THE STORY – The stories of three intersex individuals who set aside medical advice to keep their bodies a secret and instead came out as their authentic selves.
THE CAST – Sean Saifa Wall, Alicia Roth Weigel & River Gallo
THE TEAM – Julie Cohen (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 92 Minutes
When you hear the word “intersex,” what comes to mind? What about the word “hermaphrodite”? Now be honest – did you think those were the same thing? If so, or if you didn’t know what either or both of those words meant, you’re not alone. And yet, as much as 1.7% of the population of the US has been estimated to have been born with intersex traits (that would be upwards of 5 million people). Julie Cohen’s new documentary “Every Body” is essentially a course in Intersex 101, explaining not only what the definition of intersex is but how intersex people have been treated throughout history, the damage this has caused, and how the community today is fighting for their rights. While the film absolutely succeeds at this, it’s very easy to undervalue because of how conventional it is. But make no mistake, the film’s traditional form is very much a part of its strategy. Throw too much at a viewer, and you run the risk of them shutting down and not receiving your message. Keep things simple in a format not too unlike an evening news special, and they will at least hear what you have to say. Whether or not they listen is a separate issue, but the mere fact of the film’s existence ensures that more people will have access to this information. It is just about as thoughtful, empathetic, and informative as it possibly could be.
“Every Body” insists on the space in its title, suggesting the beginning of a sentence: Everybody is important, perhaps. Or maybe: Everybody is different. One of the most brilliant things the film does is follow three very different subjects, each of whom a different segment of the audience can identify with, starting with the most conventional: Alicia Roth Weigel is a fit, blonde, white woman who gives off “just the girl next door” vibes. While she uses she/her pronouns and her body has always presented female (complete with breasts and a vagina), Alicia has XY chromosomes (usually denoting a male) and was born with internal testes instead of ovaries due to a medical condition known as Complete Androgen Insensitivity. Next, we meet Sean Safiya Wall (he/him), an African-American ex-pat living in England who always knew he was a boy even though his birth certificate said: “female” (written in after the gender “ambiguous” was crossed out, as Wall was born with both a uterus and a very small penis). Finally, there is River Gallo (they/them), a non-binary actor. While both Weigel and Wall underwent forced gonadectomies before they were old enough to understand who they were or what was happening to them, River got surgically implanted testes at age twelve because they were born with a penis but no testes. Yes, apparently, genital mutilation does happen in America to children who have done nothing other than being born with the condition that puts the lie to the idea that humans are either male or female, with no in-between.
Cohen clearly feels for the parents who also have to make these kinds of decisions. The film opens with a montage of gender reveal parties, explosions of blue and pink leading to screams of excitement and tears of joy. While the focus rightly remains on the children whose lives this ultimately affects, a large segment of the film is devoted to the question of how the medical community has dealt with intersex people. It won’t be a surprise that the answer is “not well,” but just how much so is genuinely horrifying. At one point, the film’s subjects watch an old “Dateline” news piece about David Reimer, the unfortunate victim of a botched circumcision. Desperate for answers of what to do, his mother sought help from Dr. John Money, a leading sexologist whose work at John Hopkins served as the basis for most Intersex knowledge for decades. That work is so mind-blowingly ridiculous on its face that you almost don’t realize how similar it is to what many people are saying against transgender people these days. This is Cohen’s most salient point: our desperate need for categorization has forced us to think of biological sex as a male-female binary, which has caused irreparable harm to millions of people because of a medical condition that proves us wrong. Yes, it may be a human desire to make things simple, but our bodies are some of the most complex organisms on Earth, and insisting on the gender binary does nobody any favors.
It’s easy to wish that Cohen (most well-known for her bio-doc collaborations with Betsy West, such as “RBG” and “Julia“) had taken more formal risks with the documentary form or that she tried to make the film more unique in a way that reflects her subjects. But “Every Body” reveals her skill with not only choosing subjects but getting them to open up and express themselves in ways that will make everyone listen. Gallo, Wall, and Weigel are incredibly well-spoken, and several more informal sit-down chats where the three exchange stories and share their perspective on the current state of the intersex community are incredibly engaging because they are all so passionate and direct. They do not mince words about what has happened to them throughout their lives, how confusing, hurtful, and even enraging it has been. Cohen’s structure for the film reaps the rewards by framing it as a journey instead of a lesson, which helps keep it from feeling too preachy. When we finally get to the present-day protests and group actions in which our subjects are currently engaged, it is impossible not to want to get in there and fight with them. It’s a testament not only to them and the many intersex activists who came before but to Cohen’s ability to craft a strong narrative without inserting herself into the story. She gently guides the audience to where she wants to go but lets her carefully chosen subjects take the lead, resulting in a film that feels as though it was authored by them just as much as her. This generosity extends to the audience, making “Every Body” feel welcoming and warm even when its subject matter gets incredibly depressing, which is essential to the film achieving its goals. Cohen may make it look easy, but making a documentary this passionate in every frame is more difficult than it looks. “Every Body” is a testament to just how strong the conventional documentary format can be when it’s in the right hands.