By Shayna Maci Warner
Changing the Game (2019) is an accessible, personal, and sensitive approach to a topic on which national coverage has consistently been the opposite. Director Michael Barnett’s intense, engaging narrative documentary following transgender high school athletes Andraya Yearwood, Sarah Rose Huckman, and Mack Beggs (whose shock-fueled wrestling headlines you might remember) delves far deeper than the often-hysterical media attention afforded to trans high school athletes.
The documentary does hammer in the pressure these teens face from a whole host of athletics, government, and media institutions and individuals that construct innumerable barricades, but the film pairs this with interviews and observational footage that paint the athletes’ multifaceted existences. Extraordinarily resilient as the subjects may be, they are also American teenagers, which the film works to emphasize by including their families, friends, coaches, and in Huckman’s case, delightful vlog interludes. Yes, they are heroic simply for pursuing what makes them happy in variably hostile climates; but as the documentary takes care to showcase, they are also real people, and should not be regarded as unwavering figureheads.
This is not to call Changing the Game any example of cinema verite, or say that its through-line is apolitical. It is carefully constructed to the tune of informing, educating, and presenting a strong counter to anti-trans rhetoric. Its intertitles serve as gut-punching Public Service Announcements, it includes a montage of the most hateful media directed at Beggs, and it captures blatantly uninformed speeches boiling from the mouths of Yearwood’s competitors’ parents and uninvited hecklers. Anti-trans attitudes are fair game for ridicule, especially when contrasted with the presence of subjects who are dignified, but clearly affected by the malice spewed their way.
In light of the recent media flurry surrounding The Court of Arbitration in Sport’s (CAS) ruling against runner Caster Semenaya (a cisgender female Olympic runner whose naturally heightened testosterone levels were deemed an unfair advantage), it is clear that the social advocacy bent of Changing the Game is necessary. The widespread misinformation surrounding Semenaya is only the latest in a trend of uninformed sports journalism, and the clear messaging of Changing the Game acts as a rare piece of journalism that promotes trans voices in the high school and collegiate athletic worlds having a hand in telling their own stories (though it must be noted that director Barnett is a cis man). At this point, any media not presenting anti-trans attitudes as dehumanizing is taking a stand.
To continue the conversation on trans representation, and conscientious filmmaking, BRC interviewed Changing the Game’s Executive Producer Alex Schmider. Schmider is currently the Associate Director of Transgender Representation at GLAAD and was traveling with the documentary for its March premiere at Tribeca. Changing the Game will be the documentary centerpiece at The Outfest LGBTQ Film Festival in Los Angeles.
BRC: How did you become involved in this project?
AS: Two and a half years ago, I received an e-mail while working at GLAAD with a pitch deck about a documentary seeking to tell stories about trans high school athletes. I’m usually hesitant to work with filmmakers who are putting younger trans people on screen, but when I heard what Michael Barnett and [producer] Clare Tucker were proposing for this film and their commitment to getting the story right and protecting these athletes, I knew this was going to be a special and important project. They were extremely clear that they wanted and welcomed guidance throughout the filmmaking process from transgender media strategists like myself in order to do right and respect by the community, and also produce something accessible, interesting, and with great integrity to wider audiences.
BRC: What was your prior experience with documentary production?
AS: I’ve worked behind the scenes on a number of documentaries before “Changing the Game,” but not as an Executive Producer, which was a really interesting and eye-opening experience. So much of documentary filmmaking is establishing trust between the filmmakers and the subjects–and it truly takes those genuine and earned relationships to elicit the kind of openness and truth-sharing anyone would hope for in a documentary film. Filmmakers Michael Barnett and Clare Tucker talk that talk, and walk that walk.
BRC: What were some of the most challenging aspects throughout?
AS: Some of the most challenging aspects of the filmmaking process was actually finding trans athletes who had not already been thrust into the media spotlight — both of which Mack Beggs and Andraya Yearwood have had to deal with for the better part of their sports careers. Something like 80-90% of high school students participate in sports but the number of openly trans athletes in each state is countable on a few hands. That tells a big story in and of itself.
