An Australian film about a teenager meeting her mother for a day each week as the latter's transition to a man has won awards around the world, despite having a tiny budget and amateur cast
As plots go, it’s pretty confrontational. Billie’s 16 when her mother Jane comes out to her as a transgender man who wants to be called James. James says he needs time to cope with this major transition and Billie has to live with her dad for a year, but that they’ll have special time together one day a week. Meanwhile Billie has her own transition to cope with as she and her friends embark on a frank video log of their sexual explorations.
With such a rich and unusual storyline, it comes as a surprise to discover that the narrative for 52 Tuesdays, director Sophie Hyde’s feature film debut, was secondary to the film’s even more unconventional structure.
Matthew Cormack, the film’s screenwriter explains. “When I suggested the idea of making a film about two people meeting one day a week over a year and to shoot it only on one day a week, there was silence in the room. But it was a good silence – everyone was intrigued.”
Closer Productions, their company, had a low budget (a total of $700,000) and a lot of artistic freedom courtesy of the South Australian Film Corporation’s Film Lab, adds Cormack. It meant conventional tight shoots and finished scripts could be dispensed with.
Only their production team, which included co-producer Rebecca Summerton and cinematographer/editor Bryan Mason knew where the plot would go next. The entirely amateur cast was given the next week’s script only after they’d completed that day’s storyline and they were only given their character's lines.
Why amateurs? “I prefer to call them previously unknown,” says Hyde. On a practical level, she explains, with such a tiny budget, it would have been hard to find a professional cast in Adelaide for a whole year of Tuesdays. On an artistic level, she realised that she was looking for actors with a lack of preconceptions and willing to take risks.
“As a director in Australia we work even less than actors. You often feel they already have an assumption about how they’re going to play things. We never wanted to make this film in a perceived pro way but in the sense of ‘what feels right for this’”, she says.
Building the performances involved lots of talking and games and rehearsals only took place in the locations used in the film, adding to the sense of real place, real time.
The eclectic casting includes Tilda Cobham-Hervey as Billie; theatre musician Mario Späte as her maternal uncle; pro-skater Beau Travis Williams as Billie’s father; and Del Herbert-Jane as the mother, James. Herbert-Jane, who in real life is non-gender conforming, was originally hired as a gender diversity consultant. Although unwilling to take part in any publicity for the film, says Hyde, Herbert-Jane’s been very supportive.
It was never a film about a transgender person however, says Hyde, but about a family, particularly a mother and daughter, going through a year together. “We were exploring the moment where you meet your parent as an adult and understand them as a real person. When’s the moment where you show your child all of who you are?"
As filming progressed, the emotional focus became Billie and her point of view, opinions and feelings she records on video. This film-within-a-film quality underlines another narrative theme: how people are represented.
Cobham-Hervey’s natural and emotionally-charged performance has excited interest both home and abroad, as have her gamine looks. The attention, and seeing herself on film, is something that she still feels uncomfortable about.
“It feels so odd to watch a collection of scenes from your puberty on screen, to have a product of a year in your life, a year that was massively life-changing for me as a human,” she says.
Cobham-Hervey, now 19, grew up in a performing family – her parents are currently artistic associates of physical theatre company Force Majeure. Though she has created circus acts at festivals, this is her first film role.
She says her screen character and its experiences are very unlike her own. “One of the first words in the film is ‘fuck’ and I couldn’t say that without going bright red and giggling. There was sexual stuff and I hadn’t been with a boy and it was, like, totally new,” she says.
There’s a lot of frank discussion about sex and scenes of role-playing and experimentation between Cobham-Hervey and her teenage co-stars (and real-life close friends) Imogen Archer and Sam Alhuizen.
Hyde concedes the representation of children and teenagers is a complex one and fraught territory when it comes to TV and film, but believes there’s a strong element of prurience and exploitation in the way adolescents are portrayed. “I feel upset that we as a culture have decided that naked children are pornographic,” she says. “As the mother of a child I feel we are suggesting that her body is shameful and I’m frustrated by that."
Hyde says there was constant discussion with the younger cast and their parents about some of the more confronting scenes and there was no pressure to co-operate in anything that felt uncomfortable. “If it felt scary I would just say ‘Sophie, this feels scary,’” adds Cobham-Hervey. She was much more comfortable with the transformation of her mother in the film.
“I was up for gender being a pretty fluid term from how I grew up. It made it very easy to connect with Billie in the way she’s not super confronted by the idea that her mum wants to become a man,” she says.
I suggest the film is trans in many ways; transfictional, transsexual, transformational. Hyde agrees, saying it's the experimental nature of both structure and plot that excites her as a film maker. “I love walking the tightrope between control and chaos.”
- 52 Tuesdays is released in Australia today
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