"Carl(a)," a powerful 2011 drama about a transgender woman's transition, is getting a new life thanks to an ambitious charity campaign and a climate far more receptive to its groundbreaking content.
In order to avoid having a skeptical traditional distributor "bury it," director Eli Hershko and his wife, executive producer Lilly Cadoch, have partnered with Indiegogo to release their self-financed film — starring a trans actress, Joslyn DeFreece, and a before-she-was-famous Laverne Cox — for a good cause. Until June 4, anyone who donates $10 or more to the project here can get a streaming link to the movie for a full week, with a large portion of the proceeds going to the National Center for Transgender Equality.
The film arrives amid a maelstrom of mainstream attention to the transgender community. Cox, who has become a crossover star thanks to the Netflix show "Orange Is the New Black," was just named to "TIME's" "Most Influential People" list. "Transparent," a comedy/drama about male-to-female transition starring Jeffrey Tambor has become a critically acclaimed, Golden Globe-winning hit. And on Friday, reality TV star and former Olympian Bruce Jenner is expected to go public about his long-rumored transgender status.
“We couldn’t be more thrilled about how the timing of all this worked out,” Cadoch told msnbc. “It seems like the perfect opportunity to get our message out.” That message, as exhibited by the film, is ultimately about acceptance, but also the agony that so many trans men and women go through when it comes to their families. And it doesn't shy away from some harsh truths about the bullying and bigotry that so many trans people face every day.
Carla, the lead character in the film, makes her living as an online sex worker but dreams of becoming a fashion designer. She is berated by most of her family members as a "freak." The only people who treat her with dignity are her kindly grandfather (played by veteran character actor Mark Margolis), a no-nonsense prostitute (Cox), and eventually a socially awkward love interest, played by Gregg Bello. She looks at her body in the mirror and says "this is not me," and must grapple with the consequences of what a series of difficult surgeries will mean for her life.
The film is by turns funny, romantic, challenging and sad — but most importantly, it presents an unflinching portrait of a trans woman's life. “I was ahead of my time and people were not ready for that,” Hersko told msnbc. He tried to initially get the film into mainstream festivals four years ago but was met with resistance due to the subject matter. "Carl(a)" even made it to the final rounds of consideration for the Tribeca Film Festival but was ultimately not accepted.
“It was so hard to shop this film around because it was such an alien concept back then,” Hersko said. He regularly asked himself: "Is this film worthy? Does it have a positive message?" and kept faith that the film would eventually get exposed to a wider audience.
Hershko, who spent more than eight months along with his co-writer Christopher Theokas researching the transgender community in preparation for the film, endured the depletion of his 401K and the near destruction of his home during Hurricane Sandy to see the film finally get a proper release. He not only credits growing awareness of transgender culture and issues with the project's resurgence, but the establishment of Cox as a recognizable actress.
In just four short years, Cox has gone from being an unknown to the first transgender performer to be nominated for an Emmy. She sang the praises of the "Carl(a)" back in 2011 in a column for "The Huffington Post." "I was so excited about this film because this is a very real story I have seen time and again over the years with people in my life but have never seen it told in a film so truthfully," Cox wrote.
DeFreece echoed her sentiment during a Q&A on Monday after the film's premiere at the Ziegfeld Theater in New York City, "I was so attracted to this film because it was trans actors playing trans roles," she said.
“When I wrote the film I sat with Laverne and Joslyn by themselves and drew from their own experiences," said Hersko, who could have cast a traditional Hollywood actress in the lead role but was steadfast in the belief that his star must be trans for the sake of authenticity. In fact, he says Cox's participation hinged on the promise that she would be cast opposite another trans woman, and Hersko says he wouldn't have made the film any other way.
Now that "Carl(a)" is finally getting the audience it deserves, Hersko is optimistic about the future of the community getting represented on film. “I think that as the trans movement gets to be more mainstream, we will see more trans men and women portrayed," he said. "If they’re good actors, they deserve to be seen no matter what their gender or sexual preference.”