“It Felt Like a Prayer”: How Short Film ‘ALOK’ Captures the Spirit of Queer Identity

Alex Hedison was around three-quarters of the way through capturing the 40 hours of footage she would eventually collect of celebrated nonbinary Indian American performance artist, scholar and writer Alok Vaid-Menon when it finally became clear what angle her short doc Alok should take.

“At the time where I was trying to figure out what is it I’m trying to say, at that point, I probably had about 30 hours. I’d gone with them to South Africa. I followed them on tour in Namibia and different places in the U.S.,” Hedison tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Not only have they lived a very full life, but there are so many different directions to go with Alok. They’re brilliant. They’re a third-generation PhD student. They’re an incredible speaker, writer, poet, artist, performer, fashion designer.”

More from The Hollywood Reporter

The lightbulb moment would arrive during their very last sit-down, when the writer and artist offered up a staggeringly powerful concept. “The most controversial pronoun I have is we. It’s not they. It’s we,” they say in the filmmaker’s 18-minute directorial debut. “The work I want to do in the world is look at every single thing that gets exiled from my concept of we and find a way to incorporate it back in.”

It’s a thought that somehow captures the radical spirit of queerness and the LGBTQIA+ community. Understandably, it helped catch the eye of high-profile executive producer Jodie Foster.

“I had been working on the project for months on my own, not entirely sure of the final direction of the film. When Jodie saw the interviews from South Africa, she got excited and asked how she could help,” Hedison recalls. “The producers, Natalie Shirinian, Elizabeth Baudouin and Meggan Lennon were hands-on and involved in every aspect, but Jodie’s objectivity and immense experience as a filmmaker were invaluable. We were all so excited that ALOK got into Sundance, especially Jodie. No one has been more of a cheerleader.”

Ahead of the film’s Sudance debut on Thursday, The Hollywood Reporter is exclusively debuting the film’s trailer alongside a conversation with Hedison about the act of capturing an artist, academic and advocate who themselves embodies the essence and necessity of community.

This is your directorial debut. How did you get connected to Alok and this story?

In the summer of 2020, right after the murder of George Floyd, I went back to school. I felt like I needed to commit to a process of re-learning, as Rachel Cargle says. I needed to do some research and get down to the bones. I took classes, got my degree in 2021. I’d never gotten my degree when I went to college, so I went back to school. I was a full-time student, and I was enrolled at a university where every single class was through a social justice lens, whether it was the history of education, queer theory, gender studies, philosophy. It was when I was at school that I was introduced to Alok. They were mentioned in one of the chat rooms and I didn’t know who that was.

So I did a deep dive. I researched them. I went on their Instagram account. I watched every interview I could watch — from their old TED talks to more recent interviews to The Man Enough podcast. I was so fascinated by the way they were speaking; how they were speaking; what they were speaking about; and the way they were communicating. I eventually was able to get in touch with them through a friend of mine whose daughter is trans. I met them and we became friends. We started talking, and every time we talked, my mind and heart were blown open. So I said, “Look, I’d love to follow you around with a camera. I feel like I’d like to make something with you. I’d like to take what I do and make it into a piece that reflects you.” They agreed and we started.

This is only an 18-minute short, mostly about someone whose life has been pretty expansive. How did you settle on the angle?

I wasn’t really clear about the focus of the doc until our last interview. At that point, I had come across so many different people in their world. I had been exposed to so many new ideas for my own world. There were so many different parts of me that were coming into the whole, that when they said the line, “The most controversial pronoun I have is we. It’s not they,” I realized that was the thesis. Because there were so many different parts of myself that were used to make the doc; there were different things that they were talking about that were exciting to me. I realized that it was better to focus on that idea — especially since I’ve interviewed so many people along the way who were echoing that idea — than to focus on where they came from in Texas, or their history of education or the PhD they’re working on getting. And it reflected an idea of what being trans is — bringing together multiple parts to tell a complex story.

There’s a brief segment exploring Alok and their family. Family can be a pivotal, personally combustive theme for many members of the LGBTQIA+ community. How did you think about the way — and how much — you’d make family part of your short?

I agree with you that it is pivotal. Certainly my own experience as a queer person — my story of where I came from and my family and that combustion — is pivotal. But that’s also a story that changes over time as I get older and as my perception changes. With Alok, a lot of what informed the direction we were going in is what we were able to shoot. So for example, their sister had a baby during the time that we were shooting, and I wanted to go and record that. But it was such a private moment that it was important for Alok to do that alone. Had I gotten that footage, we may have gone more in the direction of their family. But I had a limited amount of time and limited amount of resources, so I really was trying to focus on what it is that I got.

We did have conversations about their family and what felt essential to me was this idea of coming from a scholarly background, what it means to be an artist. What it means to be a poet versus publishing academic papers. How legitimate are they as a thinker if they haven’t published academic papers versus writing poetry. That was an issue for them, and mirrored this idea of finding our legitimacy as queer people in a family that presents straightness. In 18 minutes, it was something I touched on, and then also touched on through the combustion of Urvashi [Vaid]. Urvashi’s activism was something that affected Alok. It’s sort of like Urvashi is passing the baton and Alok is continuing. So, we did discuss it, but certainly, if it was a full-length, I would have gone to Texas. I would have interviewed every last person in their family because they are close with them and that’s always an interesting perspective for many reasons.

You capture Alok in a raw rehearsal ahead of performing their poetry, versus using more polished performance clips. Can you talk about wanting to capture them in that more approachable, organic moment versus stage recordings?

When I was following them, they were on tour and the performance footage was almost like — it wasn’t about their stand-up show, or any show in particular. I just liked that I was getting the environment that they were performing in. It was like representing a larger community. I wanted a feeling of that. I wanted a feeling of the people around them, of who they were affecting, of what they were saying. There was a kind of roughness to it. Obviously, a recording from the show they did it at The Ace Hotel would be much cleaner; the sound would be better. But I didn’t want this to be a documentary about following someone on tour. I wanted the audience to have bits of their message through performance. Not just sitting in the chair being interviewed, but through performance, through communication, through poetry.

I did it in different ways. One was in their stand-up show and one was when they were actually rehearsing to do a performance where they were reciting their poetry. There was something about the incantation, the repeated lines — trying to remember them, trying to get them right — that I found really interesting. It felt like a prayer. Sometimes I find the way they speak is incredibly intimidating because they are speaking on so many different levels. They’re not just approaching it intellectually, and they’re not just approaching at as an idea through poetry. It’s a combination of so many things, so I can feel what it is that they’re saying. My brain is trying to process it while I’m feeling deeply, so it’s disorienting because I live in a world where so much is from the neck up — or it’s like just your guts on the floor. It’s rarely a combination of both.

It’s why people like James Baldwin were so powerful. There’s a scholarly intellect — academia — behind it, and there’s so much felt emotion. In the interviews, Alok would just turn into a poet on the spot. I’d ask one question and they would just go off into something that was extraordinary. And in the edit, I would notice that when they would talk about something, and the people watching it, they would just be starry-eyed. They weren’t able to grasp what was happening. So it helped me to have them actually physically moving on the stage, using their hands, looking at someone — gