Ostensibly a documentary about men competing in a trans bodybuilding contest, director T Cooper’s feature debut Man Made smartly uses the sports documentary format to reveal so much more about the men he follows, constructing a touching, uplifting, yet also at times sobering portrait of self-realization off of the tangible metaphor of bodybuilding. Man Made provides a look into what it means to go through transition, how this affects somebody’s psyche, how it affects their loved ones and families, and how close together joy and pain sometimes lie during this long and defining process.
TransFitCon, held yearly in Atlanta, is the world’s only all-trans bodybuilding contest. Cooper follows four transgender men as they prepare for this event, building towards a triumphant moment of self-identification. Bookended by scenes at the event itself, the bulk of Man Made focuses on the lives of these men and their preparation for life, really, instead of just their preparation for the contest in question. Perhaps an unconscious choice, the four men are in different stages of transition, from almost complete to just starting with hormone treatment. This allows Cooper to display the whole gamut of human emotions that the long process of transition can entail, not just for the men themselves but for those close to them as well. Man Made shows that transgender men can be loving fathers, husbands, boyfriends, but that transitioning can also put strains on these relationships, and because the four are in different phases the effect their transition has on family and partners runs the full range.
This is most clear in the story of Kennie, who is just starting his hormone injections. Interviews with his mother and brother show that they are supportive on the outside, but still struggling and adjusting on the inside, from the simple confusion of using the right pronoun to his mother declaring it was like a fist to the stomach when her already out lesbian daughter told her that she wanted to become a man. Kennie’s relationship to his girlfriend DJ is also under pressure, as his transition to a male makes her sexual desire for Kennie lessen. She fell in love with a woman, but can she love him as a man?
At the other end of the spectrum is Mason, whose transition is so far along that he competes in mainstream bodybuilding competitions, the other contestants oblivious of sharing the stage with a transgender man (this leads to a comical tête-à-tête with Cooper in a room full of more or less naked men). Happily married to veterinarian Anne and confident in his body, Mason had a long journey to get where he is now. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, not accepted by his family, and having attempted suicide in the past, transitioning and finding bodybuilding has been a literal life-saver for him.
For spritely Dominic, the year leading up to his second TransFitCon is one of big changes. First and foremost among these is his top surgery (a double mastectomy), which Dominic declares the best moment of his life when he sees the results. But as an adopted child, his transition is also the final push he needs to find his biological mother, as a way to build an alternate history for himself, rewriting his life story. And that is on top of his relationship falling apart.
The last, and somewhat elusive subject is Rese. He is the natural father of a young son and struggles with bouts of homelessness. His story elucidates best the dangers trans men are facing in society. He explains that shelters don’t know what to do with him (do you place him with men or with women?), discusses the violence he sometimes is confronted with, and in an emotional social media video voices his anger over the violent death of a transgender friend.
Though this plethora of problems suggests Man Made could suffer from a heavy mood, the film is quite hopeful and optimistic. The film’s structure leading up to the triumphant moment of the competition, where each of the men is a winner in their own right even if they don’t actually win, is part of the reason why, as it ends the story on a high note. But the men portrayed and how each of them is in a different stage also ensures that no matter how long the journey to self-realization still is for some, the positive example of where it can lead is right there: Mason was a woman born in the wrong body, and is now at a point in his life where that wrong has almost completely been righted (he is shown to have undergone bottom surgery during the credits). He seems totally comfortable with his new self and an inspiration to the others when he gives them an uplifting speech at the finale. This underlines for his fellow contestants that at the end of the road lies hope.
From an artistic point of view Man Made is not going to set the world on fire, as it’s a fairly standard portrait of its subject through interviews and connecting title cards. But what drives Man Made is Cooper’s passion for the subject, no doubt strongly fueled by his own experiences as he is transgendered himself. And this is something you can feel throughout the documentary, this layer of understanding his subjects in a way other filmmakers probably wouldn’t. The aforementioned moment between him and Mason is an example of this, and it is moments like this that make Man Made such a rewarding watch because it reaches a level of naked honesty that you can’t look away from.
The award-winning Man Made releases worldwide on VOD platforms including iTunes, Google Play, Amazon and Vimeo on Thursday, November 7th, 2019