Josh Frank: 'These people are worthy of being documented'

We spoke to the director of a new documentary about trans people in Asia

Bobbie, one of the main subjects of the documentary
After decades of only showing up in movies as the butt of cruel jokes, transgender people are having what you might call a moment in American media. From Orange is the New Black to Caitlyn Jenner, the stories of trans people are reaching mainstream audiences in the West like never before. In China, however, despite some media exposure, transgender people remain less visible.

A new Vice documentary, Out of Place – Transgender Stories from Asia, hopes to remedy that. Set across China, Hong Kong and Thailand, the documentary portrays a range of transgender people, from those who are out and agitating for change to people still in the closet.

Director duo Han Xia and Josh Frank focused particularly on two people: Bobbie, a rich Hong Konger who undergoes surgery to become a woman, and Mr C, a transgender man and activist struggling to find work and a lasting relationship in Guizhou. The documentary is a balanced, informative look at a community that often goes unacknowledged in much of Asia. We talk to Frank about trying to present the transgender community fairly to an audience that might not know they exist.

How did you find your subjects?
Bobbie contacted us. A friend of hers knew the CEO of Vice China, and that friend of hers was always supportive of her going through this transition. Bobbie was willing to give us access to her entire transition. In some ways we built it around that. It’s so difficult to get that kind of access.

You have footage of Bobbie’s surgery. Was that hard to shoot?
The thing that sticks with me most is not the actual surgery itself in terms of what was being reshaped or opened or closed or whatever, it’s more when you see someone you know somewhat well… and then the next time you see them they’re completely unconscious, being operated on. That stays with me more. That’s a very strange feeling and it’s scary to see someone in that position for me, completely powerless. That mentally was more difficult than any opening of Bobbie’s body, but it’s pretty intense... I felt very strongly it shouldn’t be taken lightly as material. It wasn’t something that was a novelty.

Joshua Frank Headshot 1
Co-director Josh Frank

LGBT content has an uneven record of being allowed in China. Did you have to worry about getting taken down or censored?
I think that would have been more of a consideration if what we had filmed had taken more of an activist bent. I think especially with Mr C, there are choices we could have made that we didn’t make. That potentially could have had an effect on the video being shared or not. But I think Chinese media as a whole, especially online video and web companies, do acknowledge the demographic of LGBT people. And we actually received some funding from a Tencent-affiliated documentary project. We knew that the story wasn’t necessarily bringing up anything that was off-limits, so it wasn’t a huge concern.

Were you trying to express any specific message?
The basic message is just that these people are worthy of being documented, and their experiences are valid and their stories are worth being shared.They’re not any less than anyone else. I think just by shooting it, that statement is being made.I definitely wasn’t that interested in doing something that was really sensationalised.

Out of Place is available to stream on Youku.

Read more