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A documentary about hatred and homophobia in the heartland of America, focussing on the last few weeks of Brandon Teena’s life in a small town in Nebraska. When 20 year old Brandon arrived in rural Nebraska 1993, his handsome looks and boyish charm won him several friends and a pretty young girlfriend. Brandon was brutally raped and beaten by two of his friends who became enraged when they found out that Brandon was a woman passing as a guy. Shortly after, the same men murdered Brandon along with two of his friends. All were shot twice at a close range and Brandon was stabbed several times as well.
Brandon Teena was a "good kisser'' and "knew how to treat a woman,'' we are told, and even after Brandon's secret was revealed--"he'' was a biological female born Teena Brandon--there is a certain wistfulness in the memories of her girlfriends. None of the women who dated Brandon seem particularly angry about the deception, and after we've spent some time in the world where they all lived, we begin to understand why: Most of the biological men in "The Brandon Teena Story'' are crippled by a vast, stultifying ignorance. No wonder a girl liked a date who sent her flowers and little love notes. Consider, for example, the sheriff in the rural area where Brandon Teena and two bystanders were shot dead. We hear his words on tape as he interviews Brandon, who was raped by those who would commit the murders a few days later. To hear the interrogation is to hear words shaped by prejudice, hatred, deep sexual incomprehension and ignorance. I cannot quote most of what the sheriff says--his words are too cruel and graphic--but consider that he is interviewing not a rapist but a victim, and you will get some notion of the atmosphere in some corners of the remote Nebraska district where the murders occurred.
The sheriff did not like it one bit that a woman was pretending to be a man. There is the hint that a woman who behaves like this deserves whatever she gets; that it is natural for a red-blooded man to resent any poaching on his phallic preserve. The tapes also preserve the voice of Brandon, who was 20 or 21 at the time, and sounds very young, insecure and confused. "I have a sexual identity crisis,'' we hear at one point.
The documentary includes photos of Brandon, or Teena, at various ages, and although the clothing gradually becomes masculine and the haircut gets shorter, I must say that I never really felt I was looking at a man. Perhaps the deception would have worked only in a rural and small-town world far removed from the idea of gender transitions. The two men who were convicted of the murders were apparently deceived; they considered Brandon a friend, before growing suspicious and brutally stripping their victim of her clothes and, apparently, virginity.
But what about the women Brandon dated? Their testimony remains vague and affectionate. They were not lesbians (and neither was Brandon--who firmly adopted a male identity), but they were responsive to tenderness and caring and "good kissing.'' One woman in the film dated one of the murderers as well as Brandon; given a choice between the narrow-minded dimness of the man and the imagination of someone prepared to cross gender lines, the more attractive choice was obviously Brandon.
The film itself is not slick and accomplished. It plays at times like home video footage, edited together on someone's computer. There are awkward passages of inappropriate music, and repeated shots of the barren winter landscape. Oddly enough, this is an effective style for this material; it captures the banality of the world in which individuality is seen as a threat. The testimony in the film is often flat and colorless (the killers are maddeningly passive and detached). Even the hero, Brandon Teena, was only slowly coming to an understanding of identity and sexuality.
Watching the film, I realized something. It is fashionable to deride TV shows like "Jerry Springer'' for their sensational guests ("My boyfriend is really a girl!''). But as I watched "The Brandon Teena Story,'' I realized that Brandon lived in a world of extremely limited sexual information, among people who assumed that men are men and women are women, and any violation of that rule calls for the death penalty. To the degree that they have absorbed anything at all from church or society, it is that homosexuals are to be hated. If tabloid TV contains the message that everyone has to make his or her own accommodation with life, sex and self-image, then it's performing a service. It helps people get used to the idea that some people are different. With a little luck, Jerry Springer might have saved Brandon Teena's life.
The young women whom Brandon Teena dated all agree about one thing. Brandon, a fresh-faced 21-year-old Nebraskan who was raped and beaten by two acquaintances on Christmas Eve in 1993, then shot to death with two others by the same pair a week later, knew how to treat a woman. He was courtly and sent flowers and was an excellent kisser. Growing up, the star he most idolized was Cher.
Even after Brandon's girlfriend, Lana Tisdel, discovered he was really a woman (he was born Teena Brandon) undergoing hormone therapy in anticipation of a possible sex change operation, she did not recoil in horror. But in the eyes of Brandon's male friends, Thomas Nissen and John Lotter, two shiftless young men from the rural Nebraska town of Falls City, to which he had just moved from Lincoln, once they discovered his sex, he became a freak. They felt at once betrayed and sickened.
''The Brandon Teena Story,'' Susan Muska and Greta Olafsdottir's riveting, understated documentary, bends over backward not to sensationalize a murder case that encapsulates the deep-seated fears about gender and alternative sexuality harbored by millions of Americans, especially those living in the heartland. Falls City, an economically depressed small town with an all-white population of just under 5,000, epitomizes that sprawling rural and semi-rural section of the United States that might be described as the Land of the Pickup Truck.
Those who live and work here may have heard of gay liberation, but they've never met an uncloseted gay or transgendered person and have no desire to do so. Although Falls City prides itself on being a close-knit, God-fearing community, we learn that it has a high rate of domestic violence. You can sense these ominous undercurrents during a scene at a local demolition derby where all the men are toting guns.
The film methodically interviews the surviving principals, including the killers, both of whom were convicted of first-degree murder and are now in prison, one of them (Mr. Lotter) on death row. We meet Brandon's parents, who talk sympathetically about their dead child's troubled life. Brandon had suicidal tendencies, and having no other means of support, eked out a living by forging checks.
When we first meet the killers, who are interviewed separately, they seem nice enough, although we later learn that each had already served time in prison. As they recall their early friendship with Brandon, it's obvious that they liked him and were fooled by his sexual charade. What's so unnerving about the movie, which opens today at the Film Forum, is how unemotional most of their recollections are. Their voices are as flat and uninflected as the austere Nebraskan landscape.
The film's most casually horrifying note is sounded by the sheriff in charge of the rape case, who offhandedly refers to the victim as ''it.'' Because of his failure to prosecute the rape case vigorously, Mr. Nissen and Mr. Lotter were free to track Brandon down at a farmhouse on New Year's Eve and kill Brandon and his companions, 24-year-old Lisa Lambert and her friend Philip Devine, a visitor who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.
The grisly details of the murders are reconstructed through audio recordings made during Mr. Nissen's 1995 murder trial. Mr. Nissen, in exchange for testifying against Mr. Lotter, was spared the death penalty but sentenced to three consecutive life terms. Mr. Lotter's appeals are awaiting review by the United States Supreme Court.
''The Brandon Teena Story'' shows us that in the Land of the Pickup Truck, the hatred and fear of unorthodox sexuality run deep. Instead of being shouted, it festers until it explodes in acts of violence whose cause even the killers themselves don't seem to comprehend fully.
The New York Times
Festival & Awards
Emmys - 2000
Nominated for a 2000 Emmy Award for Excellence in Investigative Journalist
Berlinale - 1999
Teddy Award and Audience Award for Best Documentary
Vancouver International Film Festival - 1999
Canadian Film Board for Best Documentary
Vallodolid International Film Festival - 1999
Time of History Jury Award for Best Film
Great Plains film Festival - 1999
Grand Jury Award for Best Film