When I Was a Boy, I Was a Girl, and an interview with director Ivana Todorovic

Goca raised her vibrant niece as if she were her own daughter. She works hard to make ends meet, providing for her family and boyfriend while dreaming of the day when true happiness will come into her life to stay. Although this is a common reality for many, there are still many people in today's world who would think of Goca's life as anything but normal -- all because Goca is a transvestite.

When I Was a Boy, I Was a Girl follows 39-year-old Goca over several weeks of her life in Belgrade, Serbia. As she rehearses for a show that's something of a coming out party for her, she deals with the daily challenges of being a single mother with an immature boyfriend, and the trials of being a sex worker. By the time the relationship with her boyfriend is over, and a new relationship begins for her daughter, Goca is left wondering how to make the most and best of her life regardless of society's rules. The film is a portrait as gorgeous as Goca, who always walks with her head held high.

Ivana Todorovic is a filmmaker on a mission. Her documentaries are character-driven films that inspire the viewer to make change. The Every Day Life of Roma Children From Block 71, about Roma children in Serbia; Rapresent, the heart-breaking film about Bojan, a homeless teen artist called "Rapresent"; and A Harlem Mother, a powerful film about Jean, who lost her son to gun violence and works to spare other parents of the same pain, are the highlights of Ivana's short and promising career. Despite the serious themes of her work, she's got a firecracker personality that made our chat tons of fun. Enjoy.

Celeste Ramos: I love, love, love Goca. What brought you two together?

Ivana Todorovic: Goca and three of her friends, who are also sex workers, decided they wanted to come out and tell their story to the public because people like them are completely marginalised here. So they called an NGO for advice on how to do this, and they in turn called me. At my first meeting with Goca, she said to me, "I want to become visible so I can live as invisibly as everyone else." That struck me. Goca was definitely the one person of the group who I admired the most, and it made me think about what it would be like if I had been born in the wrong body, in the wrong country. She was the right person to tell this kind of story. Had I made the film about all four of them, things probably would have gone in a more "fun" direction, but if I made it just about her, then I would get to see more of the difficulties in her life and get the whole story.

CR: And speaking of these difficulties, in the film, Goca makes several references to being afraid to go out alone at night, or worrying about whether or not people will notice something "different" about her. Was it potentially dangerous for you or her to make this film about her life?

IT: Filming her on the street as a man was normal for her. When she was going to rehearsals she would dress as a man so that she would fit in. But when I filmed her out in the street as a woman she was uncomfortable. I kept telling her "it's okay, we are together and you're safe." But it made me think about what it must be like. I never walk the streets here with a fear that someone is following me. But that scene was the only time she was worried, in the film, about being out in the street as a woman. All the other scenes we filmed in her house, in the theatre, or at her friend's houses. These are all close to where she lives. At night she can go out as a woman because her clients are nearby. Now after making the film, Goca goes out as a woman all the time! My friends call me all the time going, "oh we saw Goca, she looks beautiful!" I think there's something about giving interviews, and having done the film, that's made her more comfortable now about walking in her own shoes.

CR: What kind of reaction from the LGBTQ community did you or Goca get because of the film?

IT: We actually didn't get that much in the beginning, strangely enough. When it initially came out I was really sad, I expected this immediate impact. It was great that it got to the Berlinale, but I didn't feel like it made a lot of traction at home. We just don't have that strong enough of a community yet. I really hoped that we'd make some kind of bang, and that through the film I did my part to open some kind of a door. But it turned out that we got positive reactions from other communities. Like for example, when Goca and I went to the Sarajevo film festival, there was an NGO that wanted to help Goca make some connections so that she could speak somewhere. Now there's another NGO that contacted Goca in Belgrade, and I think they're planning some parties and giving interviews, and that's really good. There have been many small steps, and she gets calls for interviews fairly often. So I think that here, it just needs a little bit more time; I have been very impatient for a big reaction, so we'll see.

