FILMMAKER SPOTLIGHT: Harrod Blank, Director of WHY CAN’T I BE ME? AROUND YOU

March 31, 2019

WHY CAN’T I BE ME? AROUND YOU
WINNER: Michael Sullivan Award for Documentary Journalism
East Coast Premiere
The Cabot
Sunday, March 31 at 4:30 p.m.

When filmmaker Harrod Blank’s famous camera-covered van breaks down near Albuquerque, NM, the only mechanic capable of fixing it is local drag racer and machining savant, Russell “Rusty” Tidenberg. Rusty has recently started transitioning by adding new breasts and accepting “she/her” pronouns, yet chooses to live as both male and female. This has resulted in unimaginable rejection from her family, friends, and female love interests. Blank, moved by her story, begins filming Rusty as they work together on the van. The filmmaker then spends the next eight years following Rusty’s journey while interviewing an array of gender-non-binary individuals — many in Blank’s art car scene — in an effort to learn what it means to live outside of society’s gender norms. For Rusty — the heart of this film — it means choosing to embrace and exhibit both genders while ultimately hoping for acceptance and love.

Harrod (AUTOMORPHOSIS) and his father, legendary documentarian Les Blank (BURDEN OF DREAMS), participated in SFF 2010. Harrod’s latest film, WHY CAN’T I BE ME? AROUND YOU, is having its East Coast Premiere at The Cabot in Beverly on Sunday, March 31, at 4:30p.m. 

Salem Film Fest writer Sarah Wolfe interviewed Harrod ahead of the screening and had a unique opportunity, via speaker phone, to accompany the director into his late father’s archives as he searched for films.

Harrod Blank: I’m in the vault, can you still hear me? I just need to find a 16mm print.

Sarah Wolfe: I hear you loud and clear. You mentioned a team of folks are there helping you install post-production editing tools?

HB: Yes, it’s quite a process. But it will help me to digitally preserve my father’s work.

SW: It’s wonderful you’re doing that. And that you both screened films together at SFF 2010.  

HB: Yes, definitely.  

SW: Your last SFF piece, AUTOMORPHOSIS, was about the culture of art car enthusiasts of which you’re a big part. It seems almost pre-destined that your camera-covered van broke down on that dusty road outside Albuquerque and led you to Rusty — a fellow car artist with a unique personal story that’s now the focus of your SFF 2019 film, WHY CAN’T I BE ME? AROUND YOU.

HB: If you look at my work previous to this, my specialty has been identity and the identity of artists, particularly art car people. What are the odds that the one person in the Albuquerque area who’s willing to help me upgrade my engine is an artist with an incredible story about identity? Let me tell you, I had exhausted all of my options for mechanics before finding Rusty.

SW: Definitely fate. By the way, I can’t get over those two copper-metal art motorcycles Rusty created.

HB: She is an amazing inventor; she built those motorcycles almost entirely by hand. She doesn’t just make an art vehicle, she creates something that all works together mechanically. She takes it to another level. I have the copper bikes on loan at the Art Car World museum in Douglas, AZ, which I established to promote art car culture.

SW: Okay, now I’m convinced your van was meant to break down. What was your first impression of Rusty when you met?

HB: I felt quickly that Rusty is a very strong individual with a strong character, which is the type of person I gel with because I’m pretty much the same and respect individuality. That’s my top tenet in how I operate: individuality is king.

SW: And what did you think when you first heard Rusty’s story?

HB: When I was underneath the van draining the oil and Rusty was taking the carburetor off the engine, she yelled down to me, ‘Can you believe just because I got these breasts my dad has taken me off salary?’ I really thought about it — about how my own father always encouraged me to express myself as an artist and as an individual. Rusty’s situation seemed like a total injustice. She was the same person, it’s just she felt incomplete and that she wasn’t honoring herself when she was fully masculine. Just because she had this one new body part, all these things suddenly happened — long-time friends left, her father/boss cut her working salary because he couldn’t accept her; and women didn’t want to date her at all. Gender diversity wasn’t something I knew very much about, but after making the movie and spending time with Rusty I learned a lot.

SW: You ended up filming Rusty’s story for eight years. Describe that experience.

HB: That first shoot (when my van was being fixed) was basically getting our feet wet and convincing me that, yes, we should keep filming. In retrospect, I wished I’d used a better camera. It was an anamorphic consumer mini DV Camera, which shot for widescreen, and was all I could find at the time. There were four or five return visits to film Rusty after that. The bulk of the film’s footage was shot at 1280 x 720 on a Panasonic P2 Camera HVX200.  A Canon SLR was also used along with shooting 4K footage with a Sony.

SW: Can you tell me about the 8mm family films that play a key role in the piece? We see Rusty’s father as a young businessman who loves taking hunting trips to different locales.

HB: That old footage from Rusty provided an amazing aspect for telling her story, about how different she and her father are. Her father’s particular mindset didn’t give Rusty room to express her gender identity growing up. And now, as Rusty tells us, she struggles for his acceptance.

SW: Since you first decided to film Rusty’s story, there’s been a growing discussion around gender identity. Can you talk about screening this piece at this particular moment in time?

HB: It’s definitely timely. If you talk to younger people about gender identity they have a whole different perspective on it. Rusty and I are close in age and part of an older generation, and it seems like from generation to generation the openness to gender identity and expression is broadening. I showed WHY CAN’T I BE ME? AROUND YOU to a high school teacher in Alameda, CA, and she told me she had 12 students that are non-binary and identify as “they.” When I was in high school, I didn’t know anybody who was exploring gender.

SW: And now we’re seeing more and more people opening up about that journey, including Rusty.

HB: Definitely. My hope is this film is a portrait of Rusty as an individual. That regardless of gender, this is about Rusty. And the fact that she’s pursuing the balance of two genders, which has been so taboo in our culture. There are a lot of people who share the same sentiments as Rusty. Who are also sort of in the middle. But that’s always been something you’re not supposed to do. People who have felt like Rusty in the past were often pressured into choosing one gender, to have full surgery and everything. I’ve heard some of them have regretted doing that and wished they’d stayed in the middle like Rusty. She will tell you she has no regrets. And that she continues to shape her gender identity and expression.

SW: What do you hope audiences ultimately gain from seeing this film?  

HB: I’m hoping it will help folks realize there’s a human being behind every story. To be a little more open-minded about what we might perceive before we pass judgement on someone. And to not adhere to the boxes we’ve been brought up with. Embrace individuality!

Tickets for WHY CAN’T I BE ME? AROUND YOU can be purchased here.

A Q&A with Director Harrod Blank and Film Subject Rusty Tidenberg will take place following the screening.

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