Documentary filmmaker Shaleece Haas has made several acclaimed shorts, worked as an editorial photographer and radio producer, and was a founding staff member of the national oral history project StoryCorps. All those paths led to her intimate feature film debut, Real Boy [which premieres on Independent Lens Monday, June 19 at 10pm; check local listings], a coming of age story of a transgender teen, Bennett, and his mother’s struggle to understand her child’s identity.

“Bennett finds his voice in more ways than one in this heartwarming tale of mentorship and chosen families,” says NBC News. “It’s so valuable for anyone to see this film,” adds WXXI‘s Evan Dawson.

Shaleece talked to us about finding the story in Real Boy, what she hopes audiences will come away with from this timely portrait of a family’s evolution, and how “family” is defined for the LGBTQ community.

How did you first hear about Bennett’s story, and was he always going to be the focus or did you have other subjects in play?

I met Bennett through Joe Stevens. I was a fan of Coyote Grace, Joe’s band, and when I first met Bennett he was performing at a house concert where Joe was playing. I really loved Bennett’s music, and I was interested in the friendship that was forming between Bennett and Joe. I’m especially interested in the way we build families within the LGBT community; we have a long history of chosen families.

Initially, the film was going to be much more of a buddy road film featuring Bennett and Joe, but then I met Bennett’s mom Suzy, and could see that she was at the beginning of a really important journey, too. The film at its heart explores the intersection of given family and chosen family

How did you gain the trust of Bennett, his mom, and the others in the film?

We spent a lot of time together during nearly four years of filming—with and without the camera. We all genuinely like each other, which made it easier to build the trust required to make such an intimate film. I believe that filmmakers are always present in their films, whether or not the audience ever sees their face or hears their voice. Audiences often tell me they feel a deep sense of connection with Bennett, Suzy, Joe, and Dylan, and I think our close relationships off-camera make that possible.

Suzy and Bennett when he was a child, from Real Boy
Family photo of Suzy and Bennett when he was a child

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making this film?

Real Boy is the first feature-length documentary I’ve directed. So at each stage of the process, I had a steep learning curve. Learning to trust my choices, my skills, and my instincts was a big part of the journey for me. I became a director by just going about the work of directing. I also grappled with questions about representation, and how to best balance my personal and professional relationships with the people in the film.

So what conversations would you like viewers to have after they see Real Boy, or one thing you’d want people at home to take away from it?

I want people to go home after the film and call their mothers [laughs]… because the film is so much about parenting and moms and family, you know? The truth is this is a hard question to answer. What people take away from the film is so connected to who they are and what their own experiences have been. For some people who have had similar experiences to Suzy and Bennett, and Joe, it’s very gratifying to know they leave feeling they’ve seen some of their own experiences reflected on screen. Which is not to say that all trans people have experiences just like Bennett’s. But many of the things he deals with in the film seem to resonate for a wide range of people.

At various screenings around the world, people who are not trans, don’t have trans kids, and may not be part of LGBT community, have come up to us and said: “This story really resonates with me, I really related to the mother, or Bennett and his friendship with Dylan, I really related to the way Bennett was just trying to be seen and understood.” The goal for me is not necessarily to educate or raise awareness, it’s not even about building “empathy” for the characters, it’s about inviting people deep enough into [these characters’] lives, to allow the audience to feel some kind of identification.

In recent years, transgender people have increasingly entered the public consciousness, from Caitlyn Jenner to Laverne Cox on Orange Is the New Black. Did you feel pressure to make Real Boy representative of “all trans” people?

Not at all. But I have very complicated feelings about “representation.”

There’s no doubt we need more diverse representation of trans people in media. But until there’s a time when film festivals and broadcasters and distributors stop saying, “Well, we already have our one trans film, we don’t need anymore,” it will continue to be difficult for audiences outside the trans community not to generalize based on a single story they’ve seen.

While visibility is important, it’s not everything. Visibility does not solve the problem of homophobia and transphobia, of all the various forms of hatred; representation alone is not enough. Even though we have more trans characters on television than ever before, and many of them are nuanced, complex and realistic portrayals, we are still seeing the highest murder of trans women of color.  We are still seeing transgender youths made to feel like pariahs in their schools. We still haven’t ensured basic rights and protections for trans people.

As a filmmaker, I tell stories, and I believe deeply that stories are powerful. But alongside storytelling, we need to be working to create safe, inclusive spaces for people of all genders—in our schools, communities, and institutions.

Was there a scene where it was almost too painful or personal for the family and they wanted you to stop filming for awhile?

There were definitely times with Suzy where she’d say, “that’s enough, I need some private time.” It wasn’t always in the middle of something difficult; it was mostly that she had a cap as to how long I could subject her to filming. But in general, I am so grateful to everyone who believed in [the film] enough to allow me in, even at times that were difficult.

What didn’t make the cut?

A moment of connection between Bennett’s mom, Suzy, and Bennett’s mentor, Joe. After a benefit concert where Joe and his band raise money for Bennett’s top surgery (and Suzy is still debating whether she’ll travel across the country to take care of Bennett while he recovers), Suzy thanks Joe for “stepping in” to support her son when she couldn’t. I remember getting goosebumps in that moment of filming, knowing something was about to shift for Suzy. And it did — in real life and in the film. The film still flows without this scene, but I wish we’d been able to include it in the final [broadcast] cut.