Southern Comfort and the Transformative Intimacy of Transgender Documentary Film

“Easter mornin’, sunrise,” muses Robert Eads in a gentlemanly southern drawl, sitting on a lawn chair watching the sun rising over the trees in rural Georgia.  A close-up of the profile of Robert’s face shows his tears glistening down his cheek, “I can’t hate’em. I feel sorry for’em.”  Southern Comfort (2001), directed, produced, and edited by Kate Davis shows this very private, intimate and vulnerable moment of a dying man, and through the documentary expresses moments of love, wisdom, and strength.   Her use of immersion-style documentary and its simplicity to tell Roberts story was a powerful choice in creating a visceral and powerful sense of intimacy for the viewer. Kate Davis’ editing style also helped in creating a deeper, almost subjective, sense of intimacy for the viewer and the subject through her use of soft focus and nondiegetic sound/music during certain moments.
Southern Comfort (2001) follows the last seasons of Robert Eads, a female-to-male transsexual diagnosed with ovarian cancer whom doctors refused to treat due to bigotry.   Robert tells stories of his life, how he fell in love with Lola, a transwoman, and how much the Southern Comfort Transgender Conference means to him.  The film also interviews other transmen that are Robert’s friends, and shows the kinds of relationships he has with them.  According to Heather McIntosh, Davis’ style, “allows for a more intimate kind of documentary that offers an alternative to the over-the-top representations of transgender individuals,”(McIntosh 65).

The camera is hand-held and it creates a sense of realism of being there.  At his Easter picnic, all of Roberts chosen family arrives and there’s a scene with all of them at the picnic table talking about their struggles as transmen.  The hand-held camera sitting with the group elicits an experience of actually being present subjectively.  In another instance, Robert is cleaning his long rifle with WD-40.  As he sprays it on his gun it gets sprayed on the lens of the camera.
Davis’ cinematography besides being hand-held contains instances of soft focus and lighting when Robert and Lola are together.  Editing in nondiegetic sound, such as romantic music, when they are sharing a sweet moment together, really captivates the viewer in depth how much they love each other.  In one scene Robert and Lola are on the couch kissing and holding each other.  The room is lit with candles and the focus is soft as nondiegetic romantic music plays.  In many ways the film is put together to subtly make a compelling argument.
“Some documentaries make that point of view explicit, while others attempt to hide that viewpoint within the conventions that point more toward this perceived objectivity,”(McIntosh 69).  By use of the immersion documentary style, handheld camera, and choosing the kinds of conversations to show in the final cut of the film, the documentary makes the argument that bigotry in any way, shape, or form is wrong and that Robert Eads death was preventable and unjust.  The film also expresses that there are many different kinds of intimacy. There is the intimacy between friends, family, and lovers. And the intimacy between filmmaker and subject, and the intimacy between viewer and film.  When Robert Eads passes away and the last shot of the film shows his empty trailer on his rural patch of land, Lola’s narration solidifies the point of the documentary, “Nature delights in diversity. Why don’t human beings?”
Works Cited

McIntosh, Heather. “Teaching Transgender Issues Through Documentary And Southern Comfort.” MP: A Feminist Journal Online 3.4 (2012): 64.Supplemental Index. Web. 18 Apr. 2016.

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