BRC: What was a moment in which you saw everything coming together?
AS: Honestly, the process was a series of successful moments adding up and are still. As I’ve mentioned before and want to reiterate often, we had difficult conversations almost on a daily basis, Michael Barnett and Clare Tucker invited feedback, and we listened and learned from each other–appreciating each person’s expertise and contribution to make the most strong film possible.
Changing the Game has been a labor of love for everyone involved and what I hope can be a model for other filmmakers inspired to help tell stories about underrepresented communities is to involve us–and specifically those familiar with media history and representation–in every step of the process and in every part of the production. That’s what director Michael Barnett and producer Clare Tucker have done for over 2 years, and continue to do.
BRC: How does your own identity influence your storytelling, especially in visual media?
AS: I think everyone’s individual identity and experience informs how they engage, interact, and see the world–and simultaneously how the world engages, interacts, and sees them. Our lens through which we both see and watch is inevitably affected by all of these. As a trans masculine bi+ person with various other less visible identities, I think I’m always looking to source as many peoples’ opinions and viewpoints as possible in creating anything meant to cater to anybody. The specific, after all, I believe can be quite universal.
BRC: What would your dream project look like?
AS: My hope for future projects is to see more narrative filmmaking mirror the direction of documentary filmmaking, which increasingly seems committed to character-driven stories. As the 20-year anniversary of Boys Don’t Cry approaches, I think about the lack–specifically of trans masculine representation on screen–and dream about some similar to personal favorite films including trans characters that balance real-life drama and comedy so masterfully, as in Real Women Have Curves; Lady Bird; Love, Simon; and Dope.
BRC: Are there any other film projects you’re currently working on?
AS: Yes! One of the other projects I’m currently associate producing is Sam Feder, Amy Scholder, and Laverne Cox’s film, Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen, which is an unprecedented 100-year retrospective and analysis of trans images in television and film. Think The Celluloid Closet, for trans representation. It’s a very meaningful project to me because it interrogates the consequences of depicting underrepresented people without their participation or involvement, and debunks the idea that trans people have been invisible in media all this time. We have been very visible, but dangerously mischaracterized and misrepresented which has led to so many mainstream stereotypes responsible for people’s misconceptions about us.
BRC: Circling back around, who should see Changing the Game, and why do you think these stories are mandatory viewing?
AS: This is a movie for everyone. It was made to be that and I truly believe it is. It’s for trans people to see Mack, Sarah Rose, and Andraya as heroes in their own stories. It’s for people who know trans people and are figuring out how to show up and support them–whether that be family members, friends, teammates, teachers, classmates, neighbors. It’s for people who have never met a trans person–or think they haven’t–and provides an opportunity for them to get to know Mack, Sarah Rose, and Andraya as people living their lives and participating as themselves. It’s for people who like visually compelling and inspirational sports stories of fierce struggle and powerful resilience. It’s for anyone who wants to feel something, who is open to being moved, and who appreciates good storytelling.
BRC: Is there anything in the film which you wish you could have explored further?
AS: Changing the Game is a profile of three athletes and their lives over the course of a year. We filmed many more athletes whose stories we just couldn’t fit all into one 90 minute film. We’re thinking about how we can continue shedding light on these stories because there is no one (or three) story that encompasses the diversity and uniqueness of every person’s experience nor should there be, so my hope and wish is that there will be more stories to come.
BRC: Where can people see Changing the Game after Tribeca?
AS: We’ll be on the festival circuit for most of the year, so follow along on social media for updates @ChangingGameDoc and will look forward to seeing you on the road soon!
Shayna Maci Warner is a GLAAD Rising Star and former EIC of OutWrite Newsmagazine. She is currently working on her Master’s in Cinema Studies at NYU, where she is pursuing the production, preservation, and programming of queer film and television. You can find her writing at GLAAD, Autostraddle, and Bi Women’s Quarterly.