Love is complicated. It’s not something we can always control or even plan for. Director Ofir Trainin and producer Tal Barda learned this lesson when they set out to document the lives of Amit and Galit Tsuk — a Family in Transition, as the title of their film describes.
Within the small, conservative town of Nahariya, Israel, Amit came out as transgender. Following hormone injections, she and Galit traveled to Thailand, one of the few accessible locations to undergo gender-reassignment surgery. Upon their return, they decided to remain in Naharia instead of moving to Tel Aviv, which is generally more accepting of the queer community. “We all thought that this was going to be a story of this couple staying together with four children and becoming two mothers that decide to stay together,” Barda tells EW. As Trainin continued shooting more than 100 hours of their journey, it became a transition for the crew as well.
The film was no longer a love story about a couple staying together against all odds and remarrying as two women; it was now a story about two partners going through this process of transitioning together, splitting apart, and finding new love with other people — while keeping their family together.
Requests to interview Trainin were politely denied, explaining that the filmmaker “is not so confident in his English.” But Barda, who joined Family in Transition after shooting began, discussed the development of the film with EW: how the story began, Trainin’s “gentle” means of documenting such a sensitive story, adapting to the unpredictability of love, and dealing with financiers of the documentary who were hoping for a more traditional happy ending.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you meet Amit and Galit? Who approached whom to get things started?
TAL BARDA: I joined the project a little bit after filming started. Ofir was doing these short films for a LGBTQ nonprofit organization, and he was supposed to do three-minute clips for each story he was told about. And somebody told him about this story and he said, “Okay, this doesn’t sound like a three-minute film. It sounds like something that is much longer and deeper.”
We all thought that this was going to be a story of this couple staying together with four children and becoming two mothers that decide to stay together. It was this love story, and then throughout the film, to everybody’s surprise, all these turns, ups, and downs come. It’s not anymore that specific love story about Amit and Galit, but it remains a love story because each one decides their own path and their own loving partner, and the kids continue to love their parents in this new and different form. But at the beginning, it wasn’t at all planned like this.
What were those early conversations like with Amit and Galit? How easy or difficult was it to get them to agree to this documentary?
It was not easy. The beginning was coming over without the camera and just being there. Amit, on the first shooting day, she ran out of the house and she didn’t want to be part of it, and it took a lot of time and trust. They were suspicious about the process and not wanting their children to be hurt from it because they knew what they’re going through, what their decision of becoming two mothers and staying together. So what happened after a few times Ofir came over was that they really accepted him, and he becomes a part of this whole process. They used to wait for him to arrive because the kids really wanted to tell him about how they felt. And Amit really wanted to share with Ofir, and also Galit, and see what was in Thailand. [Ofir] became really their psychologist or social worker, and they really opened up to him and really wanted him to come over because this story was so strange and crazy for everybody. There was somebody half outside, half inside that they can talk to.
This was shot in a very minimal way. At the beginning, I was trying to convince Ofir to bring in a professional DP and camera and have light and that it should look really good. It took some time to understand that the only way this could really take place is if it’s Ofir by himself with the camera and he does the sound — a very fly-on-the-wall feel, something that is very gentle.
Because homophobia and transphobia was so prevalent in their town at the time you were filming, was there ever a concern from your team that pointing a camera at them in public in that way would make their living situation more dangerous? How did you go about approaching that aspect?
In an opposite and weird way, they knew and felt already so strange and so different. When the filming started, their youngest was 6 years old and their oldest was 18 — new grades and a new high school. When their friends stopped coming home and stopped visiting them, they were really excluded. I think that at this moment [with the documentary], they didn’t really care because there was a feeling like everywhere was so different and everybody’s looking, so they were fine with the camera being there. Now, after this, the kids really feel like, “Oh, we’re probably being famous!” And their friends in school are asking their parents why they aren’t doing this transition because they want to also be famous. This kind of attention helped them in the process.
What is the family’s outlook now that the documentary has been making the rounds? It’s in Los Angeles, and it’s coming to New York. I saw that Amit did a few interviews during the press tour.
They’re very happy and proud with the film. I can say that the first time when they saw the film before the screening here at the DocAviv Film Festival [in Israel], where it won Best Documentary, we had a screening for them. It’s always not easy to show your characters themselves on screen, it can be just some way they feel they don’t look good or something that they said and the way it’s all edited. So one of the first things from Amit was, “Listen, I thought this would be a little more funny and little more about this extreme love me and Galit had for each other,” and she was still in that process. But I feel that seeing the film again and again and seeing the response of the audience is something that really gave them a lot of strength and energy. And I think that there’s the film before it’s shown to the public and then once it’s shown, and there’s such a huge impact on it. So they are very proud, and Amit was very happy to come. There’s a lot of screenings taking place in Israel, so it was very exciting for them to come and share their story.
When did it click for you that the film was more than just about Amit transitioning into a woman, that it was the family story?
I think that once the kids started to participate and share their feelings. It was a realism. Like you say, it’s a film about a family and the path that they find in being a family in this new form. And it’s much more about the partner, which is Galit, and their children, than the story of a transitioning process of a character. So the kids were so involved and are really, really great.
There’s a scene in the film where one of the daughters is talking about her experience with bullying at school, but the cameras, for the most part, don’t really go inside the classroom. Then during the divorce hearings, we hear what’s going on in the court room but the camera is still outside. Were there certain restrictions about where you could actually film?
There are some moments where the camera wasn’t allowed in. And, let’s say the Levitical court, there’s no way to film inside. So the thought was let’s have them mic’ed and just have the scene take place, because it’s such an important scene that shows off the system and the fact that they didn’t acknowledge Amit as a woman and they wanted to arrest her, and that was really important. But the camera couldn’t go in, so that was the solution. In the classroom, the camera could go in the classroom, and not only in the classroom, but there’s also a lot of footage from the surgery and the recovery from the surgery, very not-easy moments and very, I would say, gossipy moments. But I think it’s the decision that I find very special of the director to be gentle with his characters but also try to express the story in a way that doesn’t feel too intrusive.
I find a lot of entertainment nowadays can take that trans experience and veer toward exploitation, but I felt that this film approached it very gently, as you were saying. What were your conversations like with Ofir about that?
I think Ofir filmed, I don’t know how many hours, but a lot — more than 100 hours — and being around the family at a lot of occasions and a lot of very difficult moments of falling apart and when they decided to split and the difficulties [with that] and the fights and stuff like that. And also with the operation, he was with them for three weeks in Thailand, he did film the whole process of the surgery and the recovery and the physical part. But when looking at everything — and it happens sometimes in the edit when you need to step out and look at the story and also say, “What is my film? What is the message of my film?” — it’s not about showing the process of “What does it mean to change from a man to become a woman?” It’s a story that’s about expanding the boundaries of how we can accept each other and love each other, and how families can deal with their parents going through an identity crisis and how parents educate their children in being accepting towards others. All those [other] moments dropped out because they didn’t feel as important to this process. I feel it’s also the personality of Ofir. He’s much more gentle in his way of filmmaking and not into “I have to have this crazy dramatic moment and go inside this gossipy way.”
I read it took about three years or so for the film to completely come together. Can you talk more about the development of this, in terms of getting financing and distribution?
The process took three years. Yes Doc, which is the main broadcasting documentary channel, came in the very early stage, just by hearing the story and knowing the director, so that was very helpful. Then later on we got Film Fund, but that was at a later stage. And again the people were thinking, the funds were thinking, that Galit is going to stay, and some of them were really disappointed that the film developed in the way it did. They wanted very much to end with them staying together. Which, you know, it’s quite naive in a way and too simple, and this was actually much more complicated.
I think the distribution opened up also after winning the international documentary film festival in Israel. Actually, DocAviv entered this list of 28 film festivals around the world, including Berlin and Venice, that the winning film automatically gets qualified for the U.S. Oscars in the documentary category. So our film was the first film to go into this very long list of qualifiers, but it was helping us here for getting us more funds for distribution and getting a distributor on board.
With everything that’s going on in the world, including in the U.S. with the president attacking trans rights, was there a greater impact on the film when you were shooting it? Or even now as you’re looking back on it?
Of course, very much. Coming to the states shortly after Trump’s decision to narrow down the rights, it was very important. I think the release of the film in this time is very important, more than any other time, because there’s some kind of downgrade and undervaluing in a way that is really disgusting. I think that this film in this time has much more impact, so I think there is two ways of discussion and the communication between the film and the time it’s coming out. It’s very, very important to use this period and bring this film out and talk about it and show that there’s other ways of living and accepting and that, especially now, it’s really important to be out there and to bring as many people as possible to see this film and just expand this way communication that this film is trying to bring out.
Family in Transition is now playing in select theaters in Los Angeles and New York.