A new HBO “Vice” documentary, “Trans Youth,” made its Chicago premiere at DePaul University this past Friday as part of the Visiting Artists Series hosted by the School of Cinematic Arts and the Master of Fine Arts in Documentary program. The half hour documentary follows the stories of a number of different transgender children and teens in America, along with their families and doctors as they decide when and how to start medical intervention before transgender youth hit puberty. “Trans Youth” is the second episode of the Emmy-winning documentary series, “Vice” on HBO, which covers culture, science, technology and politics issues of the world.
Following the episode’s premiere, DePaul hosted a panel discussion with five-time Emmy winner and supervising producer Beverly Chase and HBO production executive J.P. Olsen to talk about the behind the scenes aspect of “Trans Youth’s” production.
The premiere of this episode comes only weeks after President Trump rescinded protections for transgender students that under the Obama administration had allowed them to use bathrooms corresponding with their gender identity. In an interview before the episode’s premiere, Chase and Olsen expressed how this recent turn of laws from the Trump administration’s Department of Education was not only a surprise but effectively made “Trans Youth” that much more important to show now.
“We wanted to show that this was about so much more than just what bathroom these kids want to go to. Going into this episode we had no idea where this,” Chase said. “They’re dealing with a hundred different things and then they get this extra slap in the face for this bathroom debate.”
For J.P. Olsen, this episode of “Vice” was not only about showcasing a common issue amongst transgender children and teens, but putting the bathroom debate within a large context for the audience to see.
“I think this film is really moving. It touches a deep thing to anyone who has children or anyone who just feels vulnerable,” Olsen said. “In terms of opposition, we wanted to show that it’s not just local opposition but now federal. It was lucky to bring this subject to light at such a time.”
One of the subjects in the episode, Kai Shappley, a five-year old from Pearland, Texas, identifies as a female. As she’s months away from starting kindergarten, her mother Kimberly pleads to the school board to let her daughter use the girl’s bathroom. Tearfully addressing the school board about her daughter, Kimberly watches as the superintendent removes himself from the meeting after he finds out her daughter is transgender.
This is just one of the many scenes from the episode that both Chase and Olsen believe not only accurately depicts how loving some of these families are for their transgender sons and daughters, but also how many people in America simply do not want to hear the troubles that transgenders face in society.
“I don’t think you could change a person’s heart, that’s what it is. But I’d like to think there are enough people out there who are open minded enough that would see this and think, ‘Well, I just learned something,’” Olsen said. “Again, I don’t think you can change a person’s heart but I think any reasonable person would walk away thinking, ‘If I had a child, this would no longer be an abstraction. This would be what it is.”’
Different from conventional news segments, “Vice” typically covers topics using an immersionist style of documentary filmmaking. And while most episodes are split into three segments that follow three different news subjects, “Trans Youth” spends the entire 30 minutes on the issues transgender people face both in regards to bathrooms and the early medical transitions taken before puberty.
Chase and Olsen talked about how “Vice’s” approach to subjects like these could be more of a benefit to the viewer rather than just hearing a quick news blurb on cable news.
“All of our correspondents are good at playing the role of what the average person would be. We want to emerge the audience into the story, and Gianna (the correspondent for “Trans Youth”) isn’t there to be part of the story, but we want you to be in her perspective,” Chase said. “There’s definitely a fly-on-the-wall aspect. She’s not wearing a five-thousand-dollar dress with perfect hair. She makes it comfortable for who’s being interviewed and the viewers.”
And for Olsen, the production of this episode and working with “Vice,” has reassured him on what it means to tell stories like the ones in “Trans Youth.”
“I came up in the news business with the see-all and know-all correspondent, and there’s a place for that. But it’s not the only way to tell a story,” Olsen said. “I think it’s really important that ‘Vice’ now has this opportunity to go around the world, tell stories that people aren’t talking about necessarily, tell them in a way that’s not conventional and do it in a way that’s real.”