Trans and immigrant rights take center stage in The Garden Left Behind

The independently produced drama The Garden Left Behind (which makes its latest appearance on the festival circuit this weekend at Outfest in Los Angeles) is a passion project for both the people who made it and the New York City trans and immigrant communities it depicts. It was a difficult film to make – and, at times, a difficult film to watch – for a lot of reasons, but to hear director and co-writer Flavio Alves, co-writer John Rotondo, and supporting actress Tamara M. Williams tell the story of how The Garden Left Behind came to be, all of the hard work was necessary to make sure the core story of an undocumented Latinx transwoman trying to build a better life for herself was as authentic and bracingly realistic as it could possibly be.

The Garden Left Behind is the story of Tina, played by newcomer Carlie Guevara, an NYC taxi driver who has been living in the city with her aging grandmother (Miriam Cruz) since she was a child. She’s going through the rigorous process of being psychologically cleared to go ahead with gender reassignment surgery and completing her transition. She’s stuck in a slowly disintegrating relationship with a man (Alex Cruz) whose love is anything but unconditional. As an undocumented citizen, Tina’s supports are limited, leaving her torn at times between wanting to stay or moving back to Mexico. While she struggles with these personal issues, Tina remains an active part of her local and thriving trans community, which has been ramping up their visibility and raising their voices as the number of violent attacks against transwomen of colour in the city continues to rise. 

Alves, who’s an outspoken social activist in addition to being a filmmaker, put a lot of his own experiences into The Garden Left Behind, and he has committed himself to capturing stories of marginalized peoples and bringing them to the screen. At the same time, Alves and his collaborator Rotondo subscribe to the idea that you can’t write or depict something beyond your own experience without first getting lots of input from someone who knows those struggles better than anyone else. For Alves, who identifies as a gay Latino man, and Rotondo, who’s white, depicting the mental, physical, social, and political struggles faced by a transperson of colour meant spending a great deal of time with many members of that community and listening to their stories.

“Like all my films before this, The Garden Left Behind is about marginalized peoples in society, and this is a story about one of the most marginalized communities there is,” Alves says alongside Williams and Rotondo during a recent trip to Toronto for a screening his latest work at the Inside Out LGBT Film Festival. “When I started working on this film and I brought John on board to work with me, I told him that this is going to be a very different kind of film. We set it up as if we were setting up making a documentary in a lot of ways. We started by sitting down with members of the trans community before we even wrote the script. The best way to depict a community like this and the problems that they face is to put yourself in their shoes. I’m a gay man, and I was undocumented at one point in my life, so I understand those aspects of the story very well, but we still needed to learn from and listen to memebers of the trans community. We met with many people facing these same issues and we wanted to get as many perspectives from them as possible on their needs and struggles.”

“It was indispensable to hear all of these different, varied stories,” Rotondo adds. “Not every trans person has the same path in life, and we learned so much from that process. We wanted them involved with the project at every step of it, behind the camera as producers, on set as part of the crew, and as members of the cast. We had to have all trans actors playing all of the trans parts. We wanted them to feel empowered and tell their stories from their perspectives, especially those of trans women of colour. It’s fulfilling to make something like this, but it’s also just as fulfilling to meet people, make new friends, travel with them, and just listen to what they have to say, not just in terms of making the film, but now that we’re travelling around together in support of it and getting to meet people from other trans communities in different cities.”

The Garden Left Behind features fifty acting roles for transpeople, some of them playing roles that were originally written as cisgender parts, and some of whom, like Guevara, had never acted before in their lives. Behind the camera, there were more members of the trans community, with Alves repeatedly citing producers Kristen Parker Lovell and Devin Michael Lowe as major guiding forces throughout the filmmaking process. The film also functioned as a pipeline for other emerging trans filmmakers who wanted to hone their craft on a film set. It was a movie that couldn’t be made without the input of the trans community, and it was that sense of collaboration and open dialogue that came before any script was ever put to paper.

“When you usually make a film, you make the script and then you cast the film,” Alves explains about how the production team’s dialogue with members of the trans community shaped the film. “With this, it was different because you wanted to start with the community first and bring them to us. They always had a say in the story. If they ever said they thought something didn’t feel true to their experiences, we would always stop and listen. We wanted that at every step of the production. It’s challenging to make sure all of those voices and views are being heard and processed because sometimes not everyone has the same concerns, but as a director, it almost made the job easier. There were all of these people who wanted this story to be told, and I could defer and talk to them at all times.”

One of the driving forces for Alves beyond wanting to share stories of the trans and immigrant experience was the director’s unwavering desire for better representation and inclusivity on film. Just like there are parts of himself in his film’s main character, Alves wants The Garden Left Behind to symbolize the sort of change he wants to see in the industry.

“We hope that movies like ours and other projects that are using trans talent will force studios and producers into doing a better job when it comes to representation, because that matters so much now,” Alves passionately states. “Anything is possible, and people need to go the extra mile to make sure that there is representation, not just in terms of the cast and crew of a project, but in terms of the subject matter being covered. This is the future, and I want to be a part of that. I’m a filmmaker, but I’m also an advocate. I want those voices to be heard. I grew up in the seventies and eighties, and as a Latino, I only saw my race represented on screen as gangsters, drug dealers, and pimps in the American movies that I watched. That’s not fair. Then as a gay man, I saw AIDS devastate the community, and suddenly almost all the films surrounding gay people were dealing with AIDS. Neither of those representations are fair, and studios then could’ve done a much better job if they just did a little bit of research. Yes, there are pimps, drug dealers, and AIDS was a horrible disease, but there were also a lot of good people like doctors and lawyers who were nothing like those stereotypes. It was frustrating to never see that fair representation. We all have to do better, and I would love to help with that push. The trans community isn’t going to take that shit anymore from studios. Trans roles should be played by trans people, trans actors should be considered for cis roles, and they should be represented fairly, honestly, and free of stereotypes.”

It’s a sentiment that rising star Williams shares and also identifies with.

Tamara M. Williams in The Garden Left Behind

“I was a little black girl from the hood, so I definitely understand exactly what Flavio is saying,” Williams begins. “Being a black girl from the hood was my identity, and the expectations for what we could achieve based on what I saw in movies and on television growing up weren’t very high. Once I transitioned, it became ever harder to relate to a lot of those depictions that I saw. You start thinking, ‘I was one thing, and I’m my true self now, so where does that leave me?’ Flavio gave me a huge confidence booster to be myself and to share that honestly.”

“All of us were invested from the beginning,” WIlliams says about her experiences getting interviewed by Alves and his production team before shooting began. “When we talked to John and Flavio, there wasn’t anything that they left unturned. They wanted to know as much about as much of our lives as we felt comfortable talking about, so it was an easy movie to make without really any trepidation about how the trans community would be depicted. They came to us and said they wanted something authentic, and they wanted to know everything that was missing.”

“It’s so important to me to have visibility, especially for someone like myself who grew up in the Jerry Springer and Ricki Lake era where all of these talk shows were trotting out trans people just to ask ‘Is this a man or a woman?,’” Williams continues. “For the longest time, that was the extent of seeing trans people in the media. I knew who I was, but those kinds of depictions in no way represented me. I knew who I was, but that sort of thing made me not want to be myself. Today, I’m a lot happier with the kind of representation that we have. I’m inspired by the community that we have and all my trans sisters and brothers. I see the heights we can soar to. We just had Indya Moore become the first trans woman on the cover of Elle. We have people like Mj Rodriguez getting nominated for awards. To me, things like this are important because it shows this and future generations that achieving your dreams while being trans is possible. For the longest time I didn’t think it was. Now I do. I think when people see a film, it translates into reality for a lot of viewers.”

The Garden Left Behind looks at a number of important issues facing transwomen, immigrants, and people of colour through the eyes of its main character, who’s trying her best not to be overwhelmed by everything. Her relationship is crumbling, there’s a foreboding sense that something bad could be just around the corner, she’s becoming more engaged as a community activist, and sometimes her ideas and opinions about things don’t line up with everyone else around her. At the same time, Alves’ film always goes the extra mile to show that Tina is loved and respected by her grandmother and her friends. That layer of warmth in a story that many could see as harsh, stressful, and trying was always important to convey for all parties involved.

“We never wanted to emphasize stereotypes about people who are struggling,” Alves says about everyone’s desire to avoid storytelling shortcuts. “We wanted Tina to be seen as the person you might see on the bus sitting next to you. We wanted to present her as someone whose life you knew nothing about just by looking at her. She’s not an average person, but like so many of us, she’s trying to find love and stability in her life. Anyone can fall in love with her and understand those struggles, and the reality she faces isn’t always safe and happy.”

