Trans America

Documentary filmmakers Susan Muska and Greta Olafsdottir talk about the story behind "The Brandon Teena Story."

By Jennie Yabroff
Published February 26, 1999 6:47PM (EST)

On New Year's Eve, 1993, two young men drove to a farmhouse in rural Nebraska and killed the three people inside. Their victims were the farmhouse's residents, a 24-year-old single mother and a 22-year-old man, and a 21-year-old drifter who was taking refuge at the house following recent trouble in nearby Falls City.

The drifter was a slight, muscular, short-haired woman named Teena Brandon. The two men who shot her, Tom Nissen and John Lotter, had known her as a slight, muscular, affable young man named Brandon Teena until a week earlier, when, upon discovering her true gender, they drove her out to the Nebraska countryside and raped her in the back of their car on Christmas Eve. When Brandon pressed charges, the two men, both ex-convicts, decided to kill her.

Documentary filmmakers Susan Muska and Greta Olafsdottir learned about the case through a wire story from the Omaha Gazette headlined "Dressed to Kill." Both the nature of the crime and the local press's treatment of the story intrigued the New York filmmakers. So when Muska was offered the chance to go to Falls City with a writer from the Village Voice who was covering the story, she brought her camera along. (The story also attracted the attention of filmmaker Christine Vachon, who is currently producing a fictionalized account, "Take It Like a Man.")

Olafsdottir and Muska's film, "The Brandon Teena Story," which won awards at both the Berlin and Vancouver film festivals last year, documents a society as deeply conflicted about its identity as Teena Brandon was about her gender. The girls of Falls City express concepts of sexuality both naive (one of Brandon's former girlfriends talks about looking up the definition of "hermaphrodite") and, in some ways, very evolved. For the women who dated Brandon, sleeping with a girl didn't make them lesbians -- so long as the rest of the town believed she was a man.

Lotter and Nissen accepted Brandon as a peer, until the rumors about his identity became too loud to ignore. The sense that emerges from the film is not so much outrage over Brandon's true identity as anger at the depth of his betrayal. According to Olafsdottir and Muska, the town is still grappling, five years later, with the extent to which they were deceived.

What was your initial impression of Falls City and the people involved in the case?

Muska: It's a really quiet and small town. The people involved didn't treat the murders as anything remarkable -- it was all rationalized into something they could understand. In their eyes the murderers were nice guys. It was over with, and now they didn't want anything more to do with it.

Did your idea of what the story was about change during the process of filmmaking?

Olafsdottir: I don't think we went in with an idea of what it was about.

Muska: There were things we wanted to explore. We wanted to know more than what was coming out in the press.

Olafsdottir: Like where does such hatred come from?

Muska: People would say, "She lied and no one should do that." The lying was a big thing and it was very difficult to decipher what this whole lying business meant, because to us, everyone was lying. It was difficult to sort through how people expressed their feelings about gender and male-female relationships and homosexuality.

When you say everybody lied, by "everybody" do you mean the women Brandon dated?

Muska: It depends what you mean about lying. I don't want to sound like Bill Clinton. These girls said, "To me he was a man, and he was
the nicest man I ever dated." And to an extent that's fine, and you can go along with that, but the line is crossed when other peers started saying, "This isn't really a man, he's a woman, he doesn't have a penis, you're lying." And the girls would have to cave in to that, because there was incontrovertible proof. But they didn't believe they were lying before, and I don't believe they were lying before.

And wasn't Brandon lying as well, telling these girls that she was a hermaphrodite or that she was in the process of getting a sex change?

Muska: He would tell people so many different things ... That's the beauty of the story. The people who were involved with Brandon needed their definition of Brandon to fit in with how they needed to live their life. You go after what you think you need, but you can't name it what it technically is, because that's going to ostracize you.

What comes across in the film is that everyone knew what was going on, and it was fine until it became public knowledge.

Olafsdottir: They did know. It wasn't until everyone started knowing that Brandon was, underneath his clothes, a female, that the homophobia came in to play, because then that meant [the girls who dated Brandon] were lesbians.

Muska: These girls didn't identify as lesbians, and they were perfectly content to believe, "Well, he's a man, he's a man inside, that's what he says he is, and he's not a lesbian, therefore I'm not a lesbian."

