Hello World Communications
Hello World Communications - Tools & Services for the Imagination - HWC.TV

Film Festival Today

Founded by Jeremy Taylor

Tribeca Interview with “Every Body” Director Julie Cohen

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | June 28th, 2023

EVERY BODY director Julie Cohen

Filmmaker Julie Cohen has long worked alongside colleague Betsy West to deliver such terrific documentaries as Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down, Julia, My Name Is Pauli Murray, and RBG. Her latest film, Every Body, just premiered at the 2023 Tribeca Film Festival (where I reviewed it), and this time, she is alone in the directing chair. In the movie, Cohen explores the lives of three people who are intersex: Alicia Roth Weigel, River Gallo, and Sean Saifa Wall. If you don’t know what “intersex” means, then by all means watch the film! (And watch it even if you do!) Every Body is a rousing portrait of a group of determined individuals who will not be ignored. Along the way, we also learn a great deal of history, science, and the history of science. I had a chance to chat with Cohen by Zoom just after Tribeca’s end, and now here is that interview, edited for length and clarity. The film comes out in theaters on Friday, June 30, courtesy of Focus Features.

l-r: Sean Saifa Wall, River Gallo, and Alicia Roth Weigel from EVERY BODY, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of FOCUS FEATURES ©2023 FOCUS FEATURES LLC

Christopher Llewellyn Reed: So, where’s Betsy this time?

Julie Cohen: At this moment, Betsy and I do have projects we’re working on together as well as some projects that we’re doing separately. This project dates back to 2018, just as we were finishing up RBG, but before we had done a whole string of films, when my friends at NBC, from when I used to work as a Dateline producer, invited me to come back and take a look through their archives for stories that might make good jumping-off points for documentaries. The plan wasn’t necessarily for me to make those documentaries; I was just doing some development work for them, as I’ve done over the past 15 years or so, ever since I left Dateline.

So the thought was, “Oh, take a look through the archives, see what stories that we’ve done here might make cool docs and just sort of write up some and do a little research.” And I found a number of things that I thought could make decent docs or doc series. And then there was the story that is a part of this film, a kind of interesting historic-archival story that’s a section of the current movie about a really wild case of authorized medical abuse, going back to the 1950s, that was such an incredible story. 

It was a story I remembered from—I did not produce it—but a story that I remembered from my time at NBC that just seemed like a really rich and fascinating one and that led me into researching what the modern-day implications are. And that’s when it became clear the impact that this old historic case had on how intersex people have been treated over many decades. And I just said at the time, “Wow, this subject matter is one that if we were to pursue this, I’d love to direct this documentary myself.”

A still from EVERY BODY featuring Dr. John Money ©Focus Features

CLR: And you’re talking, of course, when you talk about the archival, about the horrific case of David Reimer and Dr. John Money, who for whatever reason has not been hounded, or rather his memory has not been hounded, out of the medical profession. I still see plenty of places online where he’s heralded as some great innovator.

JC: Yes, it’s a little complicated because he actually was innovative in some ways, but I feel like the horrific nature of the David Reimer case and Money’s not correcting the record on how that case really unfolded, in my mind should put him in infamy, regardless of some of the innovations that he may be responsible for. 

CLR: And certainly that was my takeaway from the film, as well. So, how did you choose the Sophocles quote—”How could I not be glad to know my birth?”— that opens your film?

JC: That was actually our fantastic editor, Kelly Kendrick, who put that in. It was one of a number of quotes that appear in a book that’s about the David Reimer case, which Kelly had at one point as the very start of the film. I thought it works because of those hilarious gender-reveal parties that now open up the film. I thought putting it in the middle of it, the juxtaposition of that extremely exuberant couple with a Greek-tragedy-kind-of-quote, might play nicely. And I don’t know, we liked it and we just kept it in. 

A still from EVERY BODY featuring gender reveal parties ©Focus Features

CLR: Yes, you go from that quote to all of those, to my mind, horrible gender-reveal parties, which I’ve always found to be nightmarish. And I like that segue.

JC: We were trying to use the gender reveals both to create a really entertaining beginning to the film—because I’m trying to make the film very entertaining throughout—and also as a way of making a point that people who are born intersex, which means being born somewhere that, because of specifics of their bodies, their chromosomes, don’t fit neatly into the male and female boxes. And I think gender-reveal parties have gotten so elaborate in recent years, as our opening shows. At the same time, I actually find some of that footage quite endearing, and even moving to watch, because in a sense, of course the people’s enthusiasm is just over the fact that they’re having a baby. But the pink/blue thing is a tough context into which to be born as an intersex person, and that’s what our protagonists show.

CLR: Absolutely. And I think there have been forest fires started because of gender-reveal parties. Somebody died because of an explosion!

