Kimberly Reed’s documentary, Prodigal Sons, has been a long time in the making. Growing up life seemed so perfect. She was born as Paul McKerrow, the high school quarterback, one of the most popular guys in school. But inside, Paul felt conflicted about his gender identity. So after high school, he moved to San Francisco and experimented with living as a woman, before making the full transition to life as a woman. This change served as a major aggravation to her brother Marc, who struggled for years as the adopted son. Marc’s resulting mental instability from a brain injury at 21 only exasperated his idealization of the past and Paul’s life from twenty-five years ago.
Living as a successful editor and filmmaker in S.F. and New York, she returned to her hometown of Helena, MT for her high school reunion, and a re-connection with Marc. The film is intense, raw, and gives the audience an open intimacy into the lives of Marc and Kimberly, and finding that they have more in common than they originally thought. Prodigal Sons opens Friday, February 26 in NYC.
How did you come to recording your journey and making a narrative comparing yours and your brother’s lives?
I had recently transitioned, this is probably about sixteen or seventeen years ago, I’m walking down the street in San Francisco, and I see somebody who I used to work with. And I went up and had that sort of shocking thing of like, “Hey, it’s me,” not wanting to be nosy. And it was a dear friend, his name was Bob Hawk, we worked at Film Arts Foundation in San Francisco, supporting independent film and artists. And we’ve been in touch ever since then; he’s an executive producer on the film. But a couple of weeks after that, he kept saying, “you have to make a film about this.” And at the time, I was like “No, no, I’m not going to talk about this, this is not going to happen.” But both of us knew there was going to be a time when it was going to happen. So fast-forward to 2005, when I finally get up the nerve to go to my high school reunion, he was the first person I called. So in a lot of ways, the journey to make this film goes back there. In other ways, the journey to make this film starts with that decision to go to the high school reunion, which I think triggered a lot of other things.
How did people in your family adapt to being filmed? Did they request that somethings not be filmed?
Well, first of all, my dad was always shooting, so I think everyone was already used to the camera. I took on that mantle, and I was always shooting family gatherings, which I think was my way of assessing a lot of that stuff. I was more comfortable behind the camera. But also I think it was just how I processed the world, when I would get upset or melancholy, I would go out and shoot films, that’s what I would always do. The family was always used to me running around with a camera so at the reunion when we were going to shoot it, it was like, “OK.” I never had to convince anyone. I’m really lucky that I have a family that’s very trusting. The D.P., John Keitel was good at sinking into the scene and disappearing, he’s a vérité shooter, and that really helped a lot.
I was really struck when you said that your brother wanted the identity that you were trying to be rid of. Do you think that his short-term memory loss emphasized the past much more?
I think so. He’s not building new memories, because he has short-term memory loss, so in a lot of ways, he’s much more comfortable holding onto the past. And of course, the irony is that it’s the past I want to get rid of.
Why do you think Marc kept bringing up your male past it seems as if he didn’t want to let you forget it?
There’s also this thing that, “If he idealizes this person that I used to be,” which I think a lot of people did, and then I turn on my back on that, saying “I don’t want to be any part of that, that’s not important to me,” people see that as an affront, or an insult. And if you’re aspiring to anything and what somebody says it’s not worth aspiring to, it messes with your head.
Were you and Marc able to find a parallel experience in both having mixed identities?
I think so. I think in a lot of ways – both Mark and I are kind of outcasts, me because of my gender and Marc because of his head injury and mental illness and being adopted. We’re both kind of outsiders, and I think we can relate to each other because of that. The reason that I hesitate to use that word is because if you watch the film, it’s not too long before you’re in a position when, instead of thinking, “Whoa, I’m seeing the point of view from this outsider,” you kind of forget about that, you’re kind of along for the ride. And it’s important for me to have audiences be in the position of the outsider, and then kind of forget that they’re the outsider. You can create a lot of compassion for people that you never imagined you would seeing the world through their eyes.
You had said that you had changed your social security number, driver’s license, and all government traces of being Paul. What was that experience like, of completing changing not only your personal identity but your government identity as well?
That stuff is such a drag. It’s hard enough to do it on a personal level, but to have this whole legal apparatus that you have to work through is just discouraging. And it doesn’t have to be as hard as it is. There’s a lot of situations with passports and I.D.s where it’s assumed that you’re going to be treated like a felon. On the other hand, it is very important, and it’s a symbolic transformation, you’re very excited when that first I.D. shows up in the mail, they got the name right, they got the gender right, all of that. It can be very exciting, too.
Your mother has this incredible strength that I truly admired. She’s accepted you as her daughter, she did not indulge Marc when he got angry, and recently she’s had to be the sole parent. Can you talk more about her?
She’s amazing. Sometimes people look at my transition and say, “wow, that was hard,” or “that took a lot of courage.” I think that having the example of my mother helped me through a lot of that. Just making this film was a really hard thing, putting that story out there. But my mom has been great and she’s been nothing but 100% supportive the entire time. I really felt with the film, it shows some really difficult moments with our family falling apart in some ways. It gets built back up but you just wonder, what is going to happen here? Of course as a filmmaker, as a family member, I was very concerned about if it was it okay for me to depict our family coming apart at the seams. The two things that really motivated me are, one, Marc wanted his story told. It’s part of him, it’s really difficult, he has a lot of challenges, but he wants that story told. The other thing is that I knew that if I could keep the camera rolling, that even if there were really difficult and challenging periods, that if we stuck with it, the love in my family would show. And not this sort of simple, Disney Hallmark love, but the love that is really hard. And that’s the love that really goes on with families. It’s really hard, but you have to go on and buck up and have a lot of faith in your family members. And I think my mom embodies that for me. And my dad was incredible in that respect as well.
Melissa Silvestri is an assistant editor at Filmmaker Magazine, who has written for IONCinema, Venus, and The Village Voice. Her film blog can be found at http://blackmaryfilmzine.blogspot.com.