Ryan Cassata is a musician and trans rights activist who has gained a measure of fame through appearing on TV in the States. The documentary Songs for Alexis focuses on the then 18 year old Ryan’s relationship with Alexis and the barriers that remain for trans people to simply love who they wanna love.
At its heart, Songs for Alexis is very much a love story. We see the couple in a very good place and we see them have fairly hefty fallings out. We see the pain that a long distance relationship can bring, that I am sure many of us have experienced, as well as the joy of being reunited that is equally an aspect of that. We also see something that I for one, and no doubt many others, cannot imagine. The manner in which ignorance and transphobia can inhibit the simple acts of love and attempting to be with someone. Where even the law can work against these basic rights, allowing hate to survive and thrive when in reality that is what should be outlawed and railed against. The film has three great subjects – Ryan, his girlfriend Alexis and Ryan’s mum Francis. Ryan’s bubbly personality enables him to tell his personal story with a bunch of good humour. Alexis is the perfect foil too and seeing how they bounce off each other in their youtube videos is a reminder of what young love looks like. Francis in many ways forms the emotional core of the film. She sees her son at the highs and lows that life and love bring him and is possibly even affected by those more than Ryan is.
So much of the mainstream public discourse around transgender people centres on whether they are post or pre-op and the choices that are made in terms of the extent to which surgery or hormone treatment is undertaken. The result is that people are reduced to their physical makeup and this approach shows a fundamental misunderstanding of gender identity. It is refreshing then to see a documentary on this transgender man which is not obsessed at all with that aspect of his journey. Sure, it is mentioned what surgery Ryan has had, and his scars are at times plain to see. But these come about in an incidental way, in day to day conversation. Instead the focus is on Ryan’s relationship with Alexis, the barriers that crop up to that relationship, as well as his music and activism. The film shows that not every story about a transgendered person has to focus on one single aspect of who they are. A documentary story can have a trans person as its subject and be about love rather than medical procedures.
Songs for Alexis is a generally positive film, but it doesn’t shy away from the hate and discrimination that is still out there. There is a sobering simplicity to many of the best scenes in the film, that remind us all just how far we still have to go – witness for example Ryan and Alexis plotting their road-trip across the States based on LGBT laws, trying to avoid those with the more despicable restrictions. It is difficult for me to imagine what it must be like to have to take such things into account in day to day life.
Many documentaries don’t really feature a soundtrack as such, presumably not wishing to cloud their ‘truthfulness’ by distracting with music. Songs for Alexis however uses music better than a vast majority of documentaries. The songs are not just plonked throughout the film to show off Ryan’s skill or promote his music. They are key for the story being told and help to move the film along. His titular songs for his girlfriend are a distinctly personal way to communicate how he is feeling about his relationship at a particular point in time, providing a depth of feeling that words alone would not have delivered. As the tone and mood of the relationship and film change, so too do the songs, which is a great way for music to accompany story in a doco. It does not hurt either that Cassata is clearly a very talented singer-songwriter.
Verdict: Eighteen or so films in and I am pretty sure Songs for Alexis is my favourite of the festival so far. And if not, it’s in the top three. One man’s personal tale with lessons for all of us, it also reminds that all is still not yet ok for the treatment of transgender people in our society and that we should keep fighting until it is. Longneck of Melbourne Bitter