Director/producer Marie-Catille Mention-Schaar is no newcomer to the world of telling trans stories or motherhood on the screen. In her latest feature, “A Good Man,” she tackles the issues surrounding Benjamin, a trans man and his wife Aude as they struggle with the decision to naturally become parents and create the life and family they’ve always wanted. The film did stir up a little bit of controversy while making the festival rounds though for its casting of cis female actor and frequent collaborator Noémie Merlant. I got the chance to screen the film during the Toronto International Film Festival and had the pleasure of speaking with Mention-Schaar about the film and her work.
“Here in France, the film has just been selected for competition by the biggest LGBTQ festival and I met with the journalist who is responsible for one of the biggest LGBTQ media outlets and both of them had the same reaction — they were going to watch the film with a lot of ideas in their mind and they’ve been completely turned around after watching the film,” says Mention-Schaar. Critics of the film were upset about the casting and made a fuss on social media without having seen the film — which handles the subject matter with such sincerity and earnestness. She continues, “their position now is that they want to support the movie as much as they can because they feel it is opening so many things and is positive for their community. In France, the controversy hasn’t been that big yet — there’s been some reaction — some tweets. But what’s important for me is the dialogue.”
The film has been making the festival rounds, including Cannes and its international bow at TIFF, and gaining critical praise. “A Good Man” had its physical premiere at the Deauville American Film Festival in France. “When we did Deauville, there was a trans activist on social media who was talking about having trans actors playing trans characters. I invited him to come and talk to me — I want to work with people, I don’t want to make movies that are against people. I want us to progress together,” says Mention-Schaar. He accepted the invitation and we talked for two hours — I explained to him how you make movies — the industry, the financial aspects of filming — because I produce my own movies as well. I explained to him the difficulty I had with even meeting with trans actors in France. I wanted to meet with the ones who had the profile of my character and do screen tests. But I had a lot of trouble even getting access to them. I had one casting director, who was connected to the trans community, refuse to work with me.” Mention-Schaar was flabbergasted by this. Why after reading the script and knowing the backstory, why wouldn’t you want to find a trans actor for the part?
“When I told Gabe — the trans activist — he was so shocked that someone would not even work on the movie and forbid trans actors from doing the screen tests. That was the first thing. Secondly, when you finance a movie, I told him you need to have some elements — actors, crew, etc. I was able to finally do some screen tests with a few trans actors who had a little notoriety in France — not a lot, but a little — but we — the actor and myself — decided that the part of Benjamin was too big for them — too important based on their own experience as actors. They had the honesty of saying ‘I cannot play that.’ That meant a lot to me.” says Mention-Schaar.
The director goes on to reveal that that was the discussion that she had with trans actor Jonas Ben Ahmed who IS in the movie. “I love that guy — he’s such a smart guy who wants things to progress for his community. He kept saying ‘my job is not being trans — my job is being an actor and I want to progress with that.” She expounds on Ahmed’s sentiments by saying “if they don’t have any roles to progress to and build on their technique and experience as actors, how are they going to progress and increase their representation? Giving them only roles of trans people is not going to make them progress — let’s be honest, there’s not many roles in French movies that are trans characters. Jonas is also Arab so for him to wait to play roles that are Arab AND trans he would wait forever to have a role,” she says. All valid points.
The director is so serious about delving into her work and her stories — I guess that’s the journalist in her — that she took her research and engagement a step further. “So I talked to the activist about all of this and said that this movie is a challenge for financiers to come on board — its not a comedy or the kind of movie that is a big box office draw. They need to have something that they can count on and an actor with experience is needed so that they can commit to the film. Gabe understood that. So now we’ve talked and he’s understood a few things, so my next question to him was ‘have you seen the movie?’ which is a logical question. “He said ‘no.’ So I urged him to go see the movie and then come back to me to talk about it.
In earnest, Gabe went and screened the film. “He had the honesty of calling me and saying ‘I was so touched by the movie. I’ll always point out that a trans character should be played by a trans actor if possible — but this movie is so much more than this controversy.” Now one of the film’s most vocal early critics is a supporter. Oftentimes, critics can jump on a “controversy” surrounding a film without ever seeing it, much like folks did with Netflix’s French film “Cuties” earlier this year. “That’s what I want to do — I make movies for people — to help the general public to suddenly understand. The film is much more than just being about trans identity — its about the desire and the right for any person in this world to become a parent,” says Mention-Schaar. In the film, Benjamin and Aude are just a basic “normal” loving couple who want to start a family but face lots of obstacles. “If it touches the general audience and illuminates the fact that it’s simple — that desire. Viewers understand the pain of a woman who cannot have a child and the courage and proof of love of this man has for his lover and what he’s willing to sacrifice. They come out of the film saying ‘what’s the problem?’ I still want to expose the issues facing the trans community — because there are a lot — especially in France. I want to defend a lot of things with the film but overall I just want everybody to progress” — an honorable mission.
When asked about what drew her to this film and how she was able to make the story authentic yet universal at the same time she says “I participated in the production of a documentary called “Coby”. An assistant director of mine directed it and it’s about his brother Jacob who was trans. In the doc, Jacob has this incredible conversation with his older brother and he lived with a woman who was terrified of the idea of pregnancy.” She goes on, “but they both wanted to become parents. Jacob was at the point of his transition where he was going to do his hysterectomy and he had this huge dilemma because he wanted to become a father and have a child with Sarah, but he was also going to go through with the hysterectomy.”
