I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about Canadian women filmmakers lately, and their experiences in the Canadian film industry. As part of my future graduate studies in cinema, I want to analyze films made by a diverse range of Canadian women/femmes – what do their films look like? Is it difficult to get them made? What is the critical reception? How have female filmmakers changed their approaches to cinema over the years?
Chelsea McMullan’s My Prairie Home (2013) is a layered and beautiful look at the life and career of transgender musician Rae Spoon. This is a film about the Canadian prairies, about being gender neutral, about music and family and living in liminal spaces. The film opens with upside-down tracking shots of the deep blue sky and the vast fields of the Canadian prairies. Tracking shots dominate the film, highlighting the importance of nature and the Prairies to Rae Spoon’s life, as well as their love for travelling, especially alone on Greyhound buses. Spoon notes that travelling alone puts one in an in-between state: you are not where you came from, and you are not yet where you are going. It is a contemplative and meditative experience for the deeply introspective Spoon, although it sometimes gets lonely.
In her review for NOW Toronto, Carla Gillis notes that the opening song, “Cowboy” is played by Spoon in a Calgary diner, populated by older people and truckers – people who look at Spoon with curiosity, judgement, and possible confusion. At one point, Spoon stops walking through the diner and stands between the doors to the two washrooms: the male side is painted electric blue, and the female side is a bright pink. Spoon occupies a middle space, not conforming to either “traditional” gender identity, here represented by paint colours.
McMullan’s film is particularly special because it is both a documentary and a musical. Spoon talks about experiences from their life, such as their Pentecostal upbringing and their abusive and mentally ill father. Some of Spoon’s experiences are dramatized onscreen – at one point, children’s toys illustrate Spoon’s experience of going to a religious stadium event in Calgary, filmed in the blurry style of a 90s home video. Every so often, the film turns into a music video for one of Spoon’s sparse, beautifully melodic songs. In Gillis’ review, she quotes Chelsea McMullan as saying: “When we began collaborating and they slowly opened up and told me their story, I realized their history is all in their music. Rae carefully wraps secrets in their melodic voice”. Some of Spoon’s experiences are incredibly painful, but they note that music became an important and vital way that they could communicate and connect with other people. Music executives have often told Spoon that they are not “marketable” – this thinly-veiled transphobia has made it difficult for Spoon to get funding for their music videos, but McMullan remedies this with her film, allowing Spoon to perform many of their songs onscreen.
Spoon recounts being a young person and identifying as a lesbian, and then moving to Vancouver and meeting trans people for their first time – where they began playing country music and identifying as male. In one scene, Spoon sits on a hotel bed and tells the camera that people think gender neutrality doesn’t exist. They often feel like a ghost, due to the fact that people don’t even think their gender identity is real even though they are flesh-and-blood proof that it does, and they accurately point out that “gender is stupid”. It was alienating and sometimes terrifying for Spoon to identify as queer and trans in an extremely religious household in the middle of the Prairies. Spoon notes that they feel their gender is their “fault”, and their responsibility to tell people about it. This is such an important point: it is really nobody’s business what your gender is, yet all the time, trans/queer/gender fluid/neutral people feel they need to explain themselves, because that’s all people ever ask them about. It is nobody’s business what bathroom you want to use, but people ask about it. People ask about surgery, sexual partners, and reproductive organs – extremely personal aspects of one’s life. Spoon says they use whatever bathroom they want, whichever one feels safest (usually the women’s).
Spoon felt conflicted about their gender and sexuality, especially in the Christian household they grew up in. They were taught that gay people would not be saved when the rapture eventually happened, and Spoon felt they had made a conscious decision to not be “saved”, simply by living their life. Their father was also mentally ill – which could have been manageable, says Spoon, had he not been so abusive towards them. Spoon recounts the fear they feel towards their father, while McMullan focuses her camera on various fragments of a large cowboy statue. Spoon’s father represents a terrifying, looming threat, and they always fear he will show up at one of their concerts, as they get more well-known (at a show in Saskatchewan, their father apparently does show up, but they do not interact). Spoon bravely talks about their experiences with abuse, and the psychological toll it takes on them to constantly be looking out for him.
As I previously mentioned, the Prairies are so important to Spoon. It is where they grew up, and it is their home and where their history is. Spoon references various reviews of their music in which it is described as “sparse” – an influence of the vast, flat lands they grew up on. The music is sparse, but also deeply layered and very personal. For example, in the song “Sunday Dress”, Spoon sings about having a poster of Kurt Cobain in a wedding dress in their bedroom – an important symbol of gender fluidity. McMullan includes many wide, long shots, with the sky taking up most of the frame, and a focal point towards the bottom. She gives us a sense of what it looks like to be in western Canada, on the Prairies. At one point, Spoon sings in the Royal Tyrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta, against the backdrop of dinosaur bones.
Spoon shares experiences from high school, and what it was like to be in a queer couple in a closed-minded community. Spoon met their ex-girlfriend in class, when their ex noticed that Spoon looked like Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club – very cool and mysterious. They became close friends, and Spoon opened up to their ex about their queerness, as well as their father’s abuse and mental illness. The couple never got to attend their prom, as a result of the hateful experiences they had with their classmates. The couple felt fearful of being in public together, as they would attract negative and completely unwanted attention. Spoon wrote a song for their ex, and plays it for her in the movie. They sit on the school stairwell, looking as youthful as they did in high school, and then dance at a staged prom, to make up for their lost experience. This is a very sweet moment, one of hope, friendship, and nostalgia.
Towards the end of the film, Spoon talks about their concept of home, and what they think about when they feel homesick. Home for Spoon is the icy blue light inside of the Athabasca Glacier. It is a specific, beautiful, comforting place. McMullan includes stunning shots of the Glacier, as well as the snow, Rocky Mountains, and caribou. She films Spoon standing in a small space, looking up at the sun shining through the ice, bathing them in the blue glow that they call home. This scene is scored by airy, sparse, floating music, and then Spoon singing “Amy Grant” – a song in which they sing “I wish I’d heard of Freddy Mercury while he was still alive/I would’ve switched sides”. In the final shots, we see Spoon quietly walking through the snow on a mountain. Spoon is home. Spoon is in their happy place, in nature, in Alberta.
McMullan’s film is hopeful and poetic, and she has stated that while she did not intend for the film to be explicitly political, it would please her if the film educated people about the fluidity of gender and sexuality. Spoon shares incredibly personal details, both in their songs and in their voice-overs and interviews. We see people who love Spoon – their ex-girlfriend, and the audiences who dance and smile along with their music. Spoon’s story represents a very specific Canadian experience, and the film shows us their good nature, talent, and bravery in the face of a sometimes harsh and painful world.