52 Tuesdays is 2014’s little Australian film that could. Developed through a South Australian initiative called FilmLab – aimed at producing low budget features for film-makers looking to enter the industry – this picture with a small cast and challenging subject matter has already taken the Crystal Bear prize at the Berlinale Generation 14plus competition.
The plot of the film concerns how an Adelaide family reacts to the decision of Jane (Del Herbert-Jane) to undergo female to male gender-transition.
As topical as this is, director Sophie Hyde and her co-writer Matt Cormack introduced a formalist element that ensured a unique film-making experience – the movie would be set, but also produced, only on Tuesdays during the course of a year.
Jane, now James, decides he needs to process the experience of transition and so makes a pact with daughter Billie (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) to meet every Tuesday at the same time. The rule changed not only the lives of the characters, but also how Hyde’s performers interacted with the project.
“The character of James who, in the context of the film, has chosen to control and limit what he is doing in life over this time, to the point even of his interactions with his child,” explains Hyde. “In a lot of ways the Tuesday rule meant that we had only a certain amount of access to that character. It felt more appropriate to shift it so we had Billie’s point of view.”
52 Tuesdays then becomes a film not only about a woman transitioning to a man, but an examination of how this process effects all the people in their life.
“No matter how much respect you have for the decision, even getting the correct pronouns can be really hard,” says Hyde. “Especially in a family where you’ve known somebody for many, many years. In particular someone that has been the mother of your child.
There are times in the film where people do that as a bit of a dig, in a way that only close family can do without it being really offensive.
“In some respects I think all of the family members are very loving and supportive but they don’t do all of the things you’d want them to do in an ideal world.”
Del Herbert-Jane had originally been hired as a consultant on gender and identity by the production, later winning the role of James after a screen-test. Cobham-Hervey was the daughter of family friends, with training in performance theatre, while the actor playing father Tom – Beau Travis Williams – is a well known skater who has appeared in Chris Lilley’s Angry Boys. The casting therefore, once again, was arrived at due to the formal challenges of the film itself.
“I was just looking for interesting people. People who were a) going to commit for the year and b) would be generous inside of the film and be willing to work in a gentle bit-by-bit way, rather than by needing to understand and know everything about the role.”
The resulting film is very much an evolving discussion on the role gender plays in our lives, with Hyde and Cormack allowing the circumstances of the performers and their growing understanding of transgender issues to inform the production.
“Every single day, everything we do, is a gendered interaction. Something that I really discovered in making the film is if you felt you were in a position where it was wrong the way people were treating you, were mistreating you, its such an intense confrontation to your identity.
“I guess there is so much in that for all of us in the way we live.”
Which must make the positive responses of festival audiences both here and abroad such a rewarding experience for the director and her cast.
“I feel in general audiences are very warm. My feeling is they embrace the film and the form and what we’re attempting to say and do.
“A lot of people think the film is about one thing and others think it’s about something else. Which is beautiful. The broad range of the audience has been surprising to me. Queer audiences have been overwhelmingly supportive so far. Older women have really connected in to the mother/daughter storyline. Then the youth audience were very excited by the themes and the ideas in the film.”
Billie explores her own identity in response to her mother’s changing gender with a pair of friends. The younger cast are shown performing for one another via cameras to conduct their own discussion of sexuality.
This marks a contrast with films that depict adolescent sex as being essentially rebellious, influenced by drink/drugs/peer pressure. Was this something youth audiences responded to particularly strongly?
“There is a familiarity around the characters for a lot of people. We don’t see them on the big screen, but we know them. Teenagers like to question things out loud and it’s very interesting to work with them, but they’re a great audience as well.” Hyde pauses to laugh at the comparison between youth sexuality in 52 Tuesdays and other teen dramas on film.
“If everyone had the chance to work out what they wanted, that’d be pretty cool.”
52 Tuesdays is on release in Australia from May 1.