did some test screenings and they went very well, so I got a little bit relaxed because I thought it might be working. Yesterday I was getting quite nervous, because I mean it's the first time with an American audience, and it's always new and exciting, so I was really nervous. It was a premiere for me yesterday, so I mean you hope that people like it and connect to it emotionally.

ETHAN: Sitting in the audience I could tell that people were really touched and moved by the characters, the humor, and the story overall. And during the Q&A session after the screening you could tell people got very interested in the topic by the good questions they asked, touching on all the major issues of the film - there was one question though, the last one, I don't know if you remember it...

SABINE: Yeah, I remember.

ETHAN: It might have seemed perhaps rude and ignorant to you the way that question was framed, and I don't pretend to make excuses for the American urge to examine someone's credentials when they come out with a controversial film, but you were asked, "What qualifies you to make this film?" I'd like to allow an opportunity for you to address that question again, because it was asked at the end, and it seems like you had already answered that with the all the previous questions... So then, on the subject of "qualifications" I understand that prior to this when you were still in film school you had worked on a documentary called "Transfamily", what was that documentary about?

SABINE: Transfamily was a documentary on two loving couples, a portrait of two love stories, and [in] each one of the couples there was one man born a female, there was one straight couple and one gay couple, and I portrayed them in the way they lived after the transition. They [had been] with their partners [for] years and I was very touched by that, and they also had [lots] of humor.I did this film during film school, and it went to some festivals, and was also screened at Frameline and some film festivals in the USA in the year 2005-6. So it has been a while, yet no DVD release, so that is why this film does not come up so much when you look for it now.

ETHAN: So that's why I couldn't find it! (laughs)

SABINE: But it has been on Frameline, and the audience was very much reacting to the humor in it. In the documentary [there] was [a] kind of similar humor to what I did in Romeos; because that was the way I really got myself to know, "OK, it's the humor that is working to get the people to smile". It was a love story in the documentary, so that's how that idea came up and there was in the documentary one gay couple and [that strongly] influenced the story of Romeos.

ETHAN: I understand that Romeos will likely get a DVD release in the US, is there any chance that Transfamily might be bundled with Romeos?

SABINE: I would love to, and maybe there is a chance because we were thinking about [doing] this in Germany. When I am back in Germany I will have to check, mostly with the protagonists of [Transfamily] because one couple of them I had a deal with them not to go on television with the film because they were a little bit frightened, and that is why they said that festival release was absolutely ok, but nothing more. But now it is six years later, maybe they have a change of mind. So I'm going to ask them, because now with Romeos, it could make sense because it really opens very much of the topic for people who don't have any idea of the topic.

ETHAN: I would say Romeos is actually a good ice-breaker film to introduce to your friends and family who are unfamiliar with the concept. But yes, from your background of working first on the Transfamily documentary, then of course getting out of film school, working on other things, was there a moment where you realized "I must do the Romeos film, and no other." Was there a moment like that?

SABINE: Yeah, definitely I knew I had to do this movie because I was [very] connected to this topic [for] years, and now its eight years.So for me it was, like I said yesterday on that last question, I said it's a very personal film for me because I had also to face this question of society with my identity with "fighting for your rights" and finding myself, so that's why I got very much connected to it and it was absolutely personal for me to shoot it. When you said well the film is possible to show to people who have no idea about the topic or even to families, I invited my parents to the premiere at the Berlin [International Film Festival]. They came and it really changed their point of view, so at this point I'm feeling now really kind of... peaceful.

ETHAN: You've mentioned before that "Transgender radically altered my view of identity." Do you see transgenderism as part of humanity's search for identity, similar to race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation, as in similar issues? Is this just another part of the entire quest for identity?

SABINE: Yeah, I think it's a very [much] part of searching for ones identity. I think when you face yourself this question I mean it's a very very [big] step you have to [take] when you choose it. I think it tells very much about the state of society, the identity of a society too, about how open minded is the society, or how limited they are. The movie and the topic I chose to tell a story about identity and that's why all the characters in the film, [even] all the characters who are not transgender also face the same questions about their identity. I would really love to make the audience think about what is identity and I hope it changes some point[s] of view.

ETHAN: Do you think perhaps in exploring the topic of transgenderism, that it could eventually have an effect on things like sexism, or gender-role stereotypes?