JC: Yes. If you’re going to have a gender-reveal party, which I think is a questionable decision anyway, but if you’re going to do that, do not involve any explosives. The number of forest fires that are started by gender-reveal parties is alarming and horrifying.

CLR: Yes, that’s what I’ve heard. So, you said you wanted to make an entertaining film and you do, and a lot of that is thanks to your three subjects, who themselves are so engaging. You found three really great people. How did you find them and did they know each other before the making of this movie? 

l-r: Sean Saifa Wall, Alicia Roth Weigel and River Gallo from EVERY BODY, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of FOCUS FEATURES / © 2023 FOCUS FEATURES LLC

JC: Yes, they did know each other. And actually that was part of my plan going in, as I really wanted to have the three protagonists be connected to one another organically, without the film forcing them together. I’ve had the experience, seeing other multi-character documentaries, where I feel like I’m being yanked from one place to another all the time when I’m going from one piece of vérité footage to another. And I thought what would help that is if they knew each other and you see them together from the outset. I found the people for this film the way that I’ve done a lot of journalism and filmmaking over the past 15 years, which is via the internet, just a lot of Googling of intersex activists.

And truthfully, Alicia, because of her recent prominence as an activist and because of her notable kind of all-American-girl beauty, has gotten a fair amount of attention online. So I came across her relatively quickly. We had a couple of Zoom conversations. I thought, “This young woman is totally amazing!” She was the one who introduced me to Saifa, who I had a conversation with over Zoom. I’m like, “Oh my God, he is incredible!” And I started following the two of them and then the first time I met River was in the scene that actually appears near the end of the film when they’re making posters, getting ready for a demonstration. And there’s a moment where someone yells, “Oh look, here’s River,” and there comes River. And that was actually the moment that I met River, myself.

And I was like, “Wow, who’s this?” There was a group of people making posters, getting ready for a protest. There were seven or eight of them. I interviewed all of them just in this kind of very casual way in the scene and River just really, I’d say, popped on camera. I did not realize at that point that they were an actor, although it all makes total sense. I really wanted people who came at their activism from different places. Alicia’s more of like … here, she’s on the Human Rights Commission of Austin, she’s lobbying before the city council. And a lot of what you think of when you often think of political activism.

A still from EVERY BODY featuring Alicia Roth Weigel ©Focus Features

River has a different take on activism. Being an out intersex person who’s also starring in King Lear is also a way to be an activist, because we’re trying to increase awareness. Saifa’s activism actually has more to do with going to medical schools and educating young doctors. And so his part of the story in our film was where we got most specific about medical records, because with a lot of hard work from our great archival producer, a young woman named Bridgette Webb, we were able to track down his medical records at a bunch of different places around the country to show him walking us through his medical records, because this story is one that a lot of our viewers aren’t going to be familiar with. And the downside was, I feel like I had to be a lot more expositional than you generally want to be in a doc, but I really didn’t want people to be wandering around confused like, “What does this even mean?” That wasn’t going to work so well.

So I’m like, “You know what? I’m going to need sound bites from them near the top of the film where they’re basically telling me what being intersex means and I need one of them”—I hadn’t picked out who yet—”to have their medical records and just walk us through.” And then in Saifa’s case, it turned out to be incredible because he has this neonatal medical record from the Bronx in 1979, when he was born, where the official hospital form has three boxes that say male, female or ambiguous. That in and of itself tells you something. That’s what the hospital puts on its medical records because they understand that some people are born in such a way that it’s immediately apparent to the obstetrician that there’s ambiguity here. In Saifa’s case, they had checked the word ambiguous, then they crossed it off and checked female. It was just this very concrete, fascinating example of what intersex could be. And then in the records, they just put on the notes, “We told the mom that this baby, although it has a phallus according to our own records, this baby is a girl and will be raised as such. Here’s the plan. This is what we’re doing.”

A still from EVERY BODY ©Focus Features

CLR: Your film addresses the following issue about two-thirds of the way through, but do you have any concern or did you, in the making of the movie, that telling a story like this could potentially be used by the reactionary forces who want to prevent gender reassignment therapies or surgeries for transgender folks as sort of misconstruing it, like, “Oh, John Money was wrong. We shouldn’t reassign gender.” How did you navigate this in the telling of your story?

JC: Well, the misconstruers are going to misconstrue, and misconstrue is even probably too gentle a word because purposely misrepresent is more what might happen. I think that the argument about the intersex, the way in which their bodies are relevant to the current argument is more likely to go the other way. It’s more likely to make the argument that Alicia has tried to make, when she’s spoken out against anti-trans laws, that for those who are saying, as a matter of law, that biological sex is immutable, as a lot of these laws do, including the one that Ron DeSantis just signed in Florida, saying that whatever’s on your birth certificate is your chromosomes and they can’t change it, then the literal bodies of the people in the film and other intersex people and activists are proof that that’s not always true, that that’s not literally true. 