“To me, showing Tina’s relationship to her grandmother was very important,” Rotondo adds about his favourite emotional aspect of the film. “Even though it was a complicated, and her grandmother was constantly misgendering her and wanting to keep her in the cocoon of the house, you could still see that love and desire to understand. It was also important that Tina was an activist in her own life, and that she had a strong group of friends around her. In many ways, the garden she leaves behind in the title are the grandmother and those friends. They give her hope that change will come.”

Williams, who plays one of Tina’s closest confidants, Carol, it was the main character’s well defined and unique perspective that drew her further into the story.

“There’s a lot of beauty in the world, and we see it all through Tina’s eyes, which I think was a really important decision for the movie and one of the things I loved the most about the writing,” she says in praise of Alves and Rotondo. “When I got the script, there was something overwhelmingly authentic about Tina that I immediately responded to. Tina was still relatively at the beginning of her transition, and during that time, a lot of us going through something similar do have rose coloured glasses on. We have certain expectations of how we look, how we’ll be treated, and how the world will see us. It can be this really blissful time, but Tina also faces all of these problems that people in the trans community have faced for years. The problems trans people face don’t have time limits. You could be transitioning for two days or twenty years and those issues aren’t going to vanish. I think that was a really important balance to show between how she views herself and how the world views her.”

For all of its inclusivity and representation, The Garden Left Behind hasn’t been without its fair share of controversy along the way. One of the many subjects covered in Alves’ film is violent, transphobic acts committed against trans women of colour, a major aspect of the story that was heavily debated throughout production among the cast and crew, and something that has made it hard for The Garden Left Behind to gain acceptance into some film festivals. Even the festivals have chosen to screen it (including South by Southwest, where it picked up an audience award) have been careful to include a content warning in their programming notes. Alves understands and respects why these conversations have been taking place, insisting that this aspect of the story came only through similar dialogues with those working on the film.

“It was a difficult decision for me to make as a filmmaker,” Alves begins, “but our trans producers were pushing us to talk about this because it was important to them that we talk about that violence, especially what’s faced by trans women of colour. It’s ugly, but violence is sometimes part of the experience. It’s definitely part of the larger picture of issues facing trans women. It’s part of their truth. I knew that would spark a strong emotional reaction from the public, but you don’t take these things lightly and you don’t do them because they are easy. You do this because you want to tell a human story and you want to educate. Ignoring the problem is never the solution. We couldn’t ignore that, but at the same time we did speak to members of the trans community who acknowledged the violence but didn’t want to talk about it. They wanted to be left out of it, and I understand that. On one hand, I can respect that some people want to change the narrative and not discuss the violence. On the other, I would be doing a disservice to a lot of people if we didn’t discuss it and look at the reality. We never approached it lightly.”

But beyond the violence, The Garden Left Behind has also provoked a lot of other discussions of what it means to be trans or an undocumented immigrant in the United States, and those dialogues intensify with each passing day. Alves began discussions surrounding the film five years ago, before the election of Donald Trump as President. In those five years, many rights and freedoms afforded to trans people and immigrants have been gained and lost, with the discussions surrounding them growing louder, more inescapable, and more important by the day.

“It just made our work more urgent, and it made our desire to have people see it even greater,” Rotondo says about how the film’s importance has grown over the past five years. “Look at what’s happening with military bans, talk about the wall, immigrant camps, raids; every day things get more and more discouraging. I hope this film has the ability to open a lot of eyes and hearts and turn a lens on a lot of these issues surrounding immigration and trans rights.”

“For me, this film is right on time,” Williams adds. “Just a few days before we came up here, there were three murders of black trans women in different states. They were in different places, but they all happened around the same time. To me, you see that and you feel like we’re almost being killed for sport. It’s so perfectly on time. There has never been a film like this. We haven’t had a film about trans people that talks at the same time about family, about friendship, about our jobs, about the role of the media in our lives, about our activism, and just about leading quote-unquote ‘normal lives.’ That means a lot. As a black woman, it means a lot to have something like this that reminds me that I’m worth it and that my contributions are necessary, because the world won’t always do that for you. It’s a burden that some girls can’t handle, and now more than ever we need to remind people that they aren’t alone.”

The Garden Left Behind screens at Outfest in Los Angeles on Monday, July 22 at 9:30pm.

Andrew Parker
Andrew Parker fell in love with film growing up across the street from a movie theatre. He began writing professionally about film at the age of fourteen, and has been following his passions ever since. His writing has been showcased at various online outlets, as well as in The Globe and Mail, BeatRoute, and NOW Magazine. If he's not watching something or reading something, he's probably sleeping.

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