Over the last decade, documentaries examining a movement in progress are among the most riveting to observe. “CitizenFour,” “Icarus” and “The Case Against 8” are all examples of this kind of documentary, even as they discuss radically different subjects. “TransMilitary” falls in this mold, as directors Gabe Silverman and Fiona Dawson examine four transgender soldiers fighting to end the ban against transgender individuals who wish to serve in the military. The individuals that “TransMilitary” follows are far from your average soldiers. They are West Point graduates, Captains who deal in secret intelligence, soldiers in Afghanistan and Army Nurses. Through their incredible stories, Silverman and Dawson paint a portrait of compassion and sincere love for those who wish to protect our country, even as forces attempt to take that right away.
The focus of the film is on individuals united by SPART*A (Service Members. Partners. Allies for Respect and Tolerance for All). When the film begins in 2014, a ban remains in place to stop Transgender individuals from serving in the military. Despite this, the U.S. Armed forces is the largest employer of transgender individuals in America. Over 15,000 active soldiers identifying as transgender. However, even though so many serve, they can be instantly discharged if those around them file complaints, as the ban means they are not allowed to serve. The hypocrisy is obvious, allowing many to risk their lives even as they fear for their lives and jobs.
The film follows four soldiers that serve as the heart and soul of the film. As we journey through their stories, you connect and become empathetic for them at every moment. Cpl. Laila Villanueva is a nurse in the Army, forced to slick back her hair because her command does not recognize her as a woman. She’s frustrated after years of fighting, leaving her unable to continue in the line of duty. Her fiancée (by the end of the film husband) is Staff Sergeant Logan Ireland, a senior airman who drives Humvees in Afghanistan. He is respected by his peers, and when the documentary opens, is actively serving overseas. Sadly, he is considering extending his tour, solely because he feels more at home in a war-torn country, then in America.
Captain El Cook is a black man that grew up as the daughter of a pastor. He attended West Point and has one of the brightest futures of any serviceman. Yet he is forced to keep his hair long. Some superiors will force him to adhere to a woman’s dress code. Finally, Captain Jennifer Peace fights to support her family. She has 3 children with her wife but fears retribution. She has consistently earned glowing reviews, works in secret intelligence, and eventual trains new recruits.
During the film’s four year story, progress is made. We see allies emerge from within the armed forces, including Ireland’s commanding officers who let him dress in male blues. Captain Peace can sleep in the woman’s barracks. El cuts his hair. These seemingly small moments allow the audience experience real emotion. They may feel commonplace to us, but through the experiences of the soldiers, you understand the importance of each moment. Perhaps most intriguing is the juxtaposition of Ireland and Villanueva, who receive opposite reactions from their command. Ireland’s command is exceptionally open and gives him the tools to succeed. Villanueva is torn down, eventually leaving the military with a medical discharge so that she can retire with benefits. It’s an extraordinary dynamic that Silverman and Dawson explore with care.
In addition to telling an emotional story, the film is exceptionally well-made. The graphics used throughout the film drive arguments home. The information they reveal is shocking, enraging, and informative all at once. Rather than throw names at a wall, the structure of the US military is displayed as SPART*A meets with new representatives. The film is also aware of upcoming issues, such as the “Bathroom Bill” and Donald Trump’s ban. To use these to their optimum effectiveness, the film sprinkles these moments throughout. This builds the impending hammer stroke on the horizon. Even when you are happy that progress is made, you know regression is on the horizon. This powerful editing that really drives home the message.
Finally, the thing that each audience member will take from their showing will be the love and support these troops get. Each parent tells their story about when their child began transitioning. Each friend genuinely cares for their fellow soldiers. Sometimes we follow El and his friends to the club. Other times, Ireland is singing karaoke in Afganistan. Villanueva’s parents discuss their struggle to accept her transition until they believe she had been killed-in-action. Peace did not begin to transition until her wife was already pregnant with their first child, making her wife unsure about their future. Through showing these moments with both friend and family, we begin to understand the soldiers more as people. This is the most powerful tool the film uses to make the film have real stakes.
Overall, “TransMilitary” is a highlight of the documentary feature race this year. It is undeniably going to be one of the best documentaries of the year and has already become more relevant since its release. Regardless of when you see this film, the snapshot of these soldiers succeeding and thriving will warm your heart. As El says in the film “trans people are not a monolith.” Perhaps no film in 2018 will show you a more diverse, but heartwarming group of people to root for. It is truly one of the best films of 2018.