So I do think for anyone who had an open mind on this issue, that things could move in a good direction. That said, I think there actually aren’t that many people who have particularly open minds on this issue, on the trans issue. I think there is more chance of people having an open mind on the intersex issue because it’s an argument that people aren’t as familiar with, as you see a number of times. It comes up in the film where Tucker Carlson is saying, “Intersex, whatever that means.”

A still from EVERY BODY ©Focus Features

And something that Ted Cruz actually said on Fox just a few months ago, it was after we’d already completed the film. He was on Hannity and he said he was going through things that are in Biden’s proposed budget as proof that it was extreme and dangerous. And he starts listing things. I mean, some of them were environmental justice, as if that’s bad, and then he said, “And the word intersex, which I have no idea what that means.” He doesn’t know what it is, but he knows he doesn’t want people who are “it” to get care in any way. He knows he’s against it. He doesn’t like it.

But I do think there is some room for education. As people do get educated, they might say, “Oh no, we’re not against intersex people actually. But it’s just this one tiny, minuscule, very rare thing. Let’s just set that aside.” Although they also have totally created exceptions in their anti-gender-affirming-care for trans kids. They’ve created exceptions that say, “But just do whatever you want to intersex kids up to and including non-consensual surgery.”

CLR: The stories of non-consensual surgery in your film are just horrifying and should give everybody pause. Speaking of that, how did you approach navigating this emotionally fraught material with your subjects? 

JC: The main thought on that part actually had to do with who I chose to talk about this. I made a decision early on that I didn’t want the act of appearing in my film to be the first time that anyone was speaking intimately about their bodies. It’s like it’s one thing to speak at a few demonstrations or just do a few interviews here and there. It’s another to be in a documentary. But because I have the benefit of understanding how much part of the conversation these films can be, I wanted people who were actually pretty experienced talking about these things. I wasn’t going to aggressively book anyone for this film. If someone expressed ambivalence, I was like, “OK, they’re not going to be one of our main people because that’s not going to work here.”

River Gallo from EVERY BODY, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of FOCUS FEATURES / © 2023 FOCUS FEATURES LLC

Interestingly, because the specifics of their bodies are so much part of their activism because they’re having to explain to people the basics, and the basics have to do with their own anatomy, these activists are quite accustomed to talking about their own bodies. I was sort of thinking, “How am I going to do this sensitively on the third or fourth interview with these people to broach the subject of this traumatic stuff?” Our early interviews of each that have their faces quite large on camera, I thought those were just going to be sort of experimental interviews.

We were just getting to know each other. It was very early on in the process and a very open question: “Just tell me about your experience being an intersex person.” And this immediately opened the door to them talking about these very intimate things. They’re accustomed to doing that, not only with the media, but also in the medical context. It didn’t end up in the film, but Alicia told me how she’s had a really painful experience going to a health clinic for some reason and the doctor asking, “What was the date of your last period?” And she’s like, “No, I don’t have a period because I’m intersex.” And the nurse practitioner is like, “Well, I don’t know. What do you mean? Explain why you don’t.” And she’s sort of having to … and then that nurse practitioner is calling other people into the room like, “Hey, come look at this.”

So, because of the amount of invasive questioning that they’re used to, they provided answers a lot more openly than I had expected. So I’m like, “Oh, well, I guess these are the main interviews in which they’re telling the stories of their bodies.” And while we actually did a number of subsequent interviews with each of them and with the group, I only talked to them about their medical trauma one time because I thought, “You know what? I’m not going to set up a whole other interview to ask an intrusive question. I’m just not going there.”

Director Julie Cohen on the set of her film EVERY BODY, a Focus Features release. Credit: Laura Nespola ©2023 FOCUS FEATURES LLC

CLR: The interviews are really powerful and the three of them—Saifa, River, and Alicia—are just great on screen.

JC: I mean, I was slightly worried about “Are people going to watch and start thinking that all intersex people are these genius, beautiful people?” And I think the answer to that, obviously, is no. But I think the extraordinariness of these three people is that they’re intersex people who have chosen to speak out. It takes a certain kind of calculating brilliance and inner strength to make the decision that they made that “I’m not just going to come out, but I’m going to really speak up.” And so that’s why these people are as extraordinary as they are.

CLR: And they are extraordinary. Congratulations on the film. I hope lots of people get to see it.

JC: Thank you!


Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator, as well as Film Festival Today's Editor. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, Chris is, in addition, lead film critic at Hammer to Nail and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *