CPH:DOX // Songs for Alexis

Ryan and Alexis are teenagers in love. But Ryan is a trans man, and Alexis' parents don't approve. Director Elvira Lind discusses the documentary with The Murmur

Young love is powerful. We don’t often forget the first person to flip our heart upside down and inside out. We may have been young, but it was real – as real as love can ever really get.

Songs for Alexis is a documentary about the love of two teenagers in suburban America. Ryan, 18, is a trans man who started transitioning from a girl to a boy when he was 14. His girlfriend is Alexis, 16, but her family disapproves of Ryan.

The documentary was directed by Elvira Lind and is being shown during the Copenhagen film festival, CPH:DOX. Lind came across Ryan while researching the trans community in New York. She explained that her initial plan was to follow two teenagers who were in different stages of transitioning.

Elvira Lind: I had spoken to a large number of different kids, all with very different stories and backgrounds. Amazing kids all of them. But Ryan came with such a clear honest approach and his incredible mother Fran provided a whole new angle to the story I wanted to tell. Her search for understanding her child was very inspiring and I felt how she could teach parents around the world an important lesson.

Ryan and I had already Skyped for hours before we met. My friend, who had initially got me in contact with Ryan, and I then drove to Long Island where Ryan came with Fran. We all had lunch and just hung out for the day. It was a strange moment in which you try to feel if it would work. I was going to be part of their life for a long time and follow them around with my camera for months and months. You need to feel if the chemistry is there. I didn’t want to do any interviews in my film. I wanted to just capture daily life with minimal interference. So it is crucial that we could all be relaxed.

Alexis on the phone

Within the first few hours of meeting each other scenes already started to play out. There were issues from the beginning with Alexis’ parents and Fran was worried about it.

Soon after I did some test shooting with Ryan and his family and I absolutely loved them. There was no doubt in my mind that instead of following two teenagers transitioning I was going to follow Ryan and his family. A little later on Alexis came into the picture, she was incredible also.

In some way it ended up being Ryan’s surrounding that went through a transition. But I think that is an important thing to remember – that the people closest to you also transition as they try to understand what is happening. I think Ryan’s mom Fran shows that so beautifully in the film.

As time went on and Alexis and Ryan had their own problems to deal with, focus changed to them and their struggles. But love struggles are a universal thing, we can all relate to that and it always either hurts or feels absurdly magical. Ryan and Alexis’ story is no exception.

The Murmur: Trans teenagers are pretty much non-existent in the mainstream media. Was the documentary an attempt to draw attention to them as a minority, or is Ryan’s gender identification not a central part of the story?

EL: I have made a film about a kid that falls in love who also happens be transgender. I think it is important that we share stories that we can all identify with, no matter who we are and where we are from. A story about love and insecurity and dreams for the future is something most people can identify with one way or the other. It might make it easier for people to discuss what it must be like to come out as transgender or having a kid that does, if you have just seen a film where you recognise the feelings and situations from your own life. I hope this film will help further the debate on gender identity and acceptance of the freedom to choose who we want to be and what we want to do with our lives.

Ryan and Alexis on the bus

TM: What was the most memorable part of making the documentary?

EL: It has been an incredible journey to follow two teenagers so closely through such an intense time of their lives. We have remained close and I have gained a whole new family in America. Being both in front and behind the camera is a strange but intimate experience, and I am so honoured to have been allowed into their lives and that they have trusted me to share their story so honestly.

TM: Why should people watch the documentary?

EL: If you have ever been a teenager and in love, I promise you will enjoy watching this film. It will make you laugh and maybe even make you cry a little – a good little cry…

Songs for Alexis is playing tonight, Friday November 7, at Bremen Theatre, followed by a Q&A with Elvira Lind and Ryan Cassata.


By Peter Stanners

Co-founder and Editor-in-chief. Occasional photographer.

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