In few words, ‘River’ reveals challenge, resilience of trans life

The new Columbus-filmed short from directors Rafal Sokolowski and Kanat Omurbekov will screen both at the Cinema Columbus Film Festival and Ohio Shorts on Saturday, April 27.
Still shot from "River"
Still shot from "River"Courtesy Rafal Sokolowski and Kanat Omurbekov

The dialogue in “River,” a new short film from directors Rafal Sokolowski and Kanat Omurbekov, is noticeably sparse. As a result, the tension and history between the main character – a trans woman named River (played by the trans actress Alex Might) – and her parents reveals itself through an unfolding series of non-verbal cues. 

When River meets her mother in a dimly lit church, the two exchange terse glances, avoid direct eye contact, fidget, and smile cooly through tightened lips. And even the distantly cordial words they do exchange tend to be delivered in clipped, terse bursts. Indeed, an extensive dissertation could be written about the way the two position their bodies once they sit down next to each other in the pew, the inches between them somehow reading as a vast, frozen gulf.

According to the directors, this wasn’t always the intent, with the two describing a significantly longer early script packed with more expository dialogue. 

“I think the original impulse was to really dive into the opposite philosophical entry points of this conflict, and because of that we covered a lot of territory on the page,” said Sokolowski, who joined Omurbekov for a late April Zoom interview to discuss “River,” which will screen as part of a Cinema Columbus Film Festival local shorts block (1 p.m. Saturday, April 27, at the Gateway Film Center; click here for a full list of films and showtimes) and then again during Ohio Shorts at the Wexner Center for the Arts (6 p.m. Saturday, April 27). “And once we filmed everything and started to look at it, we realized it started to feel didactic. And for the right reason, a lot of that dialogue ended up on the cutting room floor. … But, at the same time, by providing that dialogue, it allowed us to create a scaffolding for [River’s] emotional journey. And, in the end, we were able to throw away the scaffold and allow her to climb where we really needed her to climb.”

The seeds for the short were planted a few years back when Sokolowski and Omurbekov were both at Ohio University in Athens – Sokolowski as a film professor and Omurbekov as a graduate student – at which point Omurbekov developed an early version of the script for his thesis. Initially, the director planned to film the short in March 2020, only to shelve it indefinitely amid the unfolding pandemic.

A chance 2022 run-in with Sokolowski revived the project, with the two collaborating on early script revisions, which eventually expanded to include Megan Smith, an Athens-based trans woman whose voice proved pivotal in helping to shape the short. Omurbekov said he first got to know Smith working as the cinematographer on “In Trans,” a documentary based on her life and experiences in Southern Ohio, the filming of which led Omurbevok to accompany Smith to locations that held emotional resonance for her. “And slowly she was sharing these stories about her parents and these other things she had encountered,” he said. “So, once Rafal and I started working, it was like, ‘Why not involve Megan?’”

“Megan became the associate producer on the film and became kind of that third creative engine in development,” Sokolowski said. “The film has a lot of elements that really stemmed from Megan’s experiences. And even though it’s a fictional film, a lot of that inspirational, raw creative material came from endless conversations with Megan about her own attempts to reconvene with her estranged family.”

There are also heavy religious and social aspects at play within “River,” which touches on issues such as conversion therapy – a practice that has been discredited by every major professional association that deals with mental health – and the deep divisions that can be sown within the conservative Christian families of LGBTQ children. This latter aspect, reflected in the church setting, provided the filmmakers with a modest challenge when scouting potential locations that wouldn’t flinch when informed about the subject matter. 

“Pitching this to churches when looking for a location, it was interesting, because of course they would ask for a script. ... And sometimes they would send notes back,” said Sokolowski, recalling one pastor who had no issue with the subject matter but blanched at one early line of dialogue the directors ended up axing from the final script. “And in the line, [River] goes, ‘Jesus fucking Jesus,’ and it became this thing, which was fascinating.”

Fortunately, the filmmakers found a willing collaborator in First Congregational Church on Broad Street, with “River” producer Joshua Clark giving credit to the church’s long tradition of “championing social justice even when it isn’t convenient to do so.” 

Coming into filming, the directors were also keenly aware of the current political environment both in Ohio and across the nation, which has seen Republican lawmakers pass increasingly stringent legislation aimed squarely at the trans community. (Twenty-four anti-trans bills have been passed nationwide this year, according to the Trans Legislation Tracker.)

“To me, I basically wanted to raise the voice of trans people who face these kinds of issues daily,” Omurbekov said.

“We were hyper aware of the political climate … and I really like to put my lens on things that promote pushback,” Sokolowski said. “We are in a place that is very scary, and hopefully this film will contribute a little something to the dialogue.”

Related Stories

No stories found.
Matter News