Produced by Seahorse Films and distributed by Wolfe, the largest exclusive distributor of lesbian, gay, bi and transgender (LGBT) films, Just Charlie is the story of a boy, a promising football star of his hometown Tamworth and of England, making his father proud and happy. But not everything is as nice as it seems. Charlie looks like a boy, but he is not a boy inside. He actually feels like a girl and is suprised twice by his football coach and his father wearing female clothes and make-up.
Despite all the tragedy and drama, the film has a happy ending, where Charlie is finally expressing herself as she really is and her sister Eve is getting married. A promise of hope that the director Rebekah Fortune wanted to donate to the viewers, some of whom might feel close to this story. Depicting the Trans community with all the problems but also the nice moments, is the aim of this film and is certainly worth every tear that I spilled over it.
We asked some questions both to Rebekah, the director, and to Harry Gilby, the main actor of the film, Charlie.
Just Charlie is a film on identity and gender. What inspired you? Is there a specific experience or is just because it has to be talked about?
Rebekah: I have always struggled with my own identity, never really feeling I fit in. I think its one of the biggest challenges young people face and one that can affect you for the rest of your life. Not really knowing who you are, or not being accepted for who you are, creates scars that I am not sure ever heal. “Just Charlie” began its life as a stage play twenty years ago inspired by a daytime television programme. Peter Machen, who wrote the screenplay for “Just Charlie” and I, were fascinated by the idea that someone could be born and feel completely disassociated from what they saw in the mirror and how those around them identified them. No one was talking about the issue at the time but the more we explored the issue the more we began to feel angry about the treatment of the Trans community and the injustices they were suffering. Skip forward twenty years and although some things have changed and there are more high profile figures in the Trans community, there is still a great deal of work to be done to try and make people understand. Many of the Films, TV shows etc have dealt with trans adults but we felt compelled to explore what the reality is like for a young person in The UK, how with the right help and support they don’t need to suffer all their lives, but also explore the ripple effect this very brave decision has on the world around them.
For me, Just Charlie really highlights something we all go through and are constantly challenged on. Who we are, or rather, who are we? In modern times we have been encouraged to express ourselves, to be who we want to be, to go out into the world and say,”This is me!” However, if that does not conform with what people believe you should be, well you are just plain weird and there is something “wrong” with you. It’s a modern story and its a story that will continue to develop as we progress as human beings. We wanted it to be a story we can all participate in and not just be a story about transgender. Transgender issues in the UK are moving forward but it’s a real struggle. Especially in the current political climate and the fact that very totalitarian views are given oxygen and have emboldened people to allow their fear and hatred to take centre stage. I hope that Just Charlie can help show that we are all people struggling to define who we are and that by supporting each other unconditionally we can actually have much healthier happier lives.
What do think society and politics are doing for this issue?
R: I think society and politics are dealing with things in very different ways. Unfortunately politically we seem to be having all our rights and desires to be who we are crushed. Anyone who has their own way of looking at things, who isn’t “normal”, is vilified or mocked. We are expected to fit conventions and behave as an unthinking hive mind, who blindly accepts what we are being told by politicians and the politically controlled press. I am sad to say all the progress we had made in accepting and celebrating difference, uniqueness and individuality is being slowly eaten away. That said on a more positive note, the response to Just Charlie has been a little overwhelming. I don’t think we ever expected a film made for little more than 50p and a bag of chips was going to have the impact it has. Myself and other members of the cast and team have been mobbed at festivals by people thanking us for making such an important film, on several occasions members of the audience who have identified as Trans or parents of trans children have stood up and openly wept during Q&A sessions. When we screened the film in London one brave Trans lady stood up to talk to us, she tried so hard to hold her emotions in, but as she explained this could have been her story on screen, and thanked us for being her voice, the tears began to flow, not only from her but us too. She held her emotions in just long enough to praise our decision to have a happy ending, an ending that she felt gave the trans community hope, and showed audiences there can be a positive outcome if we learn to be more accepting. She then sat and sobbed and sobbed and sobbed.
I think however the most wonderful responses have been from young people who have been so open, receptive and accepting of the film, angry at the way Charlie is treated and keen to make a difference. I have always had faith in young people but their response internationally to Just Charlie has given me great hope for the future. 500 teenagers cheering and giving the film a standing ovation is not something I will forget anytime soon.
The film depicts a true and faithful image of what could actually happen in a family that has to face this issue. Is this what you had in mind from the beginning?
