“Man Made,” a documentary co-written and directed by Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing T Cooper, is a fascinating and enlightening view into the lives of four transgender men (Mason, Kennie, Dominic and Rese), who strive to become bodybuilders. The film follows them in the months before they all compete in the same transgender bodybuilding competition, Trans Fit Con, in Atlanta.
The film sheds light on the relatively unknown and small community of transgender bodybuilders. Cooper, a transgender man himself, said he felt the need to document the story from the inside out, whereas most documentaries are told from the outside in. This concept shines through in “Man Made,” as he’s able to personally unlock facets of the transgender community as well as the struggles that these four men throughout their lives.
Cooper often utilizes a hand-held camera to share his documentary-making experience with viewers, making the film appear more personal than a typical documentary film. This camerawork also makes the film feel like less of a grand cinematic experience and more of a realistic, relatable telling of the hardships these four men endure. This style helps to distinguish “Man Made” from other films and aligns well with the “inside-out” mentality Cooper described.
“Man Made” was relaxed and informal, in a good way. The informality is accomplished through lighthearted moments in which Cooper gets in front of the camera and interacts with the interviewees. The lack of filter also allows the individuals’ anecdotes and reactions to feel genuine and unaltered. Cooper’s connection with the four bodybuilders is apparent as they share personal and sometimes horrible stories, such as their experiences coming out to family, or the general discrimination they face. The subjects’ openness with Cooper contributes to the documentary’s authenticity.
Each of the four men, who all faced hardships in their transitions, had vastly different stories to tell, each one refreshing and powerful.
That said, the documentary is not without storytelling issues. Rather than the audience caring about one or two individuals, we’re forced to split our attention between four. Instead of spending our time invested in a single character’s plight, the movie ended up juggling four stories which begged the question, how much more powerful could it have been had fewer character’s been our protagonists? Also disappointing was Cooper’s decision to completely drop one of the four stories about three-quarters of the way through the film. We never heard back from him, making the audience question why we followed his story in the first place. On another occasion, during a scene in which the rest of the bodybuilders are introduced, Cooper gives some of them full scenes or interviews to characterize them, which was jarring and detracted viewers from caring about our original four of the main characters.
These negatives, however, do not detract from the film’s value. The journey we take with these four bodybuilders, before and after their competition, is powerful and inspiring to any transgender viewer — or someone who simply has a goal that is seemingly impossible. For those reasons, “Man Made” is a film that is definitely worth the watch — apart from being inspiring, it uncovers a community I never knew existed.