As anti-trans rhetoric rages and anti-drag queen protests make headlines, a documentary by award-winning author and filmmaker Michael V. Smith explores the intimately personal — and often hilariously quirky — experience of a radical drag performer and genderqueer.
Inspired by the work of documentarian Agnès Varda, The Floating Man follows Smith as he explores the roots of his relationship with his body and the blurring of gender lines through conversations with well-meaning but confused family members, visits to memorable locations, archival footage of Smith stepping into his alter-ego Miss Cookie LaWhore, reflections from gender-fluid colleagues and friends, and more.
Screening on Sunday October 1st as part of the Cinema Diverse Film Festival, the documentary also weaves in footage from a never-released 2007 film that saw Smith, dressed as Peanut the Clown, travel to British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast in search of elusive musician Joni Mitchell.
But The Floating Man isn’t limited to Smith’s story, nor to his endearing celeb-seeking adventure: it’s a nuanced exploration of how so many people find themselves caught between rigid gender lines of woman or man, unable to express their fuller selves.
“I wanted to find other people like me who are walking between the gender binaries, but not really interested in changing their pronouns. I’m not exactly trans because I’m happy with my assigned gender-to-sex organs ratio, but I’m not happy with what I’m permitted to do or be as a man,” says Smith, also an award-winning author and a popular Creative Studies professor at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus.
“I want to be a man who can wear dresses, or the colour pink, or nail polish and makeup, without having to code-switch or apologize or explain.”
Smith’s short films have screened around the globe, including at the Vancouver International Film Festival, the New York Video Festival and the British Film Institute. He has authored several books, including the award-winning novel Cumberland, the memoir My Body Is Yours, and his new collection of poetry, Queers Like Me.
Also screening this fall at Reeling in Chicago and Seattle’s Three Dollar Bill, The Floating Man was mostly shot in British Columbia, where Smith has lived for over 25 years, and in Ontario, where he grew up.
Smith says the film came to him “in a flash” as he watched a Varda film, and realized how all of the pieces could fit together. “Seeing many of her films in a row, I suddenly saw how my failed first feature — a gay clown road movie — could be repurposed. Varda taught me a system for putting these strategies into place.”
Smith says the first few months of making the film were agonizing because he feared nobody would care about his “dumb little ideas about gender,” and the logistics of making a feature were intimidating. But once the production company was formed and they started filming, The Floating Man was “a joy to make,” and Smith had the summer of his life completing the film with editor Sarah Hedar.
After an early test screening, viewers pulled Smith aside to say how they cried during the movie, or later admitted they couldn’t stop thinking about it. “They said how much it made them reflect on the ways they’ve also ‘settled’ for a lesser gender to get by, or to fit in. Their confessions have been a profound compliment — and a real reminder to me that being vulnerable and confessional in my art is still a powerful gift, and tool, for others,” says Smith.
At the final test screening, the audience members leapt to their feet during the end credits, and started dancing and clapping along to Rae Spoon’s closing song, the gender anthem “Do Whatever The Heck You Want.”
“Their reaction took me by surprise, but I think we’ve made a movie that’s as feel-good as it is nuanced and complex. Lots of folks who’ve seen the film have said that it made them feel seen, that a lot of their own experiences were reflected on screen, which they hadn’t realized were missing before then. It made them question their own gender presentation, and how authentic it was,” says Smith.
“This film says there are many other ways to be gendered in the world than a simple binary,” he adds. “And all of them are way more fun.”
The Floating Man screens on Sunday October 1st at 3pm as part of Cinema Diverse Palm Springs LGBTQ Film Festival. More info