The Brandon Teena Story
Reviewed in May 2000
Directors: Susan Muska and Gréta Olafsdóttir. Documentary. Profile of Brandon Teena, a teenage transgender murdered in Nebraska in 1993.


Photo © 1998 Zeitgeist Films/Bless Bless Productions
Now that Kimberly Peirce's Boys Don't Cry has given Oscar-winning, fictional treatment to the life story of Brandon Teena, the world is even less likely to forget the unfathomable violence with which the world answered Brandon's dream of inhabiting that world in the way he felt most comfortable, most authentic, most himself. Before Peirce and her estimable cast got a hold of the story, however, documentarians Susan Muska and Gréta Olafsdóttir filmed this entrancing, non-fictional account of how a young Nebraskan girl, having accepted herself as a man living inside a female anatomy, tried but failed to find similar acceptance from the different communities among which she travelled.

Muska and Olafsdóttir begin the film with interviews of different girls whom Brandon Teena dated after having begun to dress, act, and refer to herself as a man. None of these young women, including one to whom Brandon was briefly engaged, knew initially that their boyfriend still possessed a female body, though in each case Brandon eventually tried to explain what he had been instructed by a psychologist to define as a "sexual identity crisis." Finally, in Falls City, Brandon met Lana Tisdel, a soul mate who returned Brandon's love without demanding that he reveal all the secrets and complexities of the misalignment he felt between his anatomical sex and his self-identified gender. Unfortunately, Falls City was also the meeting-ground between Brandon and the two men whose anger at the way Brandon lived his life not only drove them to murder him but to slay in addition Lisa Lambert, a female friend who had temporarily opened her home to Brandon, and Philip Devine, a second houseguest who happened to be sleeping in her living room on the night of the murders.

Muska and Olafsdóttir interview surviving friends and family of both Brandon and Lisa, though the film remains strangely reticent about Philip Devine, the third victim. (The fact that he is mentioned at all will come as a surprise to viewers of Boys Don't Cry, which jettisoned the character altogether in an apparent attempt to streamline and condense the real-life scenario.) The directors' camera also probes into the shockingly remorseless faces of John Lotter and Tom Nissen, the two men found guilty of the triple murder; the various law enforcement officials in different regions of Nebraska whom the film suggests did not in every case take the routine, protective steps that might have saved all three lives; and other citizens of the towns Brandon lived in and visited—including his mother and sister—who try to sort out their simultaneous confusions over who Brandon Teena was and how the world could possibly have treated him so savagely. The interviewees oscillate in their choices of pronouns for Brandon, in their descriptions of his sexual orientation, in their estimation of whether or not his intolerable fate could have been avoided. The testimonies do agree, however, whether consciously or unconsciously, on the salient, central fact that an outrageous, terrible crime occurred in Nebraska in 1993, and the nation is still struggling to find the right words in which the story can even be told. The documentary that memorializes Brandon Teena is a little rough around the edges—some footage repeats, the film quality varies, and certain choices of music and photographic effects seem either arbitrary or over-determined. Little of this matters, however, in comparison to the conviction and the fullness of compassion with which the filmmakers document the life of someone who never asked to be a news item, merely to be afforded the chance to live as the person he felt himself to be. A


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