My Prairie Home opens with an upside-down landscape: The flat prairie terrain becomes the sky; below it, white clouds hover against celestial blue. It's immediately apparent that something is askew, topsy-turvy. This prairie story is going to turn your head around, take you to unexpected places.
Described as a documentary-musical, this filmed portrait of transgender singer-songwriter Rae Spoon challenges notions of musical genre and gender identity through intensely personal interviews, videos, narration and musical performances recorded while the artist toured the Prairies by bus.
"I hadn't seen anything like what I was envisioning in my head, so it was actually kind of hard to explain to other people – producers and funders," says director Chelsea McMullan. The film is having its U.S. debut this week at the Sundance Film Festival – the only Canadian feature to be screened in competition this year. "I was flying by the seat of my pants, kind of making it up as I went along."
Produced by the NFB, the film's first scene introduces Spoon, guitar slung over their shoulder (Spoon asks to be referred to as "they" rather than a gender-specific pronoun) in a Calgary truck stop – their appearance androgynous, their voice angelic. Crooning the folkie-acoustic Cowboy, they circle through the diner; its patrons' reactions range from disinterest to mild surprise.
The director and her subject first met when Spoon composed some music for McMullan's first NFB short, Deadman. The idea of making a film about Spoon grew out of their friendship, the musician's fascinating story and the frustration McMullan felt at the lack of mainstream attention for Spoon's music.
"I was kind of sick and tired of seeing so many white dudes with beards who were not nearly as talented as Rae being far more successful," says McMullan, 29. "I truly felt like more people just needed to hear [Spoon] sing."
Spoon laughs when I share that story later that morning, over a soy latte in Vancouver (Spoon is in town to perform at the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival).
"I think she met me right after I'd retired from the country music circuit, which as a trans person … was pretty full-on. Also the worst business plan ever," says Spoon, 33. "I think when you're trans or there's anything kind of not fitting [into] a media image kind of thing, it's a lot more work to kind of get it across, to be like, 'okay, [I'm transgender], but I also make music.'"
Spoon grew up in Calgary, and dealt not only with ostracism and bullying at school, but also big troubles at home, where their Christian/Pentecostal parents were obsessed with the Rapture. Spoon found some respite, moving in with their kind grandmother. And at school, Spoon found a kindred spirit who became their girlfriend.
Among the most poignant moments in this film is a recreated prom – boutonnière, balloons and all – for the former sweethearts who, terrorized by the other students, were not able to attend their own graduation. "We really couldn't go," Spoon says. "It wasn't safe." In the scene, the couple – long broken up but still friends – stride through the halls of their old high school, hand-in-hand, then dance together to Spoon's determined I Want. "I don't care if it's right or wrong," the song goes. "I just want what I want what I want."
After graduation, Spoon moved to Vancouver and had their first exposure to transgender people – leading to a fundamental personal revelation.
Musically, Spoon started out as a country artist but moved into experimental and electronic music. The 2008 album Superioryouareinferior was long-listed for the Polaris Prize.
That same year marked the beginning of this three-pronged multidisciplinary collaboration with McMullan, an often painfully autobiographical project "that was totally organic and accidental," the director says. "[Spoon] had a lot of difficulties accessing some of those more traumatic memories, and so I said 'why don't you sort of write it down first and e-mail it to me and then I'll have a road map of what we're talking about and how I can ask you the question.'"
Last year Spoon released the album My Prairie Home, and the film had its premiere at the Vancouver International Film Festival. Each of the projects' platforms contains revelations about Spoon's life. "Before that, Rae may as well have come from a stork," says McMullan. "They never talked about their earlier history at all."
Spoon, who lives in Montreal, will be at Sundance for the film and will also perform at the festival. This could be a big moment for the indie artist. "There's no telling how much exposure I'll get in America, but I think Sundance is a pretty good springboard for that," says Spoon.
And it is a huge moment for McMullan, whose feature debut was also nominated this week for a Canadian Screen Award for best feature-length documentary, and was recently named best Canadian documentary by the Vancouver Film Critics Circle.
McMullan is pleasantly surprised. She says that because Spoon wasn't well-known and the film was difficult to categorize, "I was worried that no one would see it, and it would get buried somewhere deep underground. I was hopeful that maybe it would get a sort of cult following. But I never thought that it would go to Sundance."