R: I felt that the world of Just Charlie needed to be very ordinary. We decided that we would set the story in the town where I had grown up and where Peter (writer) lived for a time. It is a town right in the centre of England with a population of about seventy-five thousand people. It’s not big and it’s not small, but it is small enough for someone that is different in some way, or who appears to be different, to stand out. Someone will know someone who will know someone. It’s that kind of town. The audience needed to feel that this was a place they knew and they needed to relate to the family, so they are simply aspiring working class people doing their best for their family. Working hard to provide a good life. They are not rich, they are not poor. I really needed people to connect with them, because if you’re going to talk about something most people feel they know nothing about but have strong reactions to, they have to be taken on a journey willingly. They needed to be able to place themselves in the position of the characters they are watching. We did a great deal of research with Charities and Trans organisations and wanted to represent an amalgamation of their stories. We know not everyone will have had one positive and one negative parent but we wanted to show both sides of the coin, enabling people to empathise with different characters whilst ultimately still coming to the same end result. We also felt strongly about focusing on the ripple effect that it had on the whole family, we talked a great deal to siblings and although, most like Eve are very supportive, they often struggle too, the thought of losing the brother they once had, the family breaking down, very little time for them or consideration for their feelings etc. It’s a very complicated situation for any family right now, but hopefully, if the world becomes more understanding, better educated and more accepting, it need not have such a devastating impact on anyone involved.
How was it working with Harry?
R: Harry was fabulous to work with, receptive, intelligent and emotionally mature for someone so young, but then I must say so where the whole team, especially Scott Williams (Paul), Patricia Potter (Susan) and Elinor Machen Fortune (Eve). It was vital that the actors built that family dynamic, in order to get the most from Harry and also to make him feel safe enough to be able to expose himself emotionally. The whole set was nurturing and supportive which really allowed Harry to shine.
Is there another specific issue that you would like to bring on screen?
R: There are so many I can’t count. Identity will always be a big subject for me and The Plough, which we are currently financing, is a magical romance between two characters: one with Aspergers, one with dual heritage trying to find their place in the world. I would like to make a film about the Pendle Witches who were tried and hung as witches primarily for being women, poor and having the wrong political beliefs, and the film I always said I would win an Oscar for is an epic story of Mata Hari and how she was an innocent woman used as a scapegoat by politicians, along with working on a post-apocalyptic feminist Western because I adore Westerns.
The film is about a boy who doesn’t feel right in his male body. Was it difficult for you to play this role?
Harry: At first I was very apprehensive about auditioning for this role because I didn’t really understand too much about the transgender issue as I was only 14 at the time. However I soon realised that these sort of roles are ones that every actor dreams of playing as they are very difficult and take you out of your comfort zone. I wondered then if I would be good enough to play the role of Charlie and portray her as Rebekah and Peter imagined the role to be? Could I do it justice? After the auditions and all the research I did however I felt that I could do it and by the time it came to shooting I was reasonably confident I would hopefully be able to play the role without too much difficulty. Rebekah was brilliant at guiding me through the process and putting me at ease. Some of the scenes are very emotional and these were very difficult to do over and over again for different camera shots and angles. It’s very hard for instance to cry and then stop and then cry again over and over again.
How was it working on this film with Rebekah Fortune?
H: It was great, a dream come true to be doing our first movie together. She was very understanding, realising that I knew very little at first about the subject, but she gave me freedom to explore different ways of shooting the shots and was always very encouraging if I got it wrong or played the scene differently to how she saw it. It was Rebekah’s first feature film but you’d never know that as she knew exactly what she wanted and how to achieve it. She was very patient with all us young actors and I would love to work with her again.
After shooting the film, have you seen yourself on screen? How did it make you feel?
H: Yes I’ve seen it many times now as we have been travelling around the world on the festival circuit promoting the film. It’s extremely bizarre to see yourself on screen for the first time, 20ft high, in front of a cinema audience and at first I was very critical of myself feeling I could have done some scenes differently or better perhaps but after a while you sort of get used to it and relax more. I’m still not sure I like looking at myself though but I suppose many actors feel this way. Above all though I’m proud and hope that our performances touch peoples hearts and maybe help them understand quite a difficult and emotional subject better after they have seen the film than before.
What do you think about the theme of the film?
H: I feel the film is really topical and has come out at just the right time. It’s about a subject that many people have kept to themselves and been afraid to speak about for fear of discrimination and abuse. I hope in our small way we can help educate people about this very emotive subject and if we can help those that are perhaps unsure as to their gender identity, however old they are, then Rebekah and the team will be very happy and proud. Many trans people have seen the film now and it’s very touching to hear how they feel about it and their reaction. There are usually lots of tears!! They very clearly identify with some of the areas and scenes in the film so that’s fantastic.I guess Caitlin Jenner is the most famous transgender person in the US, if not the world and I would love her to be able to see the film and hopefully find some common themes in it with her life.