By Dakota Parks for Inweekly
Internationally acclaimed director, writer, actor and transgender rights advocate Jake Graf is a force to be reckoned with.
With an unyielding dedication to authentic representation, Graf uses his platform to amplify the voices of the trans male community worldwide and empower the queer community, providing them with a voice, hope and a vision for a brighter future. His powerful films serve as a catalyst for change, shedding light on the struggles faced by trans and queer youth, as well as adults.
From tackling issues like bullying and increased suicide risk to confronting government restrictions to life-saving, gender-affirming care, Graf’s work transcends boundaries, offering a poignant and vital perspective. Back in 2016, his film “Dawn” clinched the award for Best Narrative Short Film at Stamped Film Festival. His films consistently make waves on the festival circuit, amassing an array of awards and accolades.
This year, Stamped Film Festival eagerly awaits the premiere of his latest film “Stone,” which tells the story of a young woman’s discovery her father was a transgender woman, forcing her to rethink her childhood. Festival attendees can also look forward to a special appearance by Graf and his wife Hannah, who will join a screening of “Our Baby: A Modern Miracle,” chronicling their extraordinary journey to parenthood.
INWEEKLY: I understand your latest film “Stone” is premiering at Stamped Film Festival, and the film is entangled in complicated family relationships. Could you provide a glimpse inside the story and any inspiration behind the film? GRAF: “Stone” is the story of a young woman, Tess, who has been led to believe by her mother that her father left her when she was a very young girl to be with another woman. Upon learning of her father’s death, Tess goes to the funeral to confront the homewrecker who stole him from her, only to discover her father was in fact a transgender woman, and that everything she was told by her mother has been a lie.
“Stone” is inspired by the story of a close friend, a trans woman whom my wife Hannah and I met several years ago. At the time, she hadn’t started her medical transition. But over the course of a year of speaking with her, she decided it was the right thing for her to do. Her wife reacted terribly, throwing her out of their shared family home and attempting to turn their adult kids against her.
A few years later, and now living happily and authentically, we met her for lunch in London and she brought her 20-something son. Several times that afternoon, he called her “Dad.” When I politely asked if she wouldn’t rather be referred to as “Mum,” she looked at me in puzzlement and very proudly said, “Absolutely not! I’ll always be their Dad. I may have changed, but there’s no reason why our relationship should.”
We spoke to several other trans women who had transitioned later in life, already parents, all of whom echoed the sentiment that their identity as “Dad” didn’t in any way impact upon their womanhood. It struck me that this was a trans narrative that hadn’t been seen before, and so I wanted to bring those stories to the screen. I think it speaks to the strength of these women, secure and comfortable in their femininity and happy to inhabit both the identities of woman and dad at the same time. For Hannah and I, it brought to life the question: What is a mother or father? Are they simply a parent who is female or male, or is it a more complex identity, related to the position or role you play in a child’s life? It was important to Hannah and I to make sure we told these women’s stories authentically. We hope very much to have done them justice.
INWEEKLY: On that same note, I noticed your wife starred in “Headspace” and co-directed “Stone” with you. Can you share what this experience has been like producing art together? GRAF: Hannah has in fact now co-produced several of my films, including “Dusk,” “Headspace,” “Listen” and “Bully,” as well as acting in “Dusk” and “Headspace.” She and I work well together and balance each other out, and she also gives me a lot of feedback on my writing. She doesn’t have a film background but has a great eye for detail. I asked if she would like to be my co-director on “Stone,” and it was a joy to collaborate with her on the project. While I’m working with the actors and cinematographer on set, Hannah is thinking about coverage we might have missed and shots I particularly wanted to get, to ensure I can focus entirely on what I’m doing, knowing all the while she has her eye on the minutiae.
INWEEKLY: Your journey to parenthood with your wife was documented in a film and will soon be shared through a memoir. How has this personal experience influenced your approach to representation and storytelling, both in your personal life and your professional work? GRAF: We’re really thrilled our documentary “Our Baby: A Modern Miracle” will be screened at Stamped’s Family Day at the festival, and our autobiography “Becoming Us” is starting to gain traction in the U.K. Both have had an extremely positive reaction and helped a lot of people understand what it is to be trans and what we can achieve when we are supported and loved.
I have always believed positive trans representation is vital for the next generation of young trans folk, as I know the negative and detrimental effects that growing up with no visibility has on a young person.
Hannah and I were lucky to have had acceptance and support from our friends and families through our journeys, but I know we are not the norm and that many people face doubt, rejection and even violence when they come out. Many of those people find that understanding, education and support from books, films and television, and so I have always endeavoured to tell uplifting stories, which are often in short supply. Most of my stories focus on family dynamics, with queer and trans characters at their heart. It’s absolutely vital that trans kids today know that just because they’re different, they still deserve a home, a family, a career and to be loved.
INWEEKLY: As a filmmaker, your work often focuses on transgender and queer characters and experiences. How do you see the role of cinema in shaping perceptions and attitudes towards the LGBTQ+ community? GRAF: When I first started making films some 12 years ago, I had only once seen a trans male character on screen, and that was in the 1999 film “Boys Don’t Cry,” the horrifying tale of trans man Brandon Teena, a 21-year-old from rural Nebraska, who was raped and shot when his peers discovered he was trans. That story haunted me for years after, yet it was my only point of reference for the trans male experience. When I came out as trans and began my medical transition, I wrote my first screenplay, “XWHY” about a trans man who has lived as a lesbian before finally, happily, becoming himself.
