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SXSW Interview: Director Tunde Skovran Reflects on ‘Who I Am Not’ And Its Intersex Subjects

Delivering one of the most touching documentaries (Who I Am Not) at SXSW 2023, actress-turned-director Tunde Skovran explores the lives of two South Africans from contrasting backgrounds who share one particular condition in common. Namely, they where both diagnosed as intersex and experienced various forms of trauma and self-doubt. Through this illuminating film, however, Skovran allows them a medium to find self-acceptance. In a recent Awards Radar interview, Skovran explains her filmmaking process, guided by empathy and love.

Shane Slater: How did you become aware of these two individuals, and what made you decide to make this documentary about them?

Tunde Skovran: Well, it was almost an accident, how I met them. I started a different kind of documentary in South Africa. That was about gender eligibility in elite sports. That’s how I ended up in South Africa. And during this research period, I contacted first Sharon-Rose. And she then later introduced me to Dimakatso. I’m originally an actor, trained as an actor. I was performing in Romania, at a very prominent theater for like, 13 years. But I kind of always knew that I wanted to direct at one point, after 40.

And so I wanted to tell stories that somehow challenge the social expectations, or the social norm. As an actor, I was always attracted to such characters, because I realized that those are the stories that really move people out of their comfort zone, make everyone think out of the box, and these kinds of stories make them grow.

So when I decided to direct, it was very clear for me that that I wanted to do something about identity. About our relationship with our bodies. As an actor your instrument is your body. And for me, it was a very challenging and very interesting way to analyze how we define who we are. How we define who is a male, who is a female, how we self identify. And coming from an Eastern European country, where differences are still not very much accepted, given the fact that many of the people think that these differences are only in the mind.

And then when I learned about intersex, I thought, well, intersex is so much related to the anatomy, I realized that this would be able to change the hearts and minds of those who cannot understand these differences. So the film started like five years ago. The actual shooting started five years ago, but this whole process of my thinking, “Do we have an identity? What is an identity? Are our identity documents defining who we are?” All this started a very long time ago.

So yeah, that’s it in a nutshell. But then when you become a documentary filmmaker, I feel that after a very short time, you open Pandora’s Box. The film starts writing itself. And I became only the orchestrator of this concert. The musicians are doing their own job.

SS: In the beginning of the film, Sharon says that she wishes her life was like a movie so she wouldn’t have to be so vulnerable. But this documentary is a very vulnerable approach to making a film. What was the initial collaboration like with her? Was it a challenge to get her comfortable with this format?

TS: I have two protagonists to this film, Sharon and Dimakatso. They both have different variations and they have different kinds of lives. Our approach was, we spent five years together and I didn’t shoot anything in the first three. I only turned the camera on when we all felt comfortable. When we felt that we finally found a shared voice.

My approach was, I think, a very different approach than anything that I saw documentary filmmakers do. I introduced a lot of therapists in our work, we spent countless of hours online and in person. And we worked. I mean, I came with a backpack of all kinds of experiences in dealing with vulnerability, dealing with being observed as a performer. What does it mean to observe? What does it mean to trust? And all those exercises that I introduced helps them to elevate their vulnerability, but also to feel confident to show themselves.

Sharon felt that she was performing a female character after she found out that she was intersex. And the biggest job was to find out how not to act, how to just be. How to exist in front of the camera in front of us, in front of herself, in front of the mirror. And that took some time. It was a roller coaster of emotions, because I think the main issue with her condition, her trauma, was like, imagine you grow up as a man. You identify as a man, you perceive your body as a man, and then all of a sudden someone makes a blood test and says, “Well, you’re not. The blueprint of your body is that of a female.” And I think that’s a shock.

But then in Sharon’s case, her family kind of rejected her because they’re coming from a very religious background. Her boyfriends abandoned her. She has issues relating to the church. So a complete isolation and trauma happens to Sharon. And we were trying to break that pattern down.

With Dimakatso, we worked a lot on anger. Dimakatso has been angry since childhood. They spent six years in the hospital after after being born, they were taken home and ever since, everybody was pulling their pants down to see what was going on. A lot of humiliation, a lot of questioning was happening, a lot of secrecy and pretending was going on in their lives.

So it took a lot of time until we were even able to put those issues into words, to identify what that means. For example, when we started the journey with Sharon, we went to all the locations that marked Sharon’s life. From the hospital she was born at, to the apartment where she lived, we filmed all those locations. And then I edited a film out of these locations, we went to studio, and we projected all those locations on her body, including people who surrounded her life. And we experimented with how she feels when all these locations mark her. These locations, these people are impregnated into her identity, into her skin.

