Julie Cohen’s latest documentary, “Every Body,” premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival, starts with clips of gender reveal parties. As a male-sung rendition of Ronnie Spector’s “Be My Baby” plays, we see happy couples celebrating their upcoming pregnancies, as pink and blue smoke/confetti/etc swirls in the air. But juxtaposed with this happy scene is the knowledge that, as the doc lays out, 1.7% of people have intersex traits, ie they are born with a combination of male and female biology.
These numbers are skewed, according to Cohen, because people are too afraid to disclose whether they belong to the intersex community, and as the rise in anti-trans legislation starts to take hold, it leaves intersex people even more fearful of advocating for themselves. Into this world Cohen introduces the audience to three intersex advocates: Sean Saifa Wall, Alicia Roth Weigel and River Gallo. Each have a unique story of being intersex people that acts as the launchpad for a series of different looks at how intersex people have been treated historically and how they continue to be treated today.
The tone of “Every Body” is an interesting one. While it certainly looks at dark, intense topics within the intersex community, like Cohen (and co-director Betsy West’s) last documentary, “RBG,” there’s a buoyancy and hopeful attitude to everything, no doubt aided by hearing Wall, Weigel and Gallo discuss coming to terms with their own identities as intersex. This is coupled with pop songs sung by performers of a different gender than their original performance, like Ronnie Spector’s “Be My Baby” being sung by a male performer. Or a rendition of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” performed by a woman. All of these showcase the beauty, and irrelevance, of limiting things to a binary.
But what’s packed into a brief 92-minutes is compelling and, no doubt, will surprise anyone who experiences the documentary. The three people at the center are never perceived as subjects, but all are vocal about their intersex issues, from Weigel saying that removing her internal testes, called a gonadectomy, is equivalent with castration to Wall reading his original medical records, detailing how the hospital told his parents he was female to protect their well being despite Wall being born without a uterus.
From there, Cohen lays out the history of intersex medical treatment, which ranges from the bizarre to the downright cruel. The case of David Reimer, one of half of a set of identical twins, forced to live as a girl after a medical accident is documented, with Weigel, Gallo and Wall watching footage at home. It’s one thing for the audience to hear this story, coupled with “Dateline” footage of an emaciated, meek Reimer recounting his experience before committing suicide in 2004 and another to see the look of sadness and understanding from Cohen’s talking heads. Later, it’s revealed that much of the intersex medical treatments today come from debunked studies of the Reimer case.
“There’s a culture of shame and stigma,” it’s said in the documentary. “This person becomes a specimen.” Interestingly, Cohen and cinematographers Leah Anova, Amy Bench and Kate Phelan never make their subjects specimen, keeping the camera focused on their faces and not their respective bodies. The only time Gallo, Weigel and Wall are shown in full is when they’re advocating or performing, or during the closing credits when everyone gets a chance to let loose and dance.
“Every Body” is about a serious and under-reported topic, yet Cohen makes it fascinating without ever exploiting the trio of people she’s documenting. It’s the purest form of documentary, wherein the goal is to educate and inform without falling into prurient interest. “Every Body” is a must-watch for anyone from a marginalized community or anyone looking at the current political landscape we’re in.
“Every Body” releases in theaters June 30.