A moving story of marginalized existence given universal resonance, the remarkable documentary “Southern Comfort” closes with the words “Nature delights in diversity. Why don’t human beings?” The question sums up the unpretentiously honest and eloquent bid for acceptance represented by this insightful portrait of the love and courage of a transgendered man in an environment more readily associated with hate crimes and prejudice. This winner of the Documentary Grand Jury Prize at Sundance may find a well-deserved theatrical window open for it prior to its scheduled HBO bow in November. Wide international festival and TV showings also are likely.
Produced, directed, edited and shot by Kate Davis, the film traces the final year in the life of Robert Eads, an unfailingly good-humored 52-year-old female-to-male transsexual from the back hills of Georgia. Diagnosed with ovarian cancer after having lived as a man for many years, Eads was refused treatment by more than two dozen doctors, who feared his presence in their offices would embarrass and offend other patients.
Chronicling Eads’ physical decline, the film also records his dream to make it through to one final Southern Comfort Conference for transgendered men and women in Atlanta. This annual appointment serves as a respite from everyday ignorance, hatred and intolerance; the will to make that date is rendered even stronger when Eads falls in love, during his final spring, with male-to-female transsexual Lola Cola and is asked to speak at the conference on trans-to-trans relationships.
Davis’ intimate yet unintrusive depiction of love between two people who have crossed the same painful boundaries in order to release their true selves makes this a quietly emotional experience.
Sauntering about his property in the rural trailer community of Toaccoa, Ga., wearing a Stetson, denims, boots and smoking a pipe, Eads recounts the conflicts of his life with candor and dignity. Sure of his instinct to be a parent, while still a woman, he married a man and fathered two sons, despite feeling betrayed by his body during pregnancy.
But his conviction that he was a heterosexual man born into a woman’s body led him to undergo surgery and post-operative transitioning. The film also covers Eads’ adopted family of two female-to-male transgendered sons and their respective partners.
Maintaining a refreshingly matter-of-fact approach that avoids strident campaigning for sympathy, the docu touches on the heavy price paid by transgendered men and women: the physical pain and crippling financial drain of surgery and treatment, the estrangement of friends, loss of jobs, rejection by the world and — most devastating of all — the incomprehension of their biological families.
A loving family man, Eads is the favorite grandparent of his son’s 3-year-old. He treasures the relationship because the boy, in contrast to other family members, thinks of him not in terms of the woman he once was or who he is now in relation to that woman, but simply as his grandpa. Interestingly, Eads’ own elderly father, despite acknowledging the shattered dreams he had for his daughter, is more able to use male pronouns when talking about Robert than the latter’s adult son.
Not wishing to expose the subjects to greater risk of discrimination and hostility than they already face, Davis declines to interview other members of the community.
Made on a shoestring and serviceably shot on digital video, the film begins in spring and runs through to winter. The director uses the changing of the seasons to further underline her articulately expressed point that the many misunderstood facets of gender and identity are all a part of nature. Conventional in structure and style, “Southern Comfort” is resoundingly effective in its compassionate approach and admirable discretion, most notably in Davis’ decision to pull back with grace and tact following Eads’ death.