Photos courtesy of Allie Sultan
It’s just another day in the life of an MTSU film production student when she updates her resumé to say she was part of the crew that won the Grand Jury Prize for best documentary short at the Perth International Queer Film Festival in September. The documentary is called “Graham and Zeke,” an eight-minute look into the lives of Graham Bell and Zeke Miller, a young transgender couple in Tennessee, as they navigate the ins and outs of everyday life. The brains behind the film are MTSU media arts professor Allie Sultan and the MTSU Women in Film student organization. Sultan said she’s “always been fascinated with documenting things in my life” and began making documentaries in high school.
“My first video camera was a $400, eight-millimeter video camera, and I just filmed everything about my family,” Sultan said.
Plans for “Graham and Zeke” began to fall in place when Sultan won an Audience Awards competition in the 2015 Fusion International Documentary Challenge for her “Lift Like a Girl” documentary and received a waiver to compete again the following year.
During the competition, each team had five days to make a four-to seven-minute documentary before uploading the finished piece to the server on the last day of competition. Sultan, who is the faculty adviser for the Women in Film organization, turned to the group for her next idea. MTSU grad Cheryl Newsome, who was the organization’s vice president at the time, worked with Bell and felt that the story of Bell and his boyfriend, Miller, needed to be told. Both Bell and Miller were born as women but now identify as men. The rest of the students were immediately on board with the idea. So, interviews were then scheduled, and b-roll was shot.
“It was a huge team effort, and it was honestly a little stressful and overwhelming just because we had this story we really wanted to capture,” said Kailee Morris, a recent MTSU graduate who was one of two directors of photography for the documentary. “I remember us spending a lot of time trying to plan as much as we could but also a lot of time just running around and trying to get everything we needed before we were even editing.”
After submitting the documentary to the 2016 Fusion International Documentary Film Challenge after only four days, Sultan said, “Their first edit, they were all so disappointed in their work because they couldn’t put the story together in such a short period of time. So, they were all very upset, and I said, ‘No, girls, you made a great film. It just needs to be re-edited.’”
The first cut was shot in November 2016, so after the competition, Sultan and the girls spent the next year re-editing the documentary. Morris said once the competition was over, the group realized how much footage the documentary was missing, so they reworked the film and shot more b-roll.
“The original is nothing like what it is now, but what it is now is way better,” Morris said. “I’m glad that we didn’t give up on it. We reworked it to be the best that it could be.”
Of the editing process, Sultan said, “I had rough-cut screenings over the course of the next year with the Women in Film group where they watched it. They gave me feedback, I would incorporate their feedback and we brought in Graham and Zeke. They watched the rough cuts so that they could see that their representation of their story was accurate because I really wanted to make sure they were 100 percent comfortable with whatever we were putting out about their lives.”
After the final cut was complete last November, Sultan began submitting it to various film festivals and traveled with the film all summer. Morris said that Sultan went “above and beyond” to make sure that it wasn’t just family and friends who saw the piece but audiences across the globe, like at India’s Out & Loud Pune International Queer Film Festival and the Concordia Film Festival in Canada.
“It’s pretty thrilling to know that your film is reaching people on the other side of the planet,” Sultan said.
Morris agreed, saying that winning the prize at the Perth Film Festival was exciting.
“I really didn’t know that so many people were going to enjoy watching it because … we didn’t do anything crazy or out of the ordinary with the way we captured it. It was just (Graham and Zeke’s) story that’s so captivating to people,” Morris said. “We were just the people that helped tell it, but I think it’s mainly Graham and Zeke that won those awards.”
Although “Graham and Zeke” has been featured at many LGBT film festivals, the team wanted to reach other audiences as well.
“We’re screening at Cucalorus Film Festival in Wilmington, (North Carolina), in November, and that is not an LGBT film festival,” Sultan said. “It’ll screen in, hopefully, a shorts program in front of an audience that is probably not trans. Hopefully, it’ll give a human face to what trans people actually go through.”
The film recently screened at the Rendezvous Film Festival in Amelia Island, Florida. Sultan said the festival’s programmer told her of a conservative couple who were, at first, concerned about their child seeing “Graham and Zeke” but came out of the screening “pleasantly surprised because they felt it was really well done, and they really loved the couple in the film.”
Sultan added, “In eight minutes, we were able to introduce them to two trans (people) in their 20s and open their minds to the fact that they’re just humans trying to get through life like everyone else is,” which is exactly why Sultan was originally drawn to the world of documentaries.
Sultan said part of the documentary-making experience is “finding that story in everyone and making it connect, making it something that people can relate to.”
She said that she hopes “to make the world a better place” with her films, helping people to understand and have more compassion for each other.
Morris also touched on the power of documentaries, and said, “(Transgender people) might have different types of struggles and challenges, but … it becomes more relatable and easier for people to understand how to help them or how to just properly treat them or listen to their story. (‘Graham and Zeke’) is a good guide for that.”
To contact Lifestyles Editor Sydney Wagner, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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