SOUTHERN COMFORT: Documentary. Directed by Kate Davis. 10 p.m. Sunday on
Robert, a middle-aged guy with a craggy face and a penchant for Waylon Jennings-style outlaw wear, lives in a trailer in rural Georgia, drives a pickup and likes to cook up a mess of barbecue for his family.
He's also dying of ovarian cancer.
That's one of the mind-benders in "Southern Comfort," a fascinating, moving documentary airing Sunday on HBO. Robert, a female-to-male transsexual who never got the complete surgery, is the linchpin of a group of transgendered Southerners filmmaker Kate Davis follows in the documentary, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival.
Even Bay Area viewers who think they've seen it all will come away dazzled by the gender permutations and perplexing romances portrayed in the film.
ALL IN THE FAMILY
To start, Robert has a "chosen family" of two young female-to-male transsexuals he calls "sons," and the boys have female partners -- one natural,
one prospective. There's also Robert's biological son, who fumbles over his pronouns when he describes his mom. Robert's current sweetheart, Lola, is a tall, striking brunette who, minus her wig and makeup, sports a receding hairline and 5 o'clock shadow.
Yes, it's confusing, but gender questions become less important as the film progresses. Instead of a full-scale exploration of what drives people to change their sex, "Southern Comfort" is an anecdotal look at a few transsexuals who found one another in an unlikely setting, and a poignant reminder that love can blossom even in the saddest of circumstances.
Robert's cancer grew while doctor after doctor refused to treat him. The presence of a transsexual would be too upsetting for other patients, they said.
But instead of dwelling on their cruelty, Robert exudes serenity and a commitment to friends, family and a final trip to Southern Comfort, the annual Atlanta convention that serves as a touchstone for transgendered people.
The convention "is the only place where there's more of us than there are of them," says Robert. As he points out, transsexuality is the last sexual frontier about which the mainstream is seriously ignorant. While Robert's mother accepted his former life as a lesbian, she balked at the decision to become male. "Why couldn't you just stay gay?" she asked.
Childhood photos show him as a lovely blond girl in skirts and sweater sets,
but Robert says he was born a heterosexual male. That's a bit of a puzzler: What's a heterosexual male doing with Lola? But when you see them making googly eyes or dancing at a makeshift prom, you can't help but melt. They fit together, even though Lola's as strapping as Robert is slight.
The documentary's subjects treat their transsexuality offhandedly at times, obsessively at others, and the film offers a glimpse into their rarefied world.
Maxwell, one of Robert's FTM "sons," and his transgendered girlfriend inject their respective hormone shots together. "One makes you horny and the other makes you irritable," the girlfriend says.
The other FTM, a big, bearded sweetheart named Cas, doesn't look as if he was ever a woman, and he complains that he gets ignored at the convention because of it. Guess you can be too real.
At times, filmmaker Davis appears unsure of her focus. Though Robert's medical ordeal and scars from Cas's botched breast-removal surgery point to medical disregard, Davis doesn't explore this aspect very closely. The many scenes of Robert and Lola sitting around shooting the breeze are sweet but start to meander.
What Davis conveys beautifully, however, is how some traits survive hormones and even reassignment surgery. The men's voices go up an octave now and again, and an occasional fluttery gesture punctuates the roughhousing. When Robert, that self-styled good ol' boy, turns to Lola, eyes shining with love, there's something unmistakably feminine in his gaze.
E-mail Carla Meyer at email@example.com.