Every Body, the new documentary from Oscar-nominated filmmaker Julie Cohen, opens with a bang: Explosions of pink and blue smoke at gender reveal parties across the United States. In a montage of increasingly absurd viral videos, confetti-filled balloons lead to sports car burnouts and at least one bull-riding rodeo gender reveal. The film then cuts to a quote attributed to Sophocles: "How could I not be glad to know my birth?"
"I knew that was how the film was going to start early on, with gender reveal footage cut together in a crazy way, set to a male voice singing, 'Be My Baby,'" Cohen explains of the sequence. "Setting up the question of, 'Why are we so obsessed with gender?' That's what I wanted to do."
As for the ancient Greek playwright's quote, editor Kelly Kendrick discovered it in a book about David Reimer, the subject of a since-discredited case study that has nevertheless greatly informed the medical establishment's approach to intesexuality. "There was some debate on the executive side about that," the director concedes of including the quote. "I'm like, "No, no, no, I love it. It's crazy, but I love it."
The troubling story of David Reimer served as Cohen's impetus for Every Body. A former Dateline producer, she was searching the archives for inspiration when she rediscovered the investigative piece that NBC had aired decades prior. "It's such an incredible, totally-blow-your-mind story," Cohen says. "Doing more research on the relevance of that case and the reverberations today, I came across the connection to today's intersex rights movement."
As defined in Every Body, intersexuality is "any variation in a person's sex characteristics" that doesn't "fall neatly into that male-female box." The film centers on three intersex individuals — actor and filmmaker River Gallo (they/them), political consultant Alicia Roth Weigel (she/they), and Ph.D. student Sean Saifa Wall (he/him) — whose histories with nonconsensual, unnecessary surgeries have inspired their activism today. "Obviously, these are really private matters that sometimes involve trauma," Cohen says. "I didn't want someone to be telling their story in an interview with me if they hadn't talked about it before, if they didn't have some real serious experience with the public eye. I still think it's going to be a new experience having it on a big screen."
A.frame: As a filmmaker, what was it that excited you or intrigued you about Every Body?
I think I was learning a lot myself, just as I hope the viewers of this film will. Actually, unlike a bunch of people that I've spoken to, I was familiar with who intersex people are, because I've been interested in similar issues over quite a long period. But I didn't know so much what was going on with the movement these days. When I started looking into it, there was so much amazing stuff happening over the past few years that just hasn't gotten the broad attention that I think it deserves. There would've been a time, even 10 years ago, where it would've been much more difficult to make a documentary on this subject, because there were so few people who were out as intersex.
As you see in the film, part of the problem here is that people who are intersex either have not been told about their own medical history, or if they were told, they were told they needed to keep it a secret. I am not a fan of secrecy, as a documentary filmmaker and as a human being. The amazing thing for this film was that the people who end up being our stars, despite having certainly had a number of challenging to traumatic experiences throughout their young lives, all came through it with so much spirit, humor, toughness, gumption, fight, and joy in them. I think that's what makes it possible to put a story together in a way that feels fist-pumping, and often funny and celebratory, rather than getting pulled into despair.
How did you find Alicia, River and Saifa? Or how did they find you?
It is the magic of the internet. Alicia was actually the person that I learned about first when I was Googling intersex activists. I had a conversation with her, she was amazing, and she pretty quickly introduced me to Saifa. It was really important to me that our three leads all knew each other and were organically working with each other. I was working with Saifa and Alicia, and then, as part of our early filming, we went to this event where a group of people were making posters for a demonstration, and River showed up at that. There were only seven or eight people making posters, and I did a little interview with everyone and River so popped on camera. I didn't know they were an actor at that point, although, in retrospect, it was obvious. They just lit up the lens. That was River's first time talking with a megaphone at a demonstration about what they had been through. I didn't know anything about that story, nor did our crew. It really felt like a moment. The truth is, that was our second day of shooting, but I was like, 'Oh, this is in act three. This is what we're building up to.'
