I first came across Rebecca Swan’s extraordinary book “Assume Nothing” in the window display of a downtown bookshop. The striking cover photograph of an androgynous woman’s outstretched torso, leaning backwards over buttocks intricately tattooed with Maori ta moko drew me into the store. I sat perched there on a tiny stool until I had examined the stunning photographs and stories of alternative gender identity from cover to cover. I was immediately drawn to contact Rebecca, and to propose that we collaborate on a film, turning her stunning portraits from the book into “living” portraits in a feature-length documentary. To my delight she agreed, and the first film resulting from this collaboration, made as a Masters film student at the University of Auckland, is the pilot documentary BLACK AND WHITE,  which features  one  participant  from  the book - intersex activist Mani Bruce Mitchell.

     I was really struck by Rebecca’s provocative images of Mani, coupled with Mani’s frank story-telling accompanying the photographs. Mani describes being a “boy” for the first year of her life, and then becoming a “girl” as the doctors “re-diagnosed” her gender identity, and then how this secret was kept from her until s/he discovered the truth accidentally as an adult. The events of her childhood were so hard for me to take in, and yet   s/he seemed so compassionate, and so at ease with herself as an adult. S/he was also clearly dedicated to working with others to publicise the potential traumas associated with childhood genital surgery, and the typical secrecy surrounding such medical conditions and their treatment.

     I felt that Mani’s story coupled with Rebecca’s photographs would be a powerful way to explore visually how society’s adherence to fixed beliefs about “appropriate” masculinity and femininity are not only limiting, but potentially damaging, especially to people who, like Mani, really are simply different. When I approached Mani about the possibility of making a film together, s/he struck me with her extraordinary courage and openness, and I was moved by her willingness to trust me. Mani is so warm and articulate, with a wicked sense of humour, and there is no way that s/he sees herself as a victim. So I determined to find a way to explore her story and her decision to be photographed by Rebecca, in a way which looked with her, not merely at her, weaving colour, playfulness and optimism together with the painful facts of her past.

“Assume Nothing” Mani and Book Cover Images Courtesy of Rebecca Swan

Production still from Black and White courtesy of Kirsty MacDonald


Director’s Statement