Remember the days when Indy's Heartland International Film Festival wasn't quite international and could be caught screening such epic cinema as an Air Buddies flick?
Those days are gone.
Hey, listen. I've loved the Heartland International Film Festival for years. It's in its 27th year and continues to offer up some of the nation's largest cash prizes for a film festival, yet for well over half its life it danced dangerously close to being the Hallmark Channel of film festivals.
Okay, I'll confess. I watch the Hallmark Channel.
But, I digress.
Fortunately, the Heartland International Film Festival has grown over the past few years and those godawful Air Buddies flicks have given way to some of the world's most acclaimed cinema as Heartland's international reputation has finally caught up with its top notch prize packages and fierce loyalty among filmmakers. Heartland has really grown into what it means to be a Heartland film and this selection, Man Made, is a perfect example of a Heartland film that may not attract Heartland's old school fans yet will certainly have its devotees amongst the new wave of Heartland moviegoers who can appreciate thoughtful, intelligent and challenging cinema that still lives into the Heartland world of truly moving pictures.
Directed by T Cooper, Man Made takes the audience into the world of transgender male (FTM) culture by following four trans men as they prepare for FitCon, the only all-transgender bodybuilding competition in the world that is held in Atlanta Georgia.
Cooper himself, also born and raised female, has directed an involving, character-driven feature doc that intimately and honestly explores truths, expected and unexpected, about gender, masculinity, humanity and love. It's a film that celebrates its subjects, yet does so rather matter-of-factly rather than in the usual sensationalized way we're so used to seeing in films such as this one. Cooper clearly understands and has created a safe space for his subjects in the film to reveal themselves authentically and with tremendous heart.
Rese is a young father who has struggled with periods of homelessness, having just been kicked out of his mother's home when the film begins and simultaneously seeking stability in his life and still preparing for his involvement with FitCon. Watching Rese's life blossom alongside his committed work toward the competition is nothing short of joyous.
Dominic is a rapper from the St. Paul area with a fiance' who supports his decision to undergo a double mastectomy, which Cooper captures quite honestly and respectfully. Dominic wants to track down his biological mother in an effort to learn the truth about his ethnicity, yet despite this uncertainty his presence is one of the film's most assured as he embraces the physicality of bodybuilding and competing at FitCon.
Mason poignantly shares about his journey through the suicidal ideation so common for those wanting to transition, yet has embraced the discipline of fitness. Married to the woman who left him when he started transitioning, Mason's journey is rather revelatory in that it's abundantly clear that he and his wife simply realized they needed to be together. Yet, still, Mason has never actually been naked in front of his wife.
Kennie is just getting ready to transition, a transition his lesbian girlfriend supports yet a transition it is believed will likely end their relationship. As the transition nears, the strains within their relationship begin to show.
Cooper gives each of these four men enough screen time that we get to know them, understand their life stories and become involved in their hopes and dreams. The competition, as well, feels less like a ruthless competition and more like a victory lap of sorts where these men, along with a handful of others, can peacefully exist being the people they were always meant to be.
An Official Selection of the 2018 Heartland Film Festival, Man Made has been picked up by indie distributor Journeyman Pictures and releases worldwide on VOD platforms on Thursday, November 7th, 2019.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic