Michael Ward on Wednesday, May 30
Two weeks into SIFF, I am not too proud to admit I've shed a few tears along the way (looking at you Mr. Rogers, and the Pick of the Litter puppies), but my eyes got wet once again, and my blood started boiling while watching Vlada Knowlton's important and powerful documentary The Most Dangerous Year.
Knowlton's film comes from a place of great personal vulnerability, truth, and conviction. In 2015, she and her husband were coming to terms with their 5-year-old child's transgender identity. Only a handful of months later, in 2016, a number of initiatives and political power plays would result in a push to rescind transgender rights laws and policies that the State of Washington had put in place in 2006.
Over the course of 90-plus minutes, Knowlton somehow finds a way to share her story, step back from the personal connection to the film she's making, and present an engaging, factual, and galvanizing look at the myths, dangerous lies and misrepresentations that have bolstered a bustling and increasingly troublesome anti-trans movement since progress had been made towards equality for transgender individuals.
At the heart of the film is Aidan Key, the founder of Gender Diversity, a Seattle-based advocacy and support group for transgender individuals, with an emphasis on transgender youth. Key spends significant time working with public school districts, helping break down the misconceptions around understanding transgender identity and assisting with tools that steer districts toward integration and acceptance. The Knowltons got to know Key in 2015, when they went to Gender Diversity to find resources for their daughter Annabelle. Upon learning of Knowlton's status as a documentarian, he sought her help in what he knew was emerging on the horizon in 2016.
A number of families share their stories and Knowlton weaves them into the tapestry of a narrative that simply asks for calm and level-headedness from its viewers. In what is supposedly one of the most liberal states in the union, Washington state, anti-trans legislation in the form of State Senate Bill 6443, and two subsequent ballot initiatives, gained traction. Chief among the supporters of these anti-trans drives, Joseph Backholm, founder of something called the Family Policy Institute of Washington.
Though Knowlton could treat Backholm with disdain and mockery, she doesn't and takes the high road. However, she doesn't adopt a pacifist's approach. Her message is firm, her focus sharp. Her points succinct and on point.
Systematically, she demystifies and flat out debunks the always shocking arguments that transgender individuals are simply pretending, or that they have mental illness, are simply making a choice, or somehow have malicious or abhorrent intentions in presenting the way they do. Importantly, she spells out the always significant distinction that sexual preference and gender identity are two completely separate things that have nothing to do with one another.
Astutely, Knowlton shows that many of the same arguments used against allowing black people equal rights in the United States - the "Separate But Equal" era of civil rights history - are being used all over again in litigating against transgender equality. And while it is a shame that scientific studies have to continually be presented to the world, reminding people that transgender individuals have nothing wrong with them and simply want to exist peacefully in the world, Knowlton has little choice but to use the science to silence a dangerous rhetoric that can seemingly emerge at any moment.
Sure, she may have made this film for her daughter and family. She may have made it for the folks who work with Aidan Key at Gender Diversity. She may have an activist or political cause she's fighting for. The motives ultimately do not matter.
The Most Dangerous Year excels in doing what great politically-charged pieces of art often do. Knowlton centers us, grabs our focus, and makes us listen. She shows us the good, juxtaposed with the bad, and reminds us that even when the loudest and most vulgar command all the media attention, love needs to stay vigilant and defiant in the face of institutional bigotry and marginalization.
Documentary Featuring: Aidan Key, Joe Fain, Cyrus Habib, Tiffany Dolmseth Kelly, Vlada Knowlton, Annabelle Knowlton.
Director: Vlada Knowlton
Written by: Vlada Knowlton
Running Time: 90 Minutes
May 29 | SIFF Egyptian | 6:30 PM
June 2 | Shoreline Community College | 1:00 PM