The Story of a Family


Guest Column by Miriam Sauls

Talk to almost any artist and they will tell you that no matter how clear their vision was before they started their painting, book, song or film, the project evolved and the end result surprised them.

Local documentary film director Diana Newton is no different. Her film, “The Ties That Bind,” will air Thursday night, December 19th at 10 p.m. on WUNC-TV, started out as a story about her transgender sister’s coming out. But it became a story about her own personal journey in a changing family and about that family’s capacity to change and grow.

“My intention in making this film shifted since I began shooting in 2003,” said Newton, who lives in Carrboro. “At that time, having a transgender sister was a social anomaly in a way that it no longer is. At that time, my goal was to simply bring greater awareness to just what ‘transgender’ means by showing and telling Christine’s story of realizing her true identity.

“But in the 12 years of gestating this story, I came to see the real story I needed to tell was quite different,” she added.

First, I had to come to terms with the fact that if I stayed focused on her change, I was not only acting as a voyeur sensationalizing her journey, but also avoiding the more difficult task of looking within myself at my own responses to it. Nor would I be looking squarely at the realities of my family’s norms. To what extent did we really know and accept each other?”

Christine was born more than 10 years after her three older siblings, so there are generational differences, as well as religious differences and political differences within the family. And though their pastor father was deceased, their aging mother was still alive when Christine came out.

The power of the Newton family norms around “being nice” and conforming to the values and beliefs handed down by their pastor father are all on display in the film as the family struggles to make sense of Christine’s decision to claim her authentic self.

“Yes, Christine’s gender change was dramatic,” Newton said. “But it really only served to highlight my family’s longstanding pattern of laughing away pain, and if we were going to stay connected in any genuine way, that behavior was no longer viable.”

Family is the ultimate crucible, she believes. “For it is there that each of us is subjected to the fire of norms, history, and expectations, and where our best selves are either refined or our spirits are incinerated,” Newton said.

The film was finished in 2017, and the family is still navigating their new normal. “With mom’s passing, it left just the four of us siblings to sort things out,” Christine said, “and my working assumption is that everyone is in fact doing the best they can. Sometimes that truly is not very good, but I always try and give them the benefit of the doubt.”

The film has proven to be a favorite at film festivals around the state and the country. It won the festival prize at PBS’s To the Contrary Film Festival: About Women and Girls in 2017 and has generated good post-show conversations wherever it has been shown.

The film “reveals my family’s imperfections, surprising strengths and the complexities of love that were tested during an important chapter of our lives,” Newton said.

“I don’t know that in the course of documenting this we’ve become a happier family, but I think we’ve become a more authentic family, and to me, that is worth it.”

In addition to the broadcast on Dec. 19, the film will also be shown Dec. 20 and Dec. 21 at 6 a.m. on WUNC-TV.  It will also be shown on Friday, December 20, 09:00 am on North Carolina Channel and Saturday, December 21, 06:00 am on North Carolina Channel.

Miriam Sauls is a freelance writer and documentary filmmaker and lives in Raleigh.

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