Obviously, this film requires a lot of trust and vulnerability on their part, in discussing the traumas inflicted upon them and these frank discussions about their bodies. As a filmmaker, how do you navigate leading those conversation as the interviewer, versus letting them lead the conversation?
My interviews were less question-y, I would say, than most interviews I've done in my career. We were just having conversations, and I was listening. And they really led the conversations. I actually thought that this was going to be this long, unfolding process, where I told the crew to think of the very first interview as an experiment. 'We might not use anything. I'm just trying to get to know these people, and we're just trying to build some trust.' Those are the interviews that you see on-screen, of each of them telling their story.
Those initial interviews were so strong. It was an amazing experience. I was actually behind the camera. I had the cinematographer set up all the lighting and everything, but then everyone left, and left me with the interviewee. All three of them have such a talent for telling their own stories. I think that's made them really great activists, but it's hard. Once we talk about your body once, I'm not asking again until you say. Alicia saying to me, joking, that it was funny to have legislators hitting on her when they didn't know that she was born with balls. Obviously, that's a great line. As she's saying it, I'm thinking, 'Well, we're putting that in the trailer' — which we did — but I want her to know in advance. She knew that. She's a savvy person. She understood that was a good line that was going to get in a movie.
How do you end those days of shooting that can be so intimate and so intense?
I actually think what's important in those circumstances is to give people some space. I try to get out of everyone's hair as soon as I'm done and give them time to process. Truthfully, for myself and the crew, after each one of those, we were like, 'Whoa!' Usually, as you're filming an interview for a documentary, you're thinking, 'How am I going to shape this to make it in a story?' Making this interesting was not going to be a challenge. This is inherently interesting what these people went through, and it's beautiful how they've come through it.
I know that after working together on RBG, Shana Knizhnik was brought on as a consulting producer for this. She would have seen cuts, and you said that you would check in with the subjects on certain things. Why was it important for you to have those voices involved during the editing process?
I want to make it clear that Shana was not just looking at cuts. She was someone we were having conversations with before we started filming, in terms of what direction we might want to go. I'll give an example. I really like documentaries to be movie-ish. I think that was true of RBG. And truthfully, people's love lives are a good element for a movie. If possible, talking about romantic stuff is something that I wanted to do, but I was a little concerned about that. Is that too going to feel like an invasion? Can I talk about it, or is it going to be trivializing in some way? Can I talk about people's dating lives? Shana's reaction to that was not so narrow on the love life and sex life thing. She was like, 'Intersex joy is what's been missing from most of the coverage of us, which has been so trauma-based. Anything you can do to bring joy into this story, is something you should be aiming for.' As you saw, that's really what we were going for.
Watching Alicia swiping on dating apps and being like, 'No. No. No!' was a highlight of the movie.
I thought that was a really relatable scene. Again, before we filmed that, that was something I had a little concern about. Shana was like, 'No, no, no. It's good.' It turned out Alicia played that scene comedically, and we were then able to bring in some factual stuff about her life and how being intersex has made it more complicated. Since the film was edited and finished, Alicia actually does have a boyfriend. My dream of having her go off happily into the sunset with a boyfriend by the end of the film didn't quite happen, but he has arrived now.
During the rally where I now know you first met River, you ask Alicia and River and the other activists there what they hope happens tomorrow [at the demonstration]. What do you hope happens upon the release of this movie?
In some ways, the hope question is much easier with this film than it's been on past films that I've worked on, because the awareness level is generally so low. Even among the LGBT community, the awareness of the intersex issue has been low. For people to come away from the film feeling like they learned some stuff, but more importantly, like they're ready to learn more stuff is my number one goal. That was River's answer when I asked them what they wanted from the rally. 'I just hope someone turns to their friends and are like, 'Intersex? Maybe I should get myself educated about this.'' That's a goal, if not the only goal.
By John Boone