A Perfect Fit
-by Justin Shady
Sept. 6, 2007
photo by C. Taylor
For whatever reason, we tend to categorize everything around us. Everyone comes with labels. Maybe we do it out of need for organization, or possibly it’s just laziness – it’s easier to respond and interact with something that’s easily categorized
Ashley Altadonna’s most important label is that of filmmaker. Of course, there are other labels she admittedly carries – transgender, lesbian and feminist are the three she most often gets asked about. Her seven-minute documentary “Whatever Suits You” will be showing Saturday, Sept. 15th, at the LGBT Film/Video Festival, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.
Running Sept. 6-16th at the Oriental and UWM Union theatre, the festival offers 11 days of films and videos that focus on the lesbian, gay, bi, and transgendered communities. And while the the other films may be just as good as Altadonna’s, it’s hard to believe that many of them can be as revealing and honest.
“Whatever Suits You” documents two separate journeys: the journey of a man becoming a woman, and the journey of an old suit becoming a new dress. Shot and narrated by Altadonna, the film begins with still shots of Ashley from her childhood and then documents almost abstractly, the cutting, sewing and measuring that goes into the creation of a new dress.
“My dad got remarried three years ago,” explained the 28-year old, “and I had this suit that I wasn’t doing anything with. It was just collecting dust, so I had my friend help me change it into a dress I could wear to the wedding.”
Moving to Milwaukee
Originally from Houston, Altadonna found herself at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1998 to pursue a film degree.
“I spent a year an half at SAIC,” Altadonna said, “but there wasn’t a structured film department there, and I wasn’t really getting the classes I wanted. I had friends that were attending (Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design) and through them found out about the film program at UWM.”
Ashley moved to Milwaukee and transferred to UW-Milwaukee in 2000. While she knew she loved filmmaking, she wasn’t quite sure what kind of filmmaking she wanted to do until she made “Whatever Suits You”.
“This film was a total departure from anything I had done before,” she said. “I started out doing cheesy little narratives, but I got bored with them very quickly. I started watching more experimental films, and from that I started approaching filmmaking more like poetry, mixing experimental and poetic sensibilities.” The result is a documentary that also serves as the the backstory of her life.
“So many documentaries about transsexual people are so formulaic. I consciously didn’t want to do that with this film,” she said. “I made a conscious effort to make it as plain and simple as possible so that it was easy to understand. A lot of the stuff on transgendered people is confusing, and people have a tendency to get confused with the technical terms.”
A Face In Her Film
But going from being strictly behind the camera to being in front of the camera took some getting use to.
“After I graduated in 2004, I made this film/” Altadonna said, “and up until then I hadn’t tackled anything personal in my work before. But this film changed that – this film brought purpose. I would really struggle for ideas before, and because of that, those films weren’t quite as successful. I made “Whatever Suits You” entirely for personal reasons, aside from the whole film festival scene.”
Still, the festival scene has accepted Altadonna and her work with open arms. In addition to the film festival in Milwaukee, her work has been screened at both San Francisco’s Frameline Festival and Seattle’s Transgender Film Festival.
“As far as I know, the Seattle Transgender Film Festival is the only film festival that exists entirely for transgendered people, so I really wanted to create something for that,” Altadonna said.
But film festivals aren’t the only ones that have been embracing her work. “At the time I made it, I wasn’t thinking about how other people might take it/” Altadonna said. “I also never expected it to play for the number of people it has played for. but that’s one of the amazing things to me: how well it has been received.
“Before, with my other work, family and friends would react more like, ‘Oh you made a movie. That’s nice.’ But with ‘Whatever Suits You,’ a lot of people have been able to make a personal connection with it, even if they’re not going through what I’ve gone through,” Altadonna said.
And friends and family aren’t the only ones taking notice of the young filmmaker since the release of “Whatever Suits You.” Altcinema, a San Francisco based distribution company that represents lesbian, gay, bi and transgendered films, recently offered Altadonna a distribution deal.
“They contacted me at the end of last year. It’s owned by two women, and one of them, Kami Chisholm, directed a great documentary called ‘FtF: Female to Femme,’” Altadonna said. Details are still being worked out on hard distribution of Altadonna’s work, but Altcinema’s website (altcinema.com) does offer a pay-per-view download of “Whatever Suits You”.
What’s next for this filmmaker who just recently finally found her groove?
“I’m working on another gender film,” said Altadonna, “but this one is a little different. It’s called ‘Playing With Gender.’ It’s an educational film done up in a 1950′s style. So many people I know have questions about transgendered people, so I wanted to make a film that explained it all in a fun way.”
And if she’s able to get the final edit done in time, “Playing With Gender” will also be playing a the LGBT Film Festival next week before”FtF: Female to Femme”. As far as what her next geographical move will be, Altadonna has few options open.
“I do love Milwaukee. It’s become more my home than Texas ever was,” she said. “Also my girlfriend, Maria is still going to UWM, so I’ll be here for a here for a while. I’m currently working at Barnes & Noble, and I volunteer at Broad Vocabulary, so it would be great if I could find a job in my field and actually get paid to do it. Things just recently have really started to take off for me, so right now I’m just seeing where they take me. Toronto has a great film scene, Chicago…I’d love to stay in Milwaukee, but we’ll just have to see.”