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Stanford Report, June 11, 2003

When Uncle Bill becomes Aunt Barbara Documentary film

No Dumb Questions seeks to help families through challenge
of learning about transgender relative


When a close friend or relative announces an impending sex change operation, it's only natural to ask a few questions: Will he/she still be a man/woman? What should I call him/her? What if he/she is still not happy after the change?

There really are no dumb questions, says documentary filmmaker Melissa Regan, a Stanford graduate and director of e-learning product development at the Graduate School of Business.

In No Dumb Questions -- her first work as director, editor and producer -- Regan sensitively explores how three young girls respond when their Uncle Bill announces he will become Aunt Barbara. Completed two years ago, the 24-minute short has received 12 nominations and awards, including the Audience Award for Best Short Film at the 2001 San Francisco Film Festival, Best Short Film at the 2001 Seattle Lesbian and Gay Film Festival and honorable mention for best short film at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival.

How Abby, 6, Olivia, 9 and Chelsea, 11, react to their uncle’s impending sex change operation is caught on film in No Dumb Questions, the first film made by Melissa Regan, director of e-learning development at the Graduate School of Business. Photo Courtesy HBO

"It's often hard for families to talk about these things," Regan said of her film's topic. While gays and lesbians are becoming increasingly accepted into society, transgender people still remain on the fringes and fear being misunderstood or shunned by their relatives. Parents also often feel the need to protect their children from knowing about such issues, but "more and more kids know about these things, because of the popular culture," Regan noted. "Kids are exposed to this stuff whether we like it or not."

The project began in autumn of 2000, when a close friend of Regan's told her that his brother, Bill, had decided to become a woman. Bill worried how he would break the news to his family -- and more important, how his three young nieces would react. Regan saw potential in the sensitive subject matter and pursued her lifelong ambition to direct and produce a documentary.

The three girls -- 6 year-old-Abby, 9-year-old Olivia and 11-year-old Chelsea -- reacted differently to Regan's suggestion, but finally acquiesced. "At the beginning they were uncomfortable with doing it, but everyone was proud that they did it by the end," Regan acknowledged. The family felt that, if nothing else, they could help others going through similar situations with their friends and relatives.

Using Sony MiniDV cameras, a few plug-in microphones and some utility lights from the family's garage, Regan created an informal atmosphere in which the children could feel more at ease in front of the camera. Certain segments of the film -- such as when the three sisters meet Aunt Barbara for the first time -- were shot exclusively by the girls' father to help them feel comfortable even during times that were fraught with emotion. For the most part, Regan said she simply observed the real-life drama unfold. "The actual shooting happened naturally -- it was the editing part that proved most challenging," she said.

Before producing No Dumb Questions, Regan had nurtured a keen interest in documentary filmmaking but never received any formal training in the field. She received a master's degree from Stanford in mechanical engineering and currently designs interactive courses at the Business School. But she sees no disparity between her personal and professional interests: "It's like I'm living two lives," she said, "but it's really exciting at the same time."

Regan is considering future film projects, including a documentary profiling women in engineering and business. She also would like to form a nonprofit organization dedicated to making documentaries about nonprofits and helping promote education on social issues such as gender and identity.

No Dumb Questions will air on the cable channel Cinemax June 18, 23 and 29. Consult local cable listings for times.