Wednesday, 22 November 2017


By Dimitri Keramitas

Screened at the recent Amnesty International Human Rights Film Festival in Paris, Christian Sonderegger’s Coby explores the experience of a 23-year-old girl who transitions into a strapping young man.

Of course, the topic is well-worn by now. What makes this documentary fresh is what the director bluntly calls its “feel-good” aspect - it has a happy ending that’s a sharp departure from the lurid or adversarial, and is not made up by a Hollywood team of scriptwriters. It also demonstrates how gender transitioning can involve not just the individual, but an entire family, which has to change how it views a child or sibling.

A poster for the documentary Coby.
This brilliant film is, however, too complicated to remain within feel-good confines. There are uncomfortable and mysterious elements, some of them discreetly (or coyly) unrevealed by the filmmaker, others perhaps unintended.

The movie is about an individual - Coby - in the furthest reaches of the U.S. Middle West. What is a French director doing making a documentary here? One hint is that Coby’s mother Ellen says a few words in fluent-sounding French to the (off-screen) director, and makes an ironic remark about how the French have an excessive need to understand everything. Perhaps she’d visited France, and met the young director? This isn’t addressed in the film but at the screening Sonderegger revealed that Ellen is actually his “biological mother”, that she’d had him during a sojourn in France and put him up for adoption. That makes him the half-brother of Coby, the subject of his film, and accounts for the sympathy and easy intimacy of the sequences with her/him.

Coby has a dual structure. We see Coby as he is now, with his post-transition name Jake. He works as a paramedic in his rural Ohio town, and lives with his partner Sara (and two adorable dogs). The director has a wonderful eye for nature, whether the harsh snowy winters or the flowery summer season. He also captures the working-class lives of the village residents without condescension.

The other narrative strand is a series of YouTube diary sequences that Coby made when he was still a she named Suzanne, when the physical-physiological transition finally caught up with the psychological one.

Coby is the same person as Jake, but in the end not really. Coby is several years younger (in the YouTube footage), and looks like a teenager. (The documentary makes us realize how in a sense we’re all transitioning age-wise.) He also seems unstable, a molten stew of desires, anxieties and other feelings, pushed along by the determination to become physically, inside and out, what his self-image is. Jake, on the other hand, is a well-adjusted guy. Coby is more interesting - it’s no mystery why the film is titled after that name, rather than “Jake”. The director is masterly at interweaving the segments, creating a counterpoint at once dissonant and harmonious. But credit must go to Coby for the videos’ creation and performance (in addition it was Coby who asked his French half-brother to make the documentary).

Director Christian Sonderegger.
The other characters in the documentary are vividly depicted. Sara, Coby’s partner, has the spunky character of Harry Potter’s Hermione. She’s the one who pushes him into concrete transitional action once he determines it’s the right path. She also defends Coby in public when others react to him in a bemused manner. Coby’s parents are also memorable in their own way. Ellen has a large personality, sometimes on the obstreperous side, but always human. Coby’s father Willard comes off as decent and intelligent, almost a sitcom caricature of the caring liberal dad.

The family represents a bit of a puzzle, or at least something mysterious. Coby’s parents are intelligent, articulate, and educated. They’re also well-off in a way that’s at odds with the rustic setting. Ellen lived in France as a younger woman, and she says she lived a “crazy life with all sorts of people”. Coby refers to how they made “lots of money” (unlike him). We learn that they home-schooled their children and didn’t expose them to television, isolating them (as Coby’s father admits) from mainstream culture. Who are these people really? The family history is probably a movie unto itself, so maybe it’s better not to get sidetracked from the central story, which belongs to their daughter-turned-son.

Appearing with the director at the Amnesty France screening was a young woman who identified as intersexual. She made a valid point that those who examine gender issues tend to pathologize them, to examine them with the idea that they are not just phenomena but effects for which we need to isolate the cause. Ellen argues along the same lines, saying that her son’s situation “just is”, that it isn’t because of his past or his family. If we’d been privy to the full story maybe we’d agree with Coby’s parents that his family was the right thing to have happened for his development. But not fully examining the family history seems to undercut this thesis.

Aside from the YouTube clips, the director includes still photos from Coby’s childhood as a little girl. She doesn’t seem to be particularly tomboyish, but apparently she had a tempestuous, rebellious streak (which in adulthood has become puckish charm). More disturbing is the number of photos of the child Suzanne in the nude. There are families who take such photos of their baby or toddler children in a totally innocuous way, and presumably Coby’s family was no different. It’s a question of culture, and possibly the home-schooling / no-TV household had a very natural slant. But again we are left with the feeling that this documentary, compelling and comprehensive as it seems, is the tip of a submerged iceberg. Coby’s story has a happy end, but a murky beginning, one the director leaves opaque.

Production: Ciaofilms/Willow Films

Dimitri Keramitas is an award-winning writer and legal expert based in Paris. The Amnesty International France Human Rights Film Festival is an annual event. Please see SWAN’s earlier article for details about the movies screened.