One nice thing that happened was that a famous Serbian online newspaper published an article about Goca
and the film. It received maybe forty responses, with only five or six that were negative. So it gave me an inkling that maybe things were changing a little bit in terms of the attitude or the climate about trans people. I think a great deal of the importance in this film lies with how much it shows Goca as a regular person; she's not a caricature, not an over-the-top drag queen -- just a normal person. I actually got quite a bit of flak from gay audience members, who wouldn't give me a reason for why they didn't like the film, it was just like, "we don't like it!" And I was so confused by this until a friend of mine said that they didn't like it probably because I showed Goca as a neighbour. But how could I not? That's how I feel about her, she's my neighbour. I don't see her as a freak or a queen -- she's not. This is her life, what's going on, the road she's chosen.

CR: It's interesting that trans people are so very marginalised there, considering an article I read in the New York Times about how many people go to Serbia for sex changes.

IT: It is, isn't it? You can do it here for free! There's a special hospital for it. Many people get the procedure done . And it's especially interesting when you look at how the situation is for trans people and the LGBTQ community as a whole in other parts of the Balkans. For example, we screened the film in Kosovo, and Goca and I travelled there for the screening. On the same night as our screening we saw another film that was documenting the situation for the LBGTQ community in Kosovo, and it's just terrible what's going on there. During our Q&A, Goca came out expressing how much she thought she had it bad, but this was so much worse. The Balkans are ... intense. It's a very traditional society, and since there've been so many wars and tensions there, people have a love-hate relationship with themselves in a sense, culturally. We were happy that we were safe during our travels, so I like to think positive and think that attitudes are changing in the right direction.

CR: So what's Goca been up to since the film? Has she continued with some kind of activism?

IT: Yes! She's even started up her own NGO. She's writing a theatre production, and has a couple of projects going on. In the last six months she's had many of interviews, and a few activist appearances, and it's been about taking many small steps. It's something to get the ball rolling, but she's still involved in sex work because no one pays her for her activism. I mean, no one's come out yet and said, "wow, here's Goca who has come out publicly and she's trying to make some strides forward for the LGBTQ community -- let's help her!" There's nothing moving that quickly yet. But I know it will come, especially for her, and I know the more money she earns the more she will completely change her life. I feel lucky to have met her, and I think she has such an influence over people because they can relate to her. She's so natural. Even families came up to her to take photos, and she's such a natural woman, very gracious.

CR: How did you get involved in film and examining social issues in your documentaries?

IT: I've always loved to tell stories. When I was in L.A. visiting relatives, I fell in love it. When I got back to Serbia, the war started two months later, and all of a sudden I had 18 people living in the house with us as refugees. That experience is what made the need to make documentaries click in me, to want to tell stories about things that were actually going on. Film became my way to deal with the sadness I was feeling. I started to make films also because I wanted to do something for the community. I believe we all have missions in life.

CR: What kind of impact or effects has your work had?

IT: When I made my first doc on Roma kids that were in my neighbourhood, I got to talk to activist groups and other people who wanted to help, on how to approach the issues these kids were facing. They received donations and help from many people, so I thought, wow, this is great! It's really helping to make some kind of a change in their lives, at least little by little, and I was really grateful that it started with one of my films. With my second film on Raprasent, there was a huge impact. So many people emailed me -- they couldn't believe there were people living like him, and people wanted to help homeless teens, and so on. Grafitti artists in Belgrade and in other places got together and learned from each other and formed a community. With Harlem Mother, it was beautiful to see how many people came to Jean's support, honouring her as the hero she is. We held community screenings, and listened to mothers telling their own stories about how gun violence affected them and their families. At festivals people connected with us and were happy to be made aware of what had gone on in the film.

It's just so exciting now, especially to have travelled to the Berlinale with Goca, to get her story out everywhere. We've received four awards so far, and this is great for the main topic of the film, because the more awareness there is, the better.

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Follow Ivana's work on her website, and remember, if something inspires you, get involved to make changes for the better in your life and in the lives of others. When I Was a Boy, I Was a Girl is making its New York premiere in March! Keep up with the film via Facebook here. My deepest thanks again to Ivana!

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