Andrew Seger discusses his new documentary WE EXIST which he made about Non-binary activist Lauren Lubin and making an LGBTQ educational tool.
Tell us about WE EXIST.
WE EXIST - Beyond the Binary is a documentary that looks at the construct of gender binary. We do this primarily through the eyes of Lauren Lubin, a nonbinary athlete and activist. We follow Lauren’s life from childhood to the present, following their journey from Division I sports, to living in the rainforest, to top surgery, to now. In addition, we include interviews with nonbinary activist and speaker Tyler Ford, LGBTQ speaker and educator Kristin Russo, surgeon Dr. Charles Garramone, and the Clinical Director of Medical Services at Callen Lorde Community Health Center, Anthony Vivasis.
How did you come to this project? How did you meet Lauren?
I found myself abruptly without work and was looking on craigslist for a film to edit. I needed an answer for when friends and family asked what I was doing and a documentary sounded like I had my act together. I literally met Lauren at a Starbucks in Manhattan where after talking over the project we surmised that it would take approximately 6 weeks to complete… we were off by about 5 years.
What drew you to this topic?
I had the fortune of growing up in a really progressive part of the Bay Area. I felt like I had a handle on the subject and a general kinship for LGBTQ issues. Of course I was wrong, and I was floored by how much I truly didn't understand about the topic. There simply isn’t enough content out in the mainstream about the gender binary. As we look more closely into ideas around privilege, toxic masculinity, and identity in general, it feels like there needs to be more information available about the construct of gender. That is what we are hoping to provide with this documentary.
Were you already familiar with the issues and language used in the film?
I was loosely aware of the language but we really drill down on pronouns in this film because it’s really important to understand. One of the things that I like is that we don’t chastise people for not knowing about this stuff - but it is time to learn. It was important to me that this film was approachable for everyone and in that way, we focus on building a connection with the characters before we get in to the work of educating. The hope is that by the time we get to the things that are different for the viewer, they’ve already connected to the ways in which we are all similar. By the time we’re talking about pronouns and top surgery and safety concerns, you’ve already bonded with Lauren as a child, as an athlete, and as a person, so of course you want to refer to them correctly when it comes up, of course you want them to have the same opportunities that you want for your family and friends.
What was the collaborative process for creating this story in a documentary format? Did Lauren guide you through their story, and then you took the reigns as creative director and producer?
When I came on to this project, it was only as an editor and the top surgery portion of the film had already been shot by another team. The documentary was going to be short; a couple of interviews and that story, hence the 6 week turnaround. Over a BBQ at Lauren’s house, I heard all of their stories - of growing up in sports, of having to sacrifice that career for their psychological well being, of their love story and how it led to them living off grid in the rainforest for years and where they nearly drowned. I learned that it was this near death experience that clarified in Lauren’s mind the changes they needed to make in their identity to be happy - it was very moving. So once I got all the background to the story, I asked if I could take a crack at the script and see if I could weave some of these other elements into the documentary.
A really talented team of shooters and I began producing more segments to add and a few years in, Lauren’s dad unearthed 20 years of home video he shot of Lauren; that’s when I knew we had a film. So as we added more content, I produced those segments and at some point it became a shared vision where it made sense that I be the director of the film.
Having a collaborator like Lauren was key. Doing what is essentially a biopic on someone who is still in the middle of living their life is precarious. We were both too close to certain elements of the film and so it was good for me to take it away from Lauren and do a thing and then have Lauren take it away from me and give notes.
You can imagine, over the years the film took on many forms. We started this before the advent of Caitlyn Jenner. Initially our challenge was to establish for people that different concepts of gender identity even existed but once a reality star dove in, it freed up a lot of space in our documentary to tell a much more personal story.
How did you come to incorporate the stories of other activists in WE EXIST?
Parts of Lauren’s story are universal while others are quite specific so it was important to incorporate other voices. We’re trying to throw as wide a net as possible with this film and so I wanted to give multiple opportunities for the viewer to connect with someone on screen. The idea that gender is a construct can be challenging for some people to work with - it undermines something that we’ve been fed as a truth our whole lives - so I wanted to bring in some outside voices to add their perspectives. What’s more, nonbinary representation is so underserved that it was important to show Lauren as part of a community of nonbinary people and not a story of one person. Everyone was just great.
What did you learn about gender fluidity in the five year process of completing WE EXIST?
I think we’ve all seen gender fluidity become a much more mainstream topic. The interesting thing about doing a documentary on gender identity that took the last 5 years to produce is that the larger conversations around identity have really changed during that time. Among conversations about privilege, visibility and gender, we realized that we were making a film about a moving target. There was a real fear that the information in the film would be outdated before we even got it out. Being aware of the fluid motion of these subjects, I made a real effort to identify what was trending versus what was timeless and try and stick to things that would weather. It was exciting to be working in a space that was in motion, but at the same time it was pretty scary thinking, “I’ve put years into producing this film. Will it even be relevant when it gets released?”
Tell us about Flannel Projects.
Flannel Projects is the production company I run that produced the film. It’s a boutique agency that scales with each project that comes its way and is largely staffed by friends from my fashion and music video days. These days, it operates as the in-house production company for Indistry, an OTT streaming service where I am the Creative Director.
You have a wide-ranging background in creating video content for different industries, mainly the fashion industry. How did your experience, if at all, inform how you approached this project?
I saw Lauren’s story as emotional and dreamlike and wanted to employ some abstract imagery in the film. There are elements of magical realism in the story itself, very fairytale in a way and I felt like we should acknowledge that in its presentation. I also had my friend Alex Ghassan, who I worked closely with for years before, as our Director of Photography and he was very gifted as a cinematographer. He was able to make moods and meaning in the moments he caught and how he framed them. This was really key, as the film had no budget to speak of so we really had to stretch what we had lying around - which was the raw talent of the crew. A lot of the abstract elements were shaved down due to budget constraints and in the interest of clarity, but having a foundation of more expressive content helped set a great baseline from which to tell this story.
What do you hope students will do after watching your film?
My hope is always that they will find themselves a little more open, a little more compassionate, and a lot more informed. We really made this film to captivate and educate, and spent a lot of time massaging the tone so that it is easily approached by people with no idea about the subject.
At the same time, we wanted real representation for the nonbinary community. When we started this project, there was practically zero representation of nonbinary people in media. Through interviews and emails during production, it became clear that the work that we were doing was saving lives just by telling people that who they are is ok, is normal, is good.