How My Nonna's Love and Acceptance Helped Me Find Myself as a Trans Person

When director Luis De Filippis was growing up, they sought refuge in their grandma's house. In their directorial debut—an official selection at Toronto Film Festival—they explore this tender intergenerational dynamic.

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Sep 8 2017, 5:34pm

Luis De Filippis is a transgender director. Their debut short film, For Nonna Anna, will debut as an official selection at the Toronto Film Festival this week. Below is Filippis' account of the creative process behind the film.

On Saturday, my film, For Nonna Anna, will debut at the Toronto Film Festival as an official selection. The short stars Maya Henry, a young transgender woman caring for her Italian grandmother. They're both at uncertain moments in their lives, experiencing changing bodies in different ways. Maya's character has transitioned and, alone with her elderly and religious grandmother, she worries that Nonna may not accept her.

Because she's tasked with bathing Nonna and taking her to the bathroom, the two are forced to see each other at their most vulnerable. It's a story of women, family, and identity. In those moments, whatever shame Nonna Anna harbors is unmoored; they're able to see each other for who they are, apart from their bodies.

I grew up in a small country town outside of Toronto. My grandmother, my nonna, lived in the city, and I stayed with her frequently. She took care of my great-grandmother—my bisnonna—who was old and frail and hadn't learned English. When I was three or four years old and visiting Nonna, she would take care of me too. At times, Nonna would feed my grandmother and me together, spooning warm polenta into our mouths. In my film, these two women became one; Nonna Anna is an amalgamation of them both.

Still from "For Nonna Anna" courtesy of Luis De Filippis

Nonna told me stories about growing up in Italy with Bisnonna, entrancing me for hours with tales of Catholic miracles, our family, and faith. I quickly began to tell my own stories through makeshift home performances and, later, studying ballet. I felt safer in their home than anywhere in the world. At Nonna's I was free—to play and to be myself unbridled by the expectations of the outside world.

For Nonna Anna was filmed at my Nonna's home. It has been a refuge for me since my youth and through my adolescence. I used to fall asleep praying that my life as a boy was a nightmare, that I would wake and be a girl. The world was restrictive on my identity, but my grandmother and great-grandmother made another world for me to live in. I knew who I was at Nonna's. That was easy and relieving, but when I left I had to figure out how to take my experience outside of Nonna's house.

As a child, I was taken by closets and drawers filled with beautiful clothes. When I curiously put on one of my grandmother's nightgowns, she played with me. Bisnonna draped the silk to look like hair. "Bella," she whispered, holding my face.

As I grew older, I began to lose the shamelessness that the women in my family had instilled in me. At school, I was constantly aware of myself and my body—the way I moved or talked. I tried to correct my femininity, to hide it from other people. Still, I stayed at Nonna's. After-school trips became sleepovers; it remained a refuge from the world. I would still dress up in her clothes, but I no longer did it in front of my Nonna.

Photo of Luis De Filippis, courtesy of De Filippis.

If Nonna's home was my own Garden of Eden, by high school I had eaten the apple and was ruined by the awful knowledge of my nakedness. I knew shame, and I began to worry how other people, even the elder women in my family, would feel if they saw my nakedness, too.

The trans girl in my film shares that concern. But when she finds an old family movie, she sees herself dressed up as a girl and her Nonna's simple acceptance. In that moment, she remembers the shamelessness of her childhood. Nonna, she realizes, has her own shame as a woman. She is old and frail. Where the girl's life is beginning, Nonna's is coming to its end. The family is packing up her home, preparing for her transition to an elder care facility, and Nonna needs to be bathed and brought to the bathroom. She has lost agency in her life, as the young trans girl has gained it.

Their experiences aren't so different. My experience is not so different from my grandmother or great-grandmother's. I wanted to look at a trans subject outside the politicized framework that our stories are so often told, and tell a story about women. My mother once told me about a time when she was caring for her bisnonna. She was pregnant at the time, and her bisnonna needed a bath. But she didn't want to undress for it; Bisnonna was uncomfortable being seen in her nakedness. It was something my mother could relate to, as her own body was changing through pregnancy.

Photo of Luis De Filippis, courtesy of De Filippis.

In my more vulnerable moments, I have remembered the love and acceptance that the women in my family gave to me when I was young. When I have worried that I cannot be myself, I return to memories of when Nonna called me bella and am able to remain on course. I remember the vulnerability between my mother and her great-grandmother, how the women in my family have taken the risk to be seen by each other.

For Nonna Anna is both a personal film about my own relationship with women in my family, as well as my response to the overwhelming amount of transgender media that is centered around transition and the family's reaction, rather than the humanity at the root of our stories. I will consider it a success if it can bring hope to even one young trans person. We are so isolated from ourselves.

In many communities, especially in earlier times in history, transgender people have been storytellers. I believe that storytelling is our birthright as trans people,but that until very recently, our stories have been taken from us. For Nonna Anna is my attempt to take that birthright back.