Olafsdottir: When they found out Brandon didn't have a real penis, the relationship was too good to let go. And you know, they weren't jumping around on the bed with the lights on and their clothes off. They were young, they didn't know much about sex. A lot of these girls had been abused, and the boys they were having sex with weren't considerate in the way Brandon was.

Muska: If you compare having sex with someone nice, who treats you well, respects you, satisfies you sexually, to someone who ignores you, and just wants to get off, which would you choose? I think it's fair to say they suspended their disbelief because Brandon was such a great guy.

I saw a group of people looking at the poster for the film and one of the men said, "How could any girl go out with that and think it was a man?" And one of the women replied, "I have two words for you: Leonardo DiCaprio."

Olafsdottir: Girls love these kind of guys. They're non-threatening, they're sweet.

I was also struck that in the film, a lot of the women in the town were very masculine-looking, in particular John Lotter's sister, who has very short hair and a deep voice and talks about driving her truck. And the two men who killed Brandon are rather slight, with long hair ...

Muska: In this area you can look as butch as you want, as long as someone is not going to call you a guy. When we first went to Nebraska, we were like, "Whoa, this is like Provincetown [Mass.], with all these big women." We were the smallest people in town.

Olafsdottir: The whole thing comes down to the old saying, what the eye wants to believe ...

Muska: It makes you wonder what does really appeal to young girls and young guys. It may not be what people want to think it is.

There was something about Brandon these girls were really responding to.

Olafsdottir: They had never been treated the way Brandon treated them -- he was so different from the men they had been with before. It was such a nice thing for them -- he was bringing them flowers, he was listening to them, he didn't push sex. Not only was he adorable, but he also treated them with respect. And their mothers loved him, too.

Muska: A lot of the men in the town were going through that period of exploring their masculinity, and they were not tuned in to the girls at all. Most of them come from broken homes where they had no role models.

How did the town react to your presence?

Olafsdottir: We actually had a good time.

Muska: We spent a lot of time there. It took us a total of four years, from '94 to '98. One year we made eight trips, and we never spent less than a week -- one time we spent six weeks.

Olafsdottir: We went for both the trials. [Tom Nissen received three consecutive life sentences for the murders. John Lotter received the death penalty.] We were there all the time. Most people who covered the story came for one or two trips, got what they wanted and left. I think people respected how hard we were working to get to know the town and the community.

Muska: A lot of people didn't understand the whole story. People came to the screening in Lincoln this past November, and they were just sobbing, saying they never really understood the whole thing.

You never really explain Brandon's anatomical status in the film.

Olafsdottir: [No surgery] had been done.

Muska: The reason we didn't go into it was because we didn't think that was the main issue -- what was there or what had been done. But what had been done was nothing. Which is also why we didn't want to get involved in labeling Brandon, because Brandon was obviously still working through issues about identity.

Some of the girls refer to Brandon as he, some of them refer to Brandon as she ...

Muska: It's complicated. We told people not to feel conscious about referring to Brandon as a he or a she, because it depends on what stage they knew Brandon. It was very natural for the girlfriends to refer to Brandon as he, because that's how they knew him.

Was there a discrepancy between your understanding of gender issues and those of the people you met?

Olafsdottir: They are not exposed in general to gender playing, or transgenderism, and there are maybe four gay people in that town, and they are all in hiding ...

Muska: Well, they're not in hiding, but it's not talked about. They just aren't informed. You go to San Francisco or New York and you have a large chunk of audience who are informed about gender issues, and have a lot of information they can access if they want to. And you just don't have that in Falls City.

Had you been to the Midwest before you began the story?

Muska: No, never. I love Nebraska. It's really beautiful.

Olafsdottir: But, let's put it this way. It's never going to be the gay mecca.

Muska: People have a different sense of community -- it's like going back to the '50s in a sense.

Some articles have linked Brandon to Matthew Shepherd, calling them both martyrs to their causes. Do you see that connection?

Muska: No. They were both victims of hatred, but Matthew Shepherd was out, he was a gay rights advocate, he was free and somewhat combative about his identity and his desire to be accepted. Whereas Brandon was not -- I don't think he'd want to be known as a martyr. I think he'd be mortified at being held up as an icon for the transgendered or transsexual community. He wanted to be a straight guy, to live his life, and that was it.

Jennie Yabroff

Jennie Yabroff is a regular contributor to Salon.

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