Documentary About Gender Transition of Chagrin Falls Man Receives Critical Acclaim at Film Festivals Worldwide, Screens at CIFF
When Jacob Hunt first approached his half-brother, writer and director Christian Sonderegger about making a documentary about Hunt’s gender transition, Sonderegger was not interested.
“I was just afraid. I thought ‘I don’t want to do a reality show about you and our family,’” said Sonderegger. “But five years later, when I saw that it was so positive for everybody – for him, of course, but also for the rest of the family – I called him back and said ‘We’ve got to shoot the film.’”
Born in Chagrin Falls, Ohio and named Susanna at birth, Hunt had always felt somewhat uncomfortable in his skin, like something was off, but it came to a head in his early teens.
“When I hit puberty, it was pretty much the worst time in my life because I realized I actually was a girl. Up until that point it was easy for me to just live as a human and not really worry about what category I was fitting into,” said Hunt. “It got to a point where I just couldn’t stand looking at myself in the mirror anymore. It just wasn’t the person I thought I needed to be.”
When he was about 18, he happened to run across a program on TV about gender transition and realized there was something he could do about his situation. When he first told his parents, he says their reaction “was not great – they weren’t thrilled,” but they also didn’t take it seriously.
“They were worried more so about the medical standpoint of it, and the social standpoint, worried that I was going to be making a choice that would harm my life. But when they realized that this was something that I needed to do, it wasn’t just talk, and that this was important enough for me to, if I needed to, leave them behind, I think reality kind of hit them and they accepted it.”
Sonderegger says that in his native France, families’ lack of acceptance often forces people in transition to leave their loved ones behind. That Hunt’s story was different was why he felt compelled to do the film.
“The family transitioned too, and that’s what I wanted to show in the film,” Sonderegger said. “It was a transition for Hunt of course, but then the whole family, they had to do the job, too, to be on board with him and to accept his gender. I think the best transition is when your own parents, the ones who gave you birth and gender, accept and recognize your true self. That was an amazing process, an amazing story.”
Sonderegger says he himself went through a significant transition in the five years between the time the person who was once his little sister approached him, to the time he completed the film.
“I wasn’t familiar with gender dysphoria, so at first I thought he was just uncomfortable with his sexual orientation because he lived in a small town, and that he would feel better if he lived in a bigger city like Paris,” said Sonderegger. “Then when I decided to do the film, I came for the ‘why.’ I wanted to have the reason. ‘Why did he do this, was it a psychological problem, was it genetics?’ I came to understand the ‘why’ question has no impact at all. This story’s not about that, it’s about how you take care of someone who’s transitioning and how you accept it, nothing more.”
Among the film’s audience at CIFF will be about 75 members of KeyBank’s nine employee affinity groups, called KBINGs (short for Key Business Impact and Networking Groups). Key has been a longtime supporter of CIFF, and the KBINGs wanted to join together to support the film they recognize as reflecting Key's commitment to diversity and inclusion.
The champion of the Young Professionals KBING, Peter Poznako, who is also a huge supporter of the LGBT and Allies KBING, reached out to Sonderegger to see if he and Hunt would want to participate in a reception with Key employees, and they agreed.
“We are so honored to be able to meet with them and to support their film,” said Poznako. “This film aligns so well with our culture of celebrating diversity and embracing people of different backgrounds.”
“I was a little surprised when Key approached us,” said Hunt. “I think it’s very cool that a bank, especially a local bank and one of the biggest companies in Cleveland, would be so progressive and want to support us. That’s huge.”
Ironically, while by outward appearances Hunt is the person in film who transitioned the most, in some ways, he feels like he’s changed the least.
“There’s a scene where I’m talking to my co-workers and saying that while I look a man, inside I feel like the same person I’ve always been, which is both masculine and feminine. I am still in touch with my feminine side. People try to fit into just A or B or black or white, but I live in the gray. It’s OK to not fit the mold,” said Hunt.
When asked what they would say to others feeling the need to transition but afraid to, neither Hunt nor Sonderegger hesitates.
“It’s totally worth it, it does get better, and there’s nothing wrong with it,” said Hunt. “It’s important to stay focused. It’s your life and you have to do what’s right for you. You are still going to be the same wonderful human being.”
“Not changing has as much impact as changing,” adds Sonderegger. “If this is what you feel you need to do, do it.”