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Independent Lens: Two Spirits

Two Spirits is most powerfully Pauline Mitchell's story, which is also her son's.

Independent Lens: Two Spirits

Director: Lydia Nibley
Cast: Pauline Mitchell, John Peters-Campbell, Cathy Renna, Wesley K. Thomas, Gail Binkly
Rated: NR
Studio: ITVS
Year: 2009
US date: 2011-06-14 (PBS)

Hey now man`s own kin

we commend into the wind

grateful arms grateful limbs

grateful soul he`s gone again

-- Patti Smith, "Gone Again"

"When he was little, he wanted to be like his dad, a Pacific Railroad worker," remembers Pauline Mitchell. Her son Fred Martinez, also a proud member of the Navajo nation, was murdered on 16 June 2001. He was just 16 years old, but by then, he had decided against being like his dad. He had embraced his own transgendered identity.

Mitchell recalls her son's story -- or more precisely, her story of her son -- for Two Spirits, airing this month as the last film in this season of PBS' Independent Lens (also screening in select community theaters and available on iTunes). As she speaks, most often in her home, with pictures of Fred behind her, Mitchell's face is by turns happy and sad, her sense of loss still visible nearly a decade later. It was early, she says, that Fred knew not only who he was, but also that he would be troubled for it. He asked her for one of her purses, she says, and though she wondered why, she never thought to stop him or to try to shape him. "'I like this one,'" she remembers her son saying, "And I said, 'Okay.'"

And again, when a teenaged Fred gathered her and his siblings to explain to them why he was wearing makeup and women's clothing, they all took him seriously and accepted what they heard. "He says, 'Well, I want t tell you guys, I'm like this. This is how I'm gonna be.'" Mitchell smiles for a moment, and then adds that Fred's oldest brother said, '"I'm just gonna tell you to be careful, take care, be careful what you do what you say, watch out.' Those words that he said meant a lot, you know.'" They meant, you know now, that everyone knew Fred would take a risk in making himself visible. Still, Mitchell explains, Fred was not alone, but rather, part of a tradition. "You know what they call that in Navajo," she explains, "They call that, if you want to be half man and half woman, they call it nádleehí"

Mitchell's memories form a compelling ground for Two Spirits, frequently illustrated by snapshots of Fred in his various selves, as Fredericka in mascara, a wig, and a headband, or as Fred in jeans and a t-shirt. Other interview subjects remember Fred in other ways: family friend John Peters-Campbell recalls, "He wanted to pursue a career that would take him out of the Four Corners area," away from Cortez, Colorado, the border town where Fred would live and die. And as he imagined his future, he also lived in the present: "He wanted to be beautiful, he made himself beautiful."

Other speakers never knew Fred, but their descriptions of their own transgendered experiences provide more context for his. Anthropologist Wesley Thomas remembers his grandmother bringing him, as a child, to sit with women, to share their support and understand their warmth. "You were different from the time you were two years old," she told him. And so, Thomas says, "With my grandmother's insistence, I began occupying these spaces where only women were given privilege to." Like Thomas, Richard LaFortune, named here a "Two Spirits Organizer," describes "standing in the crossroads," a place of "an eternal truth of how we reflect god or goddess." But it is also, he says, "The place where two discriminations meet... a dangerous place to live" in contemporary U.S. culture.

And of course, this is where the documentary must lead, to a contending with Fred's murder, by 18-year-old Sean Murphy, one night in the desert. The killer bashed in his head with two stones, leaving his body so broken that he was unrecognizable. The film offers a faceless reenactment: two young boys who discovered the body five days later, their backs to the camera. And then the body, bloodied and revealed only in close-ups, a hand, a sleeve. Peters-Campbell remembers, "It was a body completely divested of not only a soul but an identity." He and Cathy Renna, an LGBT activist from New York, determined to return Fred's identity, and to make clear how he died, as far as was possible.

Renna remembers her own version of events, arriving in Cortez and heading directly to the district attorney's office with Peters-Campbell. When the prosecutor suggested to them, "All crimes are hate crimes, right?" she told him, as politely as she might have, "If you say that public, we're gonna have you for breakfast." The point of the hate crime, she says now, is that it is "directed at an entire community and it creates a climate of fear in that community." In that way, she says, it affects more than the victim and her family: "People feel they have permission to attack other people because of who they are."

Murphy pled to a lesser charge and was sentenced to 40 years, long enough, Peters-Campbell says, so that Fred's mother will never face the possibility of seeing him on the street. The film insists on contexts, naming the hate crime, but also ensuring that Fred's self-understanding as nádleehí is not his alone. It also, most compellingly, illuminates Fred's connection to his mother. She describes life without her son, hearing his footsteps or feeling him inside the trailer where she still lives with her other children. "That was his phone," she says, "And ever since he's gone, that phone will never ring again. I just got it disconnected and bought a cell phone."

Mitchell also remembers finding her son again, in the mountains where she felt told to go. "Yeah, he's over there," she says, her face once again reflecting her mix of pain and joy, her love and her belief. And in the end, after the testimonies of transgendered individuals and the film's insistence on their community, you see that Two Spirits is most powerfully her story, which is also her son's. As much Fred remains her "baby," Mitchell can feel reborn in his embrace.


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