Documentaries are a crap shoot, especially if the story has yet to be told. Fifteen years ago, director Courtney Hermann documented her friend Burton Ford as he began the process of gender reassignment in her film Burton Before and After.
Today, the footage she captured had been sitting around collecting dust, and Burton was unsure whether he wanted these old videos to be made public. Courtney thought the best idea would be for Burton to watch the footage and comment/react to the early days.
The set up is simple. Burton and Courtney sit on a couch and watch old home videos of Burton’s transition. The moments chosen are both pivotal and touching and includes Burton’s letter to his parents about the tough and final decision he made, Burton’s first shave, his frustration of always explaining his gender, and whether or not the DMV will issue him a new driver’s license with this new name and gender.
“…documented her friend Burton Ford as he began the process of gender reassignment…”
I’ll just say two things about Burton Before and After. First, the early footage of Burton is profoundly personal and touching. Going through the process of gender-reassignment is literally life-changing, and for those of us…me…who has never known a person that was thinking about or going through the procedure, my eyes are open to the importance of the decision and the struggles of being transgendered in a world that doesn’t understand them.
Just as touching is the friendship between Burton and Courtney. This is often a journey one walks alone, and having supportive friends and family to come alongside you, makes it exponentially easier.
Second, watching Burton’s reactions was probably not the best idea for the documentary. Most of his responses were passive ones consisting of watching, laughing, and crying with no real commentary. Most of Burton’s thoughts come after the viewing after prompting by Courtney, which suggests producing a traditional talking-heads documentary might have been better.
Minor criticism aside—Mission accomplished. After watching Burton Before and After, I’m better informed than before about living as transgendered.
Burton Before and After (2019) Directed by Courtney Hermann, Kerribeth Elliott. Burton Before and After screened at the 2019 Palm Springs ShortFest.
7.5 out of 10 stars