Q&A: Filmmaker Connor O’Keefe MFA ’22 to premiere revolutionary short film with The New Yorker

By Kathlynn Yao

The Daily sat down with Connor O’Keefe MFA ’22 to discuss his latest film, “Imagine a Body,” which will premiere in The New Yorker’s 2022 Documentary Series. The event showcases innovative short films from around the world. 
In the film, O’Keefe, a transgender man, brings to light the hidden complexities of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and highlights the voices of trans men on the subject of testosterone.
TSD: What inspired you to make this piece? Walk us through your thought process in coming up with this idea.
CO: A lot of my filmmaking has been trans-related or based on transition, change, etc. — so that was kind of my wheelhouse to begin with. The concept for this film actually started when I upped my own testosterone dosage around January. I transitioned very young and have been on testosterone for probably around seven to eight years at this point. I had this moment with my body where I realized that this isn’t a linear journey. I felt that I was done, and then all of a sudden was learning new things about myself and getting in touch with my body in new ways. That led me to thinking about the way that hormone replacement therapy is portrayed in media as this tool or this avenue to assimilate or to be, for trans men, one of the “guys” or “like any other guy” — and I’ve always felt that it was a more complicated experience and a much more beautiful one. It’s so much more than assimilating into a cis, heteronormative culture.
TSD: What is the process of creating a film like this one? Give us a run-down of the technical bits.
CO: So, every film is different. I firmly believe that content comes before form in my practice. I find a story or a subject matter or a theme I want to explore, and then how I approach it is born out of that. For this film, I wanted it to be born from not just my own ideas but from the ideas of my subjects. So that meant that all the conversations happened before anything was filmed. They were all done virtually, which was great because I came to Stanford during the pandemic, so, frankly, I don’t know a lot of people in the Bay Area, but I was able to reach out to people across the country and find folks who were interested in lending their voices. So I had all those conversations and then wrote down transcripts and started cutting them together and finding the notes or the words that spoke to each other, the ones that contradicted, and building a structure from that. For the Stanford documentary program, everything is shot in pairs, so it was me and my partner Drew de Pinto, who’s in the credits and is amazing, especially when they had to film me and I kinda just had to tell them what I wanted. They were just a joy to work with! So that was shot in pairs. A projector was used (really just a little home projector) for the opening shot, and everything that was animated was rotoscoped — that is, taking footage I had filmed before and actually tracing over it every two frames to create the little animated pieces you see.
TSD: What is the message you are trying to convey with this film? Or what is the impact you are hoping to see with this film?
CO: I hope it’s the kind of film that you can take a lot of different things from. Maybe it doesn’t have one central message, even though there might be something that brought me to the film — but I hope that people can kind of take whatever sticks with them. I think if you finish the film and remember any one thing any of the characters said, it’s a success because they’re all wonderful people who have amazing thoughts and insights. What I learned from making the film is that truly transitioning is never linear, and that something like HRT, which is all about your body changing and is very medical and very physical, is more about yourself — it changes your perception of the world outside of you, and that’s a really wonderful thing. I hope if a younger trans person who is beginning that step or going on that journey watches this film, they’re able to step into whatever medical step they might be taking. Whether that’s surgery or whether that’s hormones, everybody’s journey is different — but I hope they’re able to step into it, one with a bit of a sense of community. There are going to be experiences that are painful or awkward or uncomfortable, and that’s okay. This is a long process and one to be taken with mindfulness and taking care of yourself, and there’s just a lot to it — and that’s a beautiful thing even when it’s difficult.
TSD: After watching the film, I noticed that it is a lot about a journey to find who you are. What advice would you give to someone trying to discover themselves under the pressure of society’s standards but also fearful of the transitioning process?
CO: For starters, everyone’s experience is different. In my personal journey, I had a lot of privileges, a lot of access that some people don’t have, so my advice might only apply to some people, and it might not really connect with others, and that’s okay. For me, the biggest two things I got were: one, if you’re able to find community and look for support, even if that’s just one person or if that’s a group of people — having someone in your corner is huge. Two, I learned to just be really kind to yourself and understand that this process is complicated. One of the biggest things I struggled with when I started testosterone is wondering why I didn’t feel amazing right away. I thought it would fix all of my problems, and I thought it would immediately make me happy, and I thought it was kind of a solution to everything; then I started T and realized I still have a life to live, and just like anybody there’s still going to be days where I struggle with my body as we all do. There are still going to be days where I don’t feel in touch with myself, or I’m not quite happy with the skin I’m in. That happens; that’s life, and I’d say just be really kind to yourself and remember that time and learning is going to make everything easier, and that it’s just never linear: there are going to be dips and valleys, so just take those in stride, take a deep breath and remember that you are a human being and you don’t always know how you’re going to react to your body changing.
TSD: What do you feel is lacking in trans portrayals by the mass media? What are the flaws that need to be addressed?
CO: The big one-word answer to that is more — we just need more, because every kind of representation has its own value. There’s a value to a short like this, which has seven different voices, and you get variety, but you don’t get to know each person super well. And then, in reverse, there is value to having a film where you really dive into one person and their experience and their story. Variety is a huge thing that we’re missing right now. I would also emphasize complexity, and the opportunity for a trans character or a trans person to doubt themselves — that it’s okay to have experiences that are outside of the binary of “I grew up as gender A, and I’m going to B,” and then the story ends. What I love about the short is that it is kind of where the story begins: it starts where most mass portrayals end, so just more nuance and especially more trans people telling their own stories in the writer’s room, directing, shooting. I felt very happy that my assistant, Drew, on this film is also queer, and having that sort of camaraderie and companionship on set was huge. So, there just needs to be more trans people in front of the screen and behind the camera.
TSD: How can we further our efforts in fostering a safe and supportive environment for the trans community and specifically trans youth (speaking in schools, etc.)?
CO: We have a lot of steps to take. We’re still fighting about bathroom policies and the ability for trans people to play sports, so I think there’s a lot to be done as far as policy, and those are some of the big steps that need to happen right now. In terms of the support level, it’s important for education systems, especially with queer youth, to have resources that are gender-related for students. Maybe that’s having a counselor who is trans or who specializes in gender care. One of the biggest things in my own experience was having access to the University of Minnesota’s Center for Sexual and Gender Health. Having resources and having the connection to a center that is specifically focused on gender care with a whole avenue of what they do dedicated to gender care for youth and having those like adults to talk to and people to talk to — so resources, resources, resources!