Distrib avenues maddeningly elusive

John Cameron Mitchell, director, screenwriter and star of rock musical “Hedwig the Angry Inch,” has an image in his head: his movie, about an embittered transsexual singer’s quest for true love and audience respect, playing in Middle American malls.

“I don’t think it’ll be gigantic,” says Mitchell, who won the best director award at Sundance earlier this year for the bigscreen adaptation of his hit Off Broadway show. “But it’d be nice if it would become as accessible as possible to those people who would get something out of it. It would maybe stretch some closed minds a bit.”

When it comes to transgender films, the gay and straight festival circuit has been a welcome harbor — there’s even a transgender film festival. But distribution has proved maddeningly elusive. Drag comedy has been around forever, but films that showcase the complex, sometimes tortured, sometimes ebullient lives of those who defy sexual labels have rarely caught on. But now, thanks largely to the success of Kimberly Peirce’s harrowing film about Brandon Teena, “Boys Don’t Cry,” the number of transgender films finding acceptance is growing.

“Hedwig,” made through Fine Line Features, is being released this summer; the documentary “Southern Comfort,” a loving portrait of a female-to-male transsexual dying of ovarian cancer that won Sundance 2001’s grand jury award, will air on HBO in the spring and get a theatrical release shortly after; and Strand Releasing has the comedy “The Iron Ladies,” a reissue of 1985’s Academy Award-winning “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and the prostitution drama “Princesa” slated for release over the next year.

Strand co-president Marcus Hu says for transgender films to catch on, “it can’t just be the novelty of transgender. The deciding factor is, it’s got to be a great story to tell.”

The company’s fall release “The Iron Ladies,” for example, a buoyant Thai film based on the true experiences of a mostly gay, transsexual and transgender volleyball team, has been such a crowdpleaser at Toronto, Berlin and various Asian-American film festivals that Hu envisions crossover potential.

“(Audiences) cheered,” he says. “It’s an underdog movie, and they really accepted these characters, not just for comedic relief. I have high hopes for it.”

“They present people in a positive light, not as quietly pathetic,” says “Southern Comfort” director Kate Davis of “Hedwig” and “The Iron Ladies,” movies which have crossed paths with her documentary on the festival rounds.

As for her film, which chronicles transgendered cowboy Robert Eads’ falling in love with a male-to-female transsexual in the last year of his life, Davis admits it sounds like “a National Enquirer headline: Georgian Cowboy With Ovarian Cancer. But the film is the opposite in the sense that their normalcy is what’s shocking. I found people who are living very regular lives working conventional jobs, not the sort of trans people notable for their exoticism.”

When HBO’s documentary programming head Sheila Nevins watched the tape at home, she called Davis on a Saturday to tell her she loved it. Recalls Davis, “She said, ‘This is a love story, you haven’t sensationalized these people.'”

Mitchell, who says Fine Line gave absolute support in the making of the $5 million “Hedwig,” believes that no matter how many or how few of these stories get made and shown, each little bit helps in portraying transgendered people as less threatening.

“Specific means universal. I think people will buy (‘Hedwig’). They’ll go, ‘OK, that person could exist, even if I don’t think I like the person, that person has validity.'”

Davis doesn’t see how Eads, a “quintessential American macho guy with his cowboy hat and tobacco pipe, open and funny,” could be anything but an appealing leading man to audiences.

So far, her film has been a surprise hit with the working-class audiences she’s shown it to, in addition to the transgendered audiences who, after watching it, were “left in a puddle of tears.”

Says Davis, “It’s not a niche film, which I expected it to be. There are more transgender people coming out at a young age. It’s the next frontier in terms of a minority gaining public acceptance. As Robert says in the film, ‘First there were the blacks and the gays, and now it’s our turn.'”

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