By Katie Chambers
NYWIFT member and Academy Award-nominated, Emmy-winning director Julie Cohen is no stranger to tackling hot button issues and profiling fascinating people in her work, from Ruth Bader Ginsburg to Julia Child to Pauli Murray and more. With each of her stories, she offers audiences a powerful and intimate look at a different slice of humanity, and empowers us to expand our horizons and learn from those from different walks of life.
In her latest film, Every Body, produced with NBC News Studios, Cohen focuses her lens on the intersex community. The film will premiere at the Tribeca Festival and be released theatrically by Focus Features on June 30. Cohen is one of 15 NYWIFT members with projects premiering at the 2023 festival.
Congratulations on your premiere! What does inclusion in the Tribeca Festival mean to you?
I’ve never had a film at Tribeca before and it’s so exciting. It feels really special to premiere a film in NYC which is home base for me and so many of my friends – and not just filmmakers, but civilians too!
I’m pumped about the whole Tribeca slate – the docs especially. When I’m not promoting my own doc, I’ll be watching docs made by my friends – and a few strangers that may soon be friends.
Tell us about Every Body. What inspired you to make the film?
Every Body explores the lives of three intersex people who emerged from childhoods marked by secrecy and non-consensual surgeries to come out as their full, authentic, joyous selves and to advocate for the rights of intersex children and adults. Woven into the story is a stranger-than-fiction historic story of medical abuse that helps explain the modern-day treatment of intersex people.
The inspiration behind the film was actually that historic story, much of which was stored in the NBC News archives. Five years ago, when NBC News Studios began their journey towards producing theatrical documentaries, they invited me to look through their archives for stories that might make worthy documentaries, I quickly gravitated to that story. Doing more research, I was blown away by the archival story and the modern developments that stemmed from it.
Every Body delves into a community and identity that often goes undiscussed, often tinged with shame and secrecy in the face of a heteronormative world. What kind of research did you do to prepare for the film, and what were your strategies to approach the topic with sensitivity and nuance?
Over the past few years, a lot of intersex activists have come out very loudly – many for the first time. This has been very much a phenomenon of the digital age so there was a TON for me to read, watch and listen to online.
I was lucky that as I was developing this project, Shana Knizhnik, who I’d become friendly with after interviewing her for RBG (which I co-directed with Betsy West), came out as intersex. Shana has journalistic and writing experience (her day job is being a lawyer!) so she was a great fit to come into this project as the consulting producer. Shana gave really helpful guidance on how to approach the topic.
On sensitivity, the key was to work with participants who had experience speaking publicly about intersex issues. We didn’t want anyone to feel they were being thrown into the deep end. In interviews I wasn’t asking a whole lot of probing questions. I was mostly just letting them describe their experiences. I’m a talkative person by nature, but when I’m making a film I’m more of a listener.
What was your favorite moment working on the film? And the biggest challenge?
I think the best moments making this film were the time I spent filming with each participant individually. One example that comes to mind was going to a museum exhibit in Berlin with Saifa Wall to film him seeing an intersex art exhibit which featured beautiful nude photos of himself. Having heard his description of years of secrecy and shame about his body, I found it incredibly moving to witness – and capture on film – Saifa regarding himself as a work of art.
The biggest challenge was trying to put together a narrative knowing how new our material is going to be for so much of the audience. The experiences of intersex people are complicated and varied and this film by no means covers them all. Editor Kelly Kendrick and I spent a lot of time working through how to include the information viewers are going to want and need without bogging the story down with so much information they can’t process it.
What do you hope audiences take away from Every Body?
I want audiences to walk out of the theater feeling inspired by the boldness of our participants Saifa, River, and Alicia. And I hope everyone who sees this film comes away wanting to learn more and then that they in fact go out and learn more.
Throughout your career, you’ve made a wide range of films that often focus on inspirational women and members of the LGBTQIA community. What kinds of stories excite you?
There are two kinds of documentaries I really love – both as a filmmaker and as someone who watches a lot of movies: I love a doc that makes you say, “How the hell did I not know about this?” And I love a doc where you feel so much admiration and fascination for the people on the screen that you’re just grateful to have been introduced to them for 90 minutes. I think Every Body fits both of those categories.
What’s next for you?
My main focus right now is getting Every Body as widely seen and talked about as possible. Meanwhile, I’m developing several other projects. Stay tuned.
Julie Cohen is the Academy Award® nominated, Emmy winning director and producer of RBG (Magnolia, Participant, CNN Films, 2018) along with Betsy West. Other theatrical documentaries she’s directed with West are: Julia (Sony Pictures Classics, Imagine, CNN Films) which premiered at the Telluride Film Festival and was shortlisted for an Academy Award; My Name is Pauli Murray (Amazon Studios, Participant Media) which premiered at Sundance and won a Peabody Award; and Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down (CNN FIlms, Briarcliff Entertainment) which premiered at SXSW and was nominated for two Critics Choice Awards. Solo projects include The Sturgeon Queens (7th Art Releasing, PBS) which screened at Berlinale 2015 and was named a Best of the Fest at San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, and Ndiphilela Ukucula: I Live to Sing (NY PBS) which won the 2014 New York Emmy Award for Best Arts Program. Before she started making documentaries, Julie was a staff producer for Dateline NBC. She holds a B.A. from Colgate and master’s degrees from Columbia Journalism School and Yale Law School.
Welcome to NYWIFT, Hyonok Kim! Hyonok is an award-winning filmmaker and choreographer who creates innovative and experimental film. Hyonok was born in South Korea, then studied film and dance in Paris and New York. Rather than dialogue, her films use dance to express interactions, bringing the emotional experience to the viewer. She choreographed and directed 15 dance films including Weeping Water, For Sunrise, Dance with Horses, Ode on a Korean Urn, Isle of Waiting Souls, Passion & Rebirth, South Sea to Isang Yun and L’Heure de Coq. Her films were shown at international film festivals and broadcasted in France, Germany, Australia, China, Korea, the Netherlands, and the USA. Now, she lives and works in the Bronx. Hyonok shares her inspirations in nature, as a choreographer and as a storyteller here!READ MORE
Beatriz was born in Brazil, then moved to New York in 2015 to study film at NYU. Her roots in Brasilia are close to her heart and are at the core of her work, from her 35mm black and white photography series to her upcoming feature film script. She was director of photography for Murielle’s “Can You Get Me High” music video and directed Foreign’s “Commando (feat. Da $ilva)” music video. She has taken photos for Brooklyn-based clothing brand ByLiv and behind-the-scenes photos for New York Magazine. Beatriz tells us about her artistic inspirations, her upcoming short film Shrapnel, and how her identity inspires her storytelling.READ MORE
Welcome to NYWIFT, Tanis Parenteau! Tanis Parenteau is Métis/Cree from the Métis Nation of Alberta. She is an actor, producer, and casting director. Her work focuses on uplifting Native voices telling contemporary and futuristic Native stories. As an actor, she has appeared on Billions, House of Cards, Designated Survivor, FBI: Most Wanted, Gossip Girl, and Tribal, and she has performed at The Public Theater, Signature Theater, 59E59, and Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Tanis has produced eight short films, has a short form digital series in post-production, and is developing multiple Native-led features and series. She is an associate casting director at tbd casting co in NYC. Her latest project, the short film Glenburn 12 WP, is fiscally sponsored by NYWIFT. Tanis spoke to us about her dedication to uplifting Native voices, how working in casting has influenced her performing, and the best advice she’s ever received.READ MORE
Welcome to NYWIFT, Gaelin Rosenwaks! Gaelin is a multitalented scientist, explorer, photographer, filmmaker, and author of Sperm Whales: The Gentle Goliaths of the Oceans. She founded Global Ocean Exploration Inc. in response to alarming changes to our oceans. Her aptitude for science and storytelling brought her on a journey that spans from appearing as an expert and host on many TV networks to being one of the few women featured on the cover of Outside Magazine. She is currently working on Finding Physty, a documentary about sperm whales. Gaelin shares more about her fascinating journey here!READ MORE