“If they wanted to have a child in the most natural way, he was the only one who could carry their child. In the end he didn’t — he had the hysterectomy and they didn’t have a child together.” Sadly, Jacob died a year ago and the film is actually dedicated to Jacob. The director reveals that “when he had that conversation with his brother, that was the first time I was hearing this kind of conversation and it really made me question myself as a woman…a mother…a parent. The dilemma that he was having was so humanly incredible. So I talked to Jacob a lot about the decision he had to make and I started documenting other men who had taken that step — like Thomas Beatie.”
Beatie was the first trans man to carry a child publicly in the media. “I started reading a lot of testimonials of trans men who had carried their children. Then I started writing the screenplay with Christian [Sonderegger] who did the documentary. It was that story — it raised a lot of universal questions about what it is to be a parent and how it’s such an intimate thing — wanting to be a father or mother — touches so many people. It was like spreading something that was very important at such a time when in France we are having so many debates about the PMA and GPA [the controversial bioethics bill which aims in part to extend medically assisted reproduction to lesbian couples and single women] where people are saying ‘its wrong…its right.’ But it really just comes down to something so simple — the right to be a parent,” says the director. She continues, “the decision to become a mother — or not become one — is an often talked about and discussed thing — I even talked about that in my last movie, ‘All About Mothers.’ We all have different feelings about that.”
As we continued to talk about the issues confronting trans parents, the thoughtfulness and research that Mention-Schaar put into her project comes to the forefront. “There are very few cases in France — unlike in the States where people will share their journey as a trans parent on social media so that others will have the courage to go through it — that doesn’t exist in France. I know some trans men have given birth in the past few years, but its not in the media — people don’t talk about it about they’re afraid of how they will be judged or looked at. The PMA (Medical Assistance Procreation) was passed last year but it still creates a lot of controversy. There were some questions about trans people but they said that they weren’t going to talk about that now. Its still taboo to see a man carrying a child. But when you think about it, its not that big of a deal — in my opinion. And I hope that the movie will help show that. France has opened up a lot to a certain extent — we’re progressing — there will always be some people against, always. Just look at abortion. Some people will always be against, but not the majority.” We can only hope that the world becomes more understanding.
“I worked on the script a lot and had a lot of consultation from those with experience with the situation. I watched a lot of documentaries and I also asked Noémie [who plays Benjamin in the film] to do the same so she could infuse a lot of what she had seen into her character. Those little details stayed in my head so that I knew how to direct based on everything I had seen…heard…felt so that I could stay sincere. The scene where Benjamin gives birth to their child really stuck with me. Watching Thomas Beatie going through it really influenced the way I directed that scene. The way he breathed — the way he gave birth — really inspired me” and that influence is really felt on the screen.
The director goes on to talk about the impact of these types of situations on the cis gendered partner and the strain it places on couples’ relationships. “Transitioning takes up so much space — all of your life. Someone who is with you has to be able to cope with that. Having a companion who stays with you through the whole process is a blessing because everything revolves around that person making the transition. So the pregnancy just ramps that up even more,” she say. She continues, “the companion can start to feel a little left out — and even more so when you don’t have that physical link to the child. The character of Aude personified that. She had to find her place. Maybe its the same for parents who adopt? It’s so intimate and each person has a different way of reacting to and appreciating all that. Aude had to go through all those emotions and questions to find her place as the mother of the child to be.” Actress Soko, who plays Aude in the film, delivered such a nuanced performance that really captured the emotional rollercoaster that this decision can be.
“A Good Man” really shines a light on the plight of trans couples trying to naturally start a family. When asked if she had any inclination that she was making something so important, she quickly responds, “No, I never feel like what I do is ever going to be really important,” with a chuckle. “What’s important to me is the credibility of what I do — the sincerity — that’s what matters to me in any of my films. If the audience feels the character and the story is sincere then they will get something out of it — that’s what’s important to me. That’s what I focus on. If for one second it didn’t feel credible or sincere, I would not have put the movie out — it’s too important to not be rigorous all the way.” The cast and crew definitely succeeded in translating that sincerity on the screen. The characters were relatable and the actors gave such emotional and moving performances which really made the film all the more universal.
Mention-Schaar started her career as a journalist — does she feel like that influences her work in any way? “Definitely. Its true that for some reason I’m always attracted to ‘real’ stories. I love documenting myself and meeting people and interviewing them — I spend a lot of time doing that on all my movies,” she says. And that’s clearly evident with “A Good Man” and her other works. “So I guess that comes over from my time as a journalist — even though I was very frustrated at as journalist. I started in France, but then moved to Los Angeles. I wanted to be an investigative journalist and in LA people very quickly made me understand that that was not very interesting — what was interesting was doing interviews with celebrities and movie stars and talking about the film industry,” she recalls with a tinge of disappointment and disdain. “I ended up doing that which was very frustrating for me. So I guess in doing movies I caught up and was able to do what I couldn’t do as a journalist maybe,” she laughs.
As we finished up our conversation, Mention-Schaar reflects on the the legacy she wants to leave behind with her work and what she wants viewers to take away. “A sense of how we can know each other better — live with each other better. Not being afraid of what’s different from us — in the end we are very similar in a lot of ways. I think we show too much of what makes us different and not enough of what makes us similar. If my films can contribute to that, that’s great.” Quite a fine legacy to leave behind and so far, she’s on the right track.
I would like to thank Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar for taking the time to talk with us. “A Good Man” scheduled for a 2021 release.