Film

Trans Canada documentary takes a new direction

'We realized it wasn't about Samson, it's about the people'

Filmmaker and photographer Samson Learn with his motorbike. (Photo taken in April 2016)
Filmmaker and photographer Samson Learn crossed Canada in search of transgender stories.   Delaney MacKay

Halifax filmmaker and photographer Samson Learn set off in late June on a cross-country road trip to a new home in Vancouver – and, along the way, he wanted to do more than just drive and camp.

He planned to film a series of interviews at more than 30 stops, with hopes of producing a documentary with the working title, Trans Canada Documentary.

Learn wanted tell his own story as well as the stories of other transgender Canadians. He was going to avoid the direct and faster Trans Canada Highway route, since his motorbike could only ride on back roads because of its small size.

(Audio recorded in September 2016 and video footage in April 2016, by Delaney MacKay)

Things changed.

Early on, Learn and producer Jake Ivany, who made the trip in his car, revised their project plans. Learn says the purpose of the trip didn’t change, but the documentary’s format and delivery did.

“We mainly decided to drop the 40-minute piece because that was supposed to focus on Samson’s journey,” says Ivany. “(In) a few days in we realized it wasn’t about Samson, it’s about the people.”

Learn says to call “T.C.D.” a documentary would be misleading; rather, it’s an archive or “insightful look” at conversations between trans folk that help “humanize” the transgender community.

“We’re talking about things outside of being trans and the way people contribute to and enrich the communities that they’re a part of, not just their trans status,” says Learn.

The new plan

Leading up to the New Year, Learn and Ivany will use their footage to create a web series of short, two to three minute highlight videos.

Next year, they plan to release a series of longer videos that explore specific and reoccurring issues covered in their interviews. These will range from ten to twelve minutes in length. Learn won’t disclose the issues addressed in the web series until it’s released.

“Time will tell,” he says.

He did say they will be released for free on YouTube, making the series accessible to anyone who can find a library with an Internet connection.

Learn says the series will highlight certain problems he discovered during his time on the road, issues the trans community all across Canada are facing.

The voices

Halifax trans activist and entertainer Chris Cochrane is one of the first faces of the T.C.D. web series. Cochrane says she and Learn go “way back” and were friends before either of them started their transitions.

Cochrane hopes the web series will highlight diversity in the trans community and help children who are coming out as trans to know they “are not alone.”

Another Haligonian featured in the web series is Jay Aaron Wilson. Wilson, too, hopes the series will showcase “why Canada is strengthened by diversity.”

Wilson owns Cape and Cowl Comics and Collectibles in Lower Sackville and says Learn focused on his comic shop and youth drop-in centre, while also asking few questions about being transgender.

Going the distance

Learn and Ivany spent two months and three days on the road, travelling about 20,000 km. They went as far west as Tofino, B.C.

They agreed every day was different and that there was no such thing as a daily routine, as living on the road can be unpredictable.

It was challenging at times, Learn says, to hear stories about abuse, addiction, violence and abandonment while being away from the people he leans on for support. Learn says he found a lot of support in Ivany, even though he was also experiencing these stories.

“He needed support too, and neither of us were strong enough at times to carry one another,” says Learn.

What’s happening now

Learn says throughout their trip, he discovered how “magnificent” Canada’s people and landscape are, as well as the importance of listening.

“I learned that phone calls are so much better than texting messaging.”

Learn had planned to stay in Vancouver while Ivany drove back to Halifax. After their stay in Toronto for Pride Week, something clicked for Learn.

“Maybe it was the crowd, maybe it was the weather. There was a certain sense of familiarity about Toronto.”

Learn says he decided to return to Toronto for many reasons. Besides the more affordable flight than from Vancouver to Halifax and Toronto’s film industry, he also found Lake Ontario “grounding.”

“I knew where it was at all times, the way we know where the ocean is when you’re home,” he says. “It felt inviting and it felt comfortable, it felt like the right choice.”

During the Toronto stop Learn decided to leave his bike behind and drive with Ivany in his car for the remainder of the trip. The Trans Canada Documentary finally took to the Trans-Canada Highway.

After leaving Toronto, Learn returned to Halifax with Ivany for three weeks. After his stay in the Maritimes he moved to Toronto, where he lives now.

Learn says he and Ivany are currently editing footage for the web series and he’s been talking to Toronto filmmakers who are looking for documentary-camera style work.

“I will continue to tell stories through video and photo wherever I am.”