The film did well at festivals, but it was only when I put it online that I started receiving messages from young men in places like Afghanistan, Lebanon, Poland and Russia—men who had never seen another trans man, thanking me for finally letting them know they weren’t alone. I realized then that stories have the power not only to educate and to open hearts and minds, but also to help others know there is hope and a future for those who are different. It is so important that while we tell those stories of our persecution and struggles, we also find stories of those trans people who have existed throughout history, who have fought wars and healed people and created art, who are happy and thriving.
INWEEKLY: Your films directly address some very pressing matters for queer and trans youth, both in Britain and America, such as banning access to gender-affirming care, bullying, increased suicide risk, etc. Why is it important to you to create educational content and share stories focused on youth? GRAF: Currently, the media in the U.S. and U.K. are using trans people and our rights and protections to sell papers, gain clicks and ignite public discourse. Everyone is talking about trans kids: Should they should be allowed to socially transition, to use a name or pronouns they feel comfortable with, or to access, in their teens, puberty blockers which could help prevent the need for painful and costly surgeries in later life? What we’re missing, however, are the voices of these young people—the stories of hope and survival, the relief from their families when their child stops talking about wanting to hurt themselves and starts talking about wanting to live. Through my films, I have given those young people a voice, and despite the huge amount of online hate my wife and I receive, we will continue to do so.
The younger generation are the future. They deserve the opportunity to grow up without feeling othered or lesser than their straight or cis counterparts. Suicide rates are disproportionately high among LGBTQ kids, and they are more likely to suffer from poor mental health, simply because they were born different. That needs to stop. Recent statistics in the U.K. indicate that currently 50% of 16 to 24 year olds identify somewhere along the LGBTQ spectrum, which gives me great hope for a kinder, less rigid and more understanding future.
INWEEKLY: When browsing through your films, it becomes apparent that casting trans or queer actors in the roles of trans/queer characters is important to you as a director. Can you speak about the importance of representation in film and casting, and why this is important to you? GRAF: As an actor, I know how tough it already is working in an industry where people are looking to cast the familiar face, or the actor who has several hits under their belt, whether or not they have any understanding of the lived experience they are portraying. I fully understand the argument that an actor is playing a role, but when there are so many hugely talented trans, gay and queer actors out there, surely they would be the natural fit for those parts? I have been incredibly fortunate to be able to cast and highlight some of those amazing actors out there, who just need a first shot, and hope that soon becomes industry standard. Performances can only get stronger because of it.
INWEEKLY: By the same token, representation is an extremely nuanced topic in the film industry as many trans performers express joy/affirmation in finally being cast in roles that align with their gender and want to star in cis and trans roles alike. I am curious about your experiences with this as a trans actor and how these influence the films you went on to create? GRAF: My experience has been mixed. I was very fortunate to appear in “The Danish Girl” and to consult on the film, and I am fully aware that was because I’m a trans actor. The same was true of the more recent film, “Colette,” starring Keira Knightley, where I again consulted and had a few scenes. Both were cisgender roles, which admittedly felt great. I have also starred in several dramas on British television playing trans characters, which I have very much enjoyed, but have had some pretty negative castings for trans roles, most notably being told several times that I don’t look “trans enough” to play a trans role, which is rather unsettling. One of my aims while shooting a film is to make every set as inclusive, supportive, female and queer as possible, and for the actors to be playing the roles that bring them the most joy.
INWEEKLY: Have you witnessed changes in the film industry in the portrayal of LGBTQ+ characters and stories, and where do you see room for further improvement? GRAF: There have certainly been very positive changes in the last decade or so, particularly in shows such as “Euphoria,” in which Jules’ (played by Hunter Schafer) trans identity is barely mentioned, “Heartstopper,” in which many, if not most, of the characters are LGBTQ+ identified and several others which are doing great work. Sadly though, we are still seeing some truly awful portrayals of gay and trans characters, such as James Corden in “The Prom,” which still caricaturize our experiences. There is also a tendency from shows to feature a trans or queer narrative, tick that box and then move quickly back to more mainstream stories, which isn’t of course how life works. There is still much work to be done, and I firmly believe that begins at the top, with the execs, the show runners and the writers. Hopefully that has a positive trickle-down effect which then forces a permanent industry shift.
INWEEKLY: Your film “Dawn” won an award back in 2016 at Stamped Film Festival, and several of your films have been featured at other LGBTQ+ festivals. What do these festivals dedicated to LGBTQ+ cinema mean to you as a trans actor and filmmaker? GRAF: I have been very fortunate that my films have screened at hundreds of festivals internationally and won a combined 70 Best Film awards, mostly from LGBTQ+ festivals. They have shown me unrivaled support that has been invaluable to me throughout my career. I know my stories really resonate and move their audiences, there will be someone in the audience who will be seeing themselves on screen for the first time and that my films have made people across the world feel a little less alone. As a filmmaker and an artist, I really can’t ask for more than that.