I came upon Southern Comfort at the old Kim’s Video, that legendary emporium of esoteric taste and hideous attitude in the East Village (a typical sign over the register: “Don’t even think of asking for Reservoir Dogs.”). It was on their shelf of must-see documentaries. Other titles included Soviet-era exposes and the cult classic No Skin Off My Ass, even though the director considered it a scripted drama.
So I was surprised when watching Southern Comfort that it wasn’t at all snarky or ironic. It’s the intensely quiet story of Robert Eads, a lanky Georgia cowboy, shot during the last year of his life. He is dying from cervical and ovarian cancer. The last vestiges of his early years as a woman, before transitioning in his 40th year, had turned on him. “It’s a cruel joke,” he says in the film. “’The last part of me that is female is killing me.”
In someone else’s hands, this story could have been a horror of exploitation. There were so many perils in this material. But Kate Davis shows us the power of film to humanize and radicalize. She gives us a loving profile of a hidden community, and brimming portraits of generosity and courage and tolerance. With insight and perspicacity, she lets us feel the contentment and joy in Robert’s long journey away from his previous life as a mother of two children. Through surgery and hormone therapy he finds himself. He creates a family of choice. He falls in love. But he admits, “Now is no time for a full-blown love affair.” Scores of doctors refused to treat his humiliating cancer because they believed their practices would collapse under the scandal – which allowed his cancer to spread fatally.
But like Robert himself, Davis is motivated by forgiveness, not bitterness. Together they teach us that justice can be won in the hearts and the minds, if not the cancer wards. Through the power of witnessing, through the tool of filmmaking, Robert Eads, may he rest in peace, is transformed into a hero whose journey leaves us all in a better place.
David France’s first feature documentary, How To Survive a Plague, is currently in the theaters. The film has been nominated for a Gotham and three Cinema Eye awards, and won the American Film Festival (in Poland)’s best doc award. Additionally, the International Documentary Association gave David France its 2012 Jacqueline Donnet Emerging Filmmaker Award.
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