SABINE: I hope it will have an effect.I've observed that the documentary and also Romeos changed the point of view even of some of my friends, who said 'oh I didn't know something, I didn't expect that. ' Most of my friends don't have any connections to transgender, or also the broadcast stations, the people we were working with, the foundation, all the people involved in the project, it also changed their point of view, up to the driver in the production, up to the post-production people. It had an effect. I could observe the change[s to] their point of view. Yeah, I could observe it for the whole team, it became normal for them, and they lost some fears.

ETHAN: Woven into the fictional story of Romeos you include video clips, like from the internet, and you later explained that those were actually based on real video clips that transgendered men had put on the internet and used to communicate with each other. How did you come about using those? Were you given permission to use them?

SABINE: Yeah, well I was pretty much into the topic [already], but during the screenwriting I extended my research on the internet and that's how I came across these video clips in YouTube where so many guys documented their transition.

And I was for months and months watching these clips, and I always got to the clips from the US because the scene seemed to be much bigger here. And then I came across some clips, especially one guy, and I was really touched by him, the way he was documenting it. And he had nearly a hundred clips, and I was watching all of them, and that was how the idea came up to include this in the film because it was so modern and so real.

I got in contact with the guy via YouTube and we set up a meeting via Skype, and I was telling him about the project and then I was sending him pages of the screenplay and because at this point I didn't have an English version of the screenplay, so I [would] just translate the scenes [for] him.

I [asked] him if I could use the lines he was saying in my script, not to use the footage of the video but the dialog because I said, honestly - it's from the heart. He's a wonderful guy and he gave me the permission so I included it in the film.

There's one [other] clip, one small clip we had from YouTube, with another guy and I [asked] him if I could use the footage, a two second shot from YouTube, and we included it in the film, on the laptop as Lukas is watching something. So that was real from YouTube and we got the permission also from this guy. They are both American, but unfortunately both far from Seattle, so they couldn't come [to the premiere]. Many are shocked and actually impressed to learn that the star of Romeos, who plays Lukas, is twenty-year-old Rick Okan, a biological male, who did a very convincing job portraying a transgendered man - how did you do it?

Basically we focused on one thing, on the bodywork to get him into this body, to get him to know what is masculinity, and what [he] brings himself as an actor, and where he has to reduce for example his masculinity and his body power, and things like that. He's wonderful because we have this twenty-year-old but he decided he wanted to do this part and he gave every emotion in it.

Well and then he did for sure, some research with some young transguys, the same age, and that helped a lot for him to understand. I mean I left the guys, I just brought them together and I said "OK, have a chat, I leave," and I think that was the main part and all this body movement he very much got it from the contact with them.

ETHAN: I understand also that prosthetics were used especially for the chest shots, for the breasts, they really looked very real and as if he'd had them all his life, because he was so used to them. I couldn't help thinking, ok so, is this a male actor or an actual transman?

SABINE: Yeah, wonderful, wonderful. This was exactly the point I needed to [make], because when we came up to this person, "how do we do that?" I have these naked scenes in the script and I need to have them and I need the audience to believe it. There was no way in hiding, for me it was absolutely clear.

It was a big challenge, and when we got him to the makeup artist, we did [it] very precise, it was my DOP who did [it] very precise. [We had to figure out] how do you build the prosthetics, what light do we have [to] use, what camera angle?

So it was very challenging, and then when they were building it, it was really a combination with the bodywork, because [he] had the prosthetics before shooting, two weeks ahead, so [he] put them on under the clothes and did the method acting.

So that's how he really got into this, and moving like this, and this was amazing, and when we shot the naked scenes he was so used to this that it was fascinating.

ETHAN: I have one last question, and I'm curious to know, early in the film is a scene that is at first terrifying but turns hilarious, the whole audience ended up laughing as I recall - and I think it really announced to the audience what kind of film they were in for - but at the party where Lukas loses his penis in the bathroom and it becomes a party favor - so uhm, does he get a replacement?

SABINE: (laughs) If he gets a replacement, it's up to the audience (laughs). I left it out, I think I had it once in the script, but then I think ok it's up to everyone's mind.

But in fact, I was told in the documentary about one of the guys they told me that, [to] some of them [it] happened that it fall out, and that's how the idea came up. But it did not happen at a party, the rest was my imagination, but these things came up when listening to the couples.

ETHAN: Thank you so much for your time, and I think you are going to enjoy great success with this film, I certainly enjoyed it.

SABINE: Thank you very much.

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Screening At Reel Affirmations 20

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