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SOUTHERN COMFORT is a 90-minute feature-length documentary about the life of Robert Eads, a 52-year-old female to male transsexual who lives in the back hills of Georgia. "A hillbilly and proud of it," he cuts a striking figure: sharp-tongued, bearded, tobacco pipe in hand. Robert passes so well as a male that the local Klu Klux Klan tried to recruit him to become a member.
Though his home is nestled among tranquil hills dotted with hay bales, Robert confronts a world as hostile to him as if he were an African American in the ante-bellum South. He was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, then turned away by more than two dozen doctors who feared that taking on a transgendered patient might harm their practice.
SOUTHERN COMFORT follows the final year of Robert Eads' life. Beginning in spring, he falls deeply in love with Lola, a male-to-female. That summer, his mother and father drive ten hours to visit their "lost daughter," a trip they know may be their last. His final dream is to make it to the Southern Comfort Conference in Atlanta, the nation's preeminent transgender gathering. Beating the odds, he addresses a crowd of 500 and takes Lola to "The prom that never was."
The voices in SOUTHERN COMFORT are not only rarely heard, but also are commonly thought to be non-existent. A rare blend of humor, romance, and tragedy, SOUTHERN COMFORT is the first non-fiction film to intimately tell a trans-to-trans love story, set against a disturbing tale of gender bias as it unfolds before the camera.
KATE DAVIS (Director, Producer, Editor)
For more than a decade, filmmaker Kate Davis has been making films about members of marginalized societies, beginning with "GIRL TALK," a feature documentary on three abused runaway teenage girls. Following her debut, "A WORLD ALIVE," "REQUIEM FOR THE PLANET," "TOTAL BABY" AND "VACANT LOT" are among Davis¹' films that have screened at theaters across the country and broadcast on television networks in the United Stations and internationally.
With accolades including a CINE Golden Eagle and numerous film awards from various film festivals, she also produced the critically acclaimed "TRANSGENDER REVOLUTION," a documentary on the gender community's fight for civil rights. She also produced "ANTI-GAY HATE CRIMES," "UNTYING THE STRAIGHT JACKET AND HOOKED ON A DREAM" for A&E. As an editor, Davis has worked on feature documentaries, including "PARIS IS BURNING," "SHERMAN¹S MARCH TO THE SEA," and "AMERICAN BABYLON."
ELIZABETH ADAMS (Co-Producer)
Adams worked for four years as an investigator for Capital Punishment Project at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund before working in documentary film. She served as a researcher and production assistant on the one-hour documentaries "TRANSGENDER REVOLUTION" and "AND BABY MAKES TWO," which aired nationally on network television. She is the associate producer on the recently completed "BROTHER BORN AGAIN" (Big Mouth Productions). Currently, she is assisting writing and producing "CHATO IS DEAD: A NEW YORK STORY" (Oren Rudavsky Prod.).
For over ten years, filmmaker Kate Davis has been making films about misunderstood people on the margins of society. She had met Robert Eads in 1998, at a female-to-male (FTM) convention in Maryland during a shoot for another documentary film on gender rights, for which she produced with her husband. Davis' commitment to this film took precisely one conversation over coffee with Robert Eads, as he spoke about his ovarian cancer, how he was denied treatment, how he felt like a traitor to his body while giving birth to two sons. Davis called him a week later, and he agreed to go public for the first time in his life.
"Though Robert was a private person, he let me into his life, this mother of two who at age 35 decided to become a man, this cowboy with ovarian cancer. He knew that when the film was completed, he would be dead, and therefore 'safe'," states Davis.
But the production was risky a proposition. Robert was dying. Davis had no time to raise money; and she was entering a delicate emotional situation out in rural Georgia. Furthermore, being mostly a director and editor, she had scarcely shot anything. But intimacy was required here. Davis bought a DV camera and did the filming alone, sometimes while recording sound as a one-person crew.
"More than once, I asked myself why I was choosing to leave my cozy New York family for rural Georgia so that I could camp out in the trailer home of a dying transsexual," says Davis
But what she witnessed was anything but the strain of social and economic poverty. Robert¹s world was suffused with love, courage, faith, humor -- the ingredients of survivors, even in the midst of tragedy.
Robert Eads lived in the farmland of Toaccoa, a small dot on the Georgia map. Robert and his male friends appear and act as extremely normal. But they privately cross gender lines, and so belong to perhaps the last minority society quietly grants permission to hate. There she met Max, Cas and the others, all of them closeted. Their decision to participate in the film was major, but they felt that Robert's story was important, and too the great risk.
During the course of location filming, "we told store owners that this was a film about our friend, awkwardly leaving out major details," said Davis. At the Southern Comfort Convention, the filming was almost entirely restricted, since participants could lose their jobs and families with one slip of the camera lens. On top of this, internal jealousies threatened to split up the group; and Robert began slipping in and out of consciousness.
By winter, Davis and her team balanced shooting with administering Robert¹s medication and backrubs. "It was a roller coaster. Every shoot seemed it would be the last one," said Davis. But as if secretly choreographing the film, Robert would suggest the next scene. "You haven¹t filmed my son yet, better come back down in July," said Robert
Davis grew to love Robert, and it stretched her to the limit to watch him die while still acting as the film producer. In the end, a large part of what drew Davis to make SOUTHERN COMFORT was the mystery at the core of Robert's story. How can a person with so much to offer be condemned throughout his life simply because his very existence challenges gender norms? Gender: an elusive concept at best. Merely physical, yet deeply existential. Something assigned at birth according to a few body parts, which then grows into a seemingly immutable sense of identity.
But as Robert once told Davis, "If this film helps one other trans-man go to a doctor or changes the heart of one straight person, then it's worth it."
SOUTHERN COMFORT will debut on HBO in 2001
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