Edmonton film shows what it's like to transition later in life

Bill Rauch’s gender-bending production of Oklahoma! at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in the spring of 2018 marked the 75th anniversary of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic. 

For British Columbia-based actor Bobbi Charlton, playing Aunt Eller in the production marked a more personal milestone: her first performance as a woman. 

Charlton, who was born in Calgary but moved to Edmonton before junior high, struggled with gender dysphoria for years before deciding to transition in her early fifties.

In a new film, Edmonton writer and director Scot Morison, who happens to be Charlton’s cousin, documented the actor’s return to the stage after a 23-year absence.

The film, Finding Bobbi, screens Saturday afternoon at NAIT’s Shaw Theatre as part of the Alberta International Women’s Film Festival.

“The heart of the story is about accepting people who are different from us,” producer Ava Karvonen said Friday in an interview with CBC Radio’s Adrienne Pan.

In the film, Charlton says she was about five years old when she first felt she was living in the wrong body. 

Morison had no idea what his cousin was struggling with at the time.

“As her brother says in the film, it shows how good of an actor she is — she played the male role exceptionally well for a long time,” Morison said.

Morison and Charlton, once close as teenagers, fell out of touch over the years. They reconnected during a weekend reunion at Charlton’s Victoria home in the fall of 2017. That’s when Morison asked his cousin for permission to tell her story. 

The film looks back and forward as it interviews some of Charlton’s siblings and fellow actors. 

Morison said working on the film was an emotional experience. His cousin inspired and moved him with her honesty, sharing difficult stories about depression and being the target of harassment and violence.

Both filmmakers said working on the film opened their eyes to the discrimination many transgender people face.

In “Finding Bobbi,” filmmakers Scot Morison and Ava Karvonen follow actor Bobbi Charlton as she prepares for her first role as a woman in 2018. (Ava Karvonen/Reel Girls Media)

According to the Canadian Trans Youth Health Survey, run by the University of British Columbia in 2018, 70 per cent of the 923 trans youth surveyed reported sexual harassment and two thirds of participants reported discrimination due to their physical appearance.

The film has already moved audiences at the Raindance Film Festival in London and the Ashland Independent Film Festival in Oregon.

Karvonen said Charlton has been apprehensive about the film coming out but gratified to connect with trans teens who saw parts of themselves in the film.

“I think she’s hoping that by sharing her story, she’ll help other people on their journey in life and even just help those of us who may know someone going through a similar experience,” Karvonen said.

Finding Bobbi screens at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday at NAIT’s Shaw Theatre, 11762 106 Street.

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