The story of his sister’s physical and emotional transformation into manhood is the subject of Sonderegger’s documentary film Coby. The film, screening at the Cleveland International Film Festival April 6 and 7, also chronicles the evolution of a family through the transitioning process.
Coby, which premiered at Cannes Film Festival last year, avoids the lure of sensationalism, telling a powerful narrative in a subtle fashion. “I didn’t want to do a reality show,” says Sonderegger. “Waiting for dramatic moments is not my idea of film.” We talked to the documentarian about the film and its subject, a 31-year-old paramedic now living in Burton.
Q: You recently appeared with Coby on French television. What was the reaction to his story in your home country?
A: We don’t have at all the same point of view from the United States. It’s the Middle Ages here. We’re Catholics. We look for guilt (laughs). People who are transitioning need family support, but in France, a lot of (transitioning) kids break up with their families. I did the biggest talk show in France with Coby, and they were amazed that we were speaking about normality.
Q: How did telling Coby’s story affect you personally?
A: I knew Coby as Suzanna when he was 12 years old. I came over with the French way of thinking. I wanted to understand everything that was going on with Coby and the family. By doing the film I learned not to look for the guilt. Where was the problem? There was no problem at all. Nothing was wrong with Coby.
Q: Was it difficult for Coby, who was home schooled, to adjust socially?
A: Until he was 14, he didn’t really understand gender. One day, he tried a shadow school program and saw the girls on one side of the room and the boys on the other. He said it was one of the worst days of his life. He lived with his girlfriend after the transition. They broke up a few months ago.
Q: The film shows how well his family accepted Coby’s transitioning process. Did that surprise you?
A: At first, everybody was shocked and afraid of the idea. My mother Ellen has lived a very lively life. In the film, she says she lost a daughter but she gained a son. Coby’s father tells him changing has consequences but not changing also has consequences. I was so amazed at how the family supported him.
film & tv
8:00 AM EST
April 4, 2018