Film Reviews


By • May 1st, 2004 •

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QUOTE: Riveting, harrowing, and deeply moving.

These two verite documentaries are astonishing. I was riveted and shocked at the absolute frank handling of the subject. You are not going to see something this intensely personal anywhere. This kind of blunt exploration of sex change surgery has not been done before. And, I felt enormous empathy for Rene and his wife Wona and Jamie and his wife Brenda.

“Rene’s Story”

Rene was born female and was convinced at the age eight that she was a boy. Rene began to take hormones as a child, and “passed” as a man for all of adulthood. Rene, now 31 years old, has been “married” to his childhood sweetheart Wona for twelve years. They are raising two toddlers as their own children. What kind of sex life do they have together? Rene tells us everything. Rene tells us how he has conducted his sex life as a man with women. Rene had a mastectomy and feels like a man in every way, except he is desperate to have a penis. He wants a very big penis. He tells us no one has ever seen him naked. Not even his wife of twelve years. Rene doesn’t even like to look at himself naked. His former girlfriends are interviewed. They deny knowing Rene was not a biological man. Rene laughs at this. Rene’s joy at being a man is charmingly evident. He works out hard. He supports his family by being a truck driver. He is full of testosterone. He is intensely likeable. I felt his passion. His desire to have the sex change surgery is so compelling that it is impossible to judge or deny him.

Imagine being a man but living in a female body?

Rene and Wona are devout churchgoers but someone tells the pastor the truth about Rene. They are asked to leave the church. Wona suddenly realizes that she is living a sham and starts to blame Rene. She wants to know what it is like to have real sex with a man. Wona feels she has been conned and bulldozed by Rene and her mother, who allowed Rene to live with them when she was a teenager.

We follow Rene as he goes to sex reassignment specialists. There are two types of surgeries he can have. He does not want a penis with a pump. He meets with other biological women who are living as men. Does a penis make a man?

For Rene the answer is yes. He will sacrifice everything, even his dignity, for a penis.

Rene decides on a surgeon who will create a penis from existing vaginal tissue. The doctor tells Rene the penis will be small. Rene is disappointed. He wants to walk around the gym naked. He wants to take pride in his big penis. Rene’s desire for this surgery is so great that he allows cameras to tape – in close-up – her vagina. We are shown what tissue will make a small penis. We are shown the implants that will make the testicles. Rene, of course, wants big testicles.

I felt sorry for Rene’s humiliation but it was the defining moment that clarified how much Rene wanted this surgery. Hopefully, being part of this documentary helped pay for the surgery and that was the reason Rene allowed the world to see him naked.

Later, after the surgery, Rene proudly shows off his new penis. Rene has a terrific charisma that brings a vitality and emotionalism to his story.

“Jamie”s Story”

The next documentary features Jamie, a 47 year-old male-to-female gender reassignment candidate. Jim, from a small town in Michigan, has been married to Brenda for 25 years and has a 12 year-old daughter. As Jim, she raced cars and built houses. She is physically well suited for construction work yet for her whole life she lived with a shameful secret: Jim was really a woman trapped in a man’s body.

I felt enormous compassion and sadness for Jamie’s wife Brenda. Secretly, Jim started taking female hormones. His body started to change. It became softer. Jim grew breasts. Brenda cannot help but show us her suffering. She is visually devastated but loves Jim. Her mother is bitter and angry. Why did he marry Brenda? In their many moments of honesty, Brenda tells Jim she knew something was wrong for a long time but worried it was her fault. She felt she wasn’t attractive enough for him.

Jim’s friends, family, and co-workers are interviewed. Jim starts dressing as a woman. His friends are shocked. His brother is outraged. His construction business drops 80%. But for Jamie, the most crucial issue is will men find her attractive? Jamie begins interviewing doctors and other men who have become women. We are taken into the consultation room and get a close-up look at Jim’s genitals.

Brenda decides to support Jamie through the transition and remain close to her partner of 25 years. Brenda is clearly overwhelmed. It is a truly sympathetic portrayal of her pain and confusion. This is an extraordinary 90-minute journey. Having contemplated suicide Jamie is now liberated and anxious to begin a new life as a woman. She wants to experience sex as a woman. Similar to Rene’s obsession with having a penis, Jamie wants to be sexually attractive to men.

After watching “Rene’s Story” I knew what to expect. The filmmaker’s would take us into the operating room. We would see moments of the hours-long surgery. This is not for the queasy but for the curious.

The filmmakers, Josh Aronson (Director and Co-Producer), Bruce Hensel, M.D. (Executive Producer) and Stuart Krasnow (Executive Producer), are to be hailed for crafting a brilliant spotlight on a subject still shrouded in mystery.

These highly emotional documentaries are not to be missed.

“The Opposite Sex: Rene’s Story” premieres Monday, May 3, 2004 at 9PM. Playdates: Tuesday, May 11 at 9PM, May 22 at 2AM, Sunday, May 30 at 12:30AM

“The Opposite Sex: Jamie’s Story” premieres Wednesday, June 23, 2004 at 9 PM ET/PT

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