"Man Made" looks at the transgender experience through what seems like a highly specific lens: The only bodybuilding competition for transgender participants. But focusing on competitors at different stages, facing a variety of issues, offers a complex, nuanced view, in a way that does a lot of heavy lifting for a small film.
Setting these various coming-out journeys against this backdrop provides a means of considering traditional images of masculinity, and in the case of bodybuilding, the enormous amounts of hard work that goes into achieving them.
The exposed nature of the sport also serves as a metaphor for the way these men, assigned and raised female, bare themselves emotionally. The release is timed to Transgender Awareness Week.
Director T Cooper spent a long time documenting his subjects, following them as they prepare for the competition. Through their stories, the conversation widens to include not only the four competitors but those around them.
Rese Weaver, for example, is dealing with being periodically homeless, an ordeal that's magnified by being trans; Mason Caminiti acknowledges that he's still self-conscious enough that he won't be naked in front of his wife; Dominic Chilko, adopted, seeks out his birth mother; and Kennie Story grapples with a complicated relationship as he prepares to begin taking testosterone, causing his girlfriend, a lesbian, to question what kind of future they can have together.
Bodybuilding is thus merely the framework against which these stories unfold. We also get to know their families, which have responded to having a trans son or brother with varying levels of comfort and acceptance. Kennie's mom is deeply religious, but says -- while still using female pronouns -- "I love her. That trumps everything."
Along the way, there are discussions about coming out, as well as the heightened dangers and threats of violence that trans people face, including a tragedy that strikes close to home.
The build-up to the competition, known as Trans FitCon, actually feels a trifle anticlimactic; still, the anti-trans protests that surround the event underscore the bigger picture and ongoing struggle for acceptance -- one that will continue, as "Man Made" makes clear, after the posing ends.
"Man Made" is available on VOD platforms iTunes, Google Play, Amazon and Vimeo. Transgender Awareness Week begins on Nov. 13.