Beyond the garden

Flavio Alves on telling authentic stories, representing violence, and The Garden Left Behind

by Jennie Kermode

Carlie Guevara in The Garden Left Behind
Carlie Guevara in The Garden Left Behind

In the first part of my interview with Flavio Alves about The Garden Left Behind, we discussed how the film was influenced by his own experiences as a South American immigrant in the US, and he spoke at length about the research he had done with transgender people to bring authenticity to this story of a young trans woman, Tina [Carlie Guevara], trying to build a life for herself and her grandmother while navigating the bureaucracy of medically-supported transition. we began to second part of our discussion by talking abut the way he portrayed activism within the film. Tina herself is a quiet woman and not the sort of person who would normally speak out, but her friends persuade her to do so after a local trans woman is murdered. At the time of writing, at least 15 trans people, mostly people of colour, have been murdered in the US in 2019. Flavio explained that the women he interviewed prior to making his film were living in fear, that this drove their activism, and that this is why he felt it was his duty to include it in the film.

"She had everything I was looking for" - Flavio Alves on Carlie Guevara
"She had everything I was looking for" - Flavio Alves on Carlie Guevara

“It’s always after a tragedy that the community comes together to fight for survival, and their survival depends on their ability to mobilise,” he says. “It’s about survival, it’s not political. We tried to not be political. So anyone can relate to that.”

The film isn’t all about the lives of women, however. There are interesting male characters, especially Chris (Anthony Abdo), who works in a shop near Tina’s home and whose growing obsession with her gradually turns to aggression. His story plays out in parallel to hers, exploring the way that rigorously enforced ideas about gender can have damaging effects on anyone.

“I ask people to not vilify him, and the reason for that is that he is the creature of our society. It created him. Whether it’s toxic masculinity or peer pressure, and he’s faced a lot of issues. I tried to understand him in different ways... I wanted something a little open so we don’t know for sure if he had a crush on her or if he was actually struggling with his own gender identity, or the combination of both. We wanted to confuse the audience. We wanted the audience to leave the theatre and start a conversation. I want to spark a debate and I hope we achieved it... He’s a very complicated character.”

The way the film addresses violence was something Flavio approached with caution.

“It could be very hard for a lot of people to watch, and we saw that reaction in the theatre. We knew that by doing this film it would trigger an emotional response and we’ve seen that in festivals – people leaving the theatre or yelling at me or the screenwriter or the crew. But shining a light on the issue sometimes is the first step toward affecting change. I hope with this film we start a conversation on how fragile those lives are.

“That’s the reason why I made this film. I want people to be upset. I want people to be angry. Because that’s exactly the way I felt while I was doing those interviews. I don’t want people to run away from the larger picture and the larger picture is violence is part of the experience. I interviewed hundreds of trans people and nearly all of them mentioned violence – physical or emotional or verbal. I want people to understand that by not talking about the violence we are not helping the cause. We need to talk about it.

"My character is a woman who puts her heart and her dreams into becoming a new person" - Flavio Alves
"My character is a woman who puts her heart and her dreams into becoming a new person" - Flavio Alves

“This film was not an easy film to make. People don’t know behind the scenes but I fought a lot about Frameline, Outfest, Inside Out, because they rejected the film. I mobilised the trans community and my producers called every trans organisation everywhere in the country and we pushed them to take the film. They had to revise their decisions and they took the film.”

Their concern was, he explains, that too many films about trans people focus on the negative and they want to encourage a shift in the narrative.

“Most of those films are done by cis men like myself – I’m a gay man but I’m still a cis man,” says Flavio. “They think they need more uplifting types of stories. I understand that. We need all types of stories – the bad, the good, the heartbreaking – because that’s all part of our experience. In my film we tried to not reinforce stereotypes. We tried to make Tina as loveable as a girl sitting on the bus next to you. Instead of being a sex worker or a hairdresser, she’s a cab driver. We looked for many different ways to reflect the day to day life of a trans person in this country. But on the other hand, it would do a disservice not to talk about violence when that violence has been heavily emphasised in the interviews. It would be like erasing an important part of their stories.

“We understand that they are looking for more uplifting stories but they cannot just erase all the stories that are sad because this film is an important film... On the other hand, they punished us by not putting our film up for competition, which is very sad. Across those three major festivals we didn’t get a single award, as opposed to all the other gay and lesbian film festivals we went to. And we’ve had 51 reviews now and all those reviews but one are positive. it was shocking to me that they treated the film the way they did. I’m an established filmmaker – I just directed an episode of Pose – so I don’t depend on LGBT film festivals, but I think the trans community who stood behind me, they think that their voice has been erased from the conversation.

The Garden Left Behind poster
The Garden Left Behind poster

“I hope I also brought something positive to the story. Anyone can relate to that story because my character is a woman who puts her heart and her dreams into becoming a new person, finding love, finding financial stability.”

He sympathises with the desire to break away from clichés, he says, and tried hard to do that in this film.

“I am a gay man myself. I understand what it means to be an outsider, to be left out. I grew up in the Eighties watching American films where the only thing I could be was a pimp or a gangster, as a Latino, as a gay man. Or dying of AIDS, things like that. And I though, that’s not me, you know? That doesn’t portray me fairly. And there is a lot of marginalisation as a result because that’s how people see you.

“I didn’t want, when I was making this film, to be limited to my own experience, to what I knew about trans people. I didn’t want to make the same mistake. I wanted to make sure, when I made this film, that I had everyone seated at the table. That’s the best way to capture authenticity.”

The film is still touring on the festival circuit and Flavio is determined to keep advocating on behalf of the people whose stories it reflects.

“I remember something that Ivana Black [who plays Tina’s friend Amanda in the film] told me – she told me ‘Every time I leave home I don’t know if I’ll come back.’ Not a single day goes by that I don’t think about those words.”

Read what Flavio Alves had to say about the research behind the film, the importance of family and life as an undocumented immigrant.

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