Observing all those on on her body gave her something. Like the beginning of the film, where she says, “I wish my life was a movie,” and you see all those snaps of things. Those are from this particular exercise. But every single thing in the film, the beauty shots, those were part of exercises. It wasn’t shot just because the director thought it needs to be cute. We did a lot of dream interpretation exercises. So the underwater scenes were actually Sharon’s dreams, or the moment they share, to submerge in the bathtub, that was an exercise when we experimented with what is the most feminine matter possible. And it was milk, and then we put milk in the bathtub. And all those things were a coherent part of our process, and then it ended up crafting the style of the film.

The “I wish my life was a movie,” was from Sharon’s blog. So that’s how that’s how I actually contacted Sharon first. I read that blog and Sharon starts her blog with “I wish my life was a movie because in the movies boy sees girls, girl sees boy, blah blah blah.” And then a long letter where she actually comes out in public and she shares her story. And I read that and I was so impressed. Then I wrote her, through her blog, in an email where I introduced myself and I said, “Well, I’m in South Africa and would like if she would meet me.” And then we started talking and then we became friends.

SS: Considering this is kind of a taboo subject. I was wondering what it was like getting their friends and family involved. Was that a challenge at all?

TS: Well, I invited everyone I introduced myself to. Their families, separately and with them. But I left it very open for who wants to participate. I felt that we can tell the story with or without the family. This is an individual experience. I think the film required Sharon and Dimakatso’s experience. If the family participated, that was their choice. And Sharon’s family decided not to be in front of the camera, even though we discussed and they were part of the process behind the camera. But they didn’t want to be featured.

In Dimakatso’s case, Dimakatso lives in a very vibrant township. And the community is part of Dimakatso’s identity. And the house where they live is an open house. Friends are coming and going. Everyone knew about our presence, everyone knew our cars, everyone knew us by name they gave our entire team a local name. So we were integrated in the community and Dimakatso’s father is a very supportive presence in Dimakatso’s activism. So it’s not the first time he appeared in front of the camera. There were many other instances as well. He feels that he has to share his story as well, in order to to create better awareness on how the family and the parents deal with intersex conditions.

So it felt natural that we are involving absolutely everyone who wanted to be. And of course, in 90 minutes, you can only put in just a little bit of their lives. But really, the entire village was was somehow involved in the filmmaking process.

I think we had our initial conversation with them and I said the best way to participate in this is if you really represent what you really believe in. Because the camera does not support performance. And documentary does not support performance. And no matter how much you want to perform, it’s going to fall out. So people really wanted to be in the film. And they really wanted to represent who they are, or what they really think. And that is how we managed to get those incredibly honest moments.

SS: This whole journey was a learning process for both Sharon and Dimakatso. How did this filmmaking process affect you and what do you want the audience to get out of it?

TS: It was the biggest learning process for me, because first of all, it’s my debut film. I knew about filmmaking as an actor, being in front of the camera, but this was really the first time I could experience what it means to be behind the camera and have all the skills that you must have as a director. But besides that, I think in a personal way, it just pushed me out of my comfort zone many times. There was a COVID in between. We were repatriated from South Africa when the Omicron variant appeared. So we just landed and the Romanian government evacuated us because everyone thought that the country will shut down.

I learned about patience quite a lot, and about perseverance, and about acceptance, and about what it means to be as accepted. And I think this is the first time I really learned what it means to love unconditionally. And that’s the most touching part of the whole thing, because I don’t think you can make such a documentary without love. I think you can only make an intimate film, or tell an intimate story about love and acceptance, if you as a director, and all the members of your crew arrive to that point.

SS: How was your SXSW experience?

TS: We came from Thessaloniki, we had our first screening in Thessaloniki. And we just landed a day before the festival started. It was absolutely fabulous. And we had Sharon there and the producers, and the conversations after the screenings, especially after the second screening, were very beautiful. There were people coming to us saying, “Oh, I can relate to this film because I found out that I cannot have children and I question my femininity because of that.” And then another person came and said, “I can relate to this film because I’ve been overweight my entire life and I had difficulties with self acceptance.” And these responses I wasn’t even expecting.

There were two medical doctors coming to the screenings. And they were like, “Oh, my God. Since I was trained as a medical doctor I heard about about this, but I never knew the personal aspect. We were never taught about it. We never knew how to treat or relate to an intersex individual.” So it was great.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]


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Written by Shane Slater

Shane Slater is a passionate cinephile whose love for cinema led him to creating his blog Film Actually in 2009. Since then, he has written for, and The Spool. Based in Kingston, Jamaica, he relishes the film festival experience, having covered TIFF, NYFF and Sundance among others. He is a proud member of the African-American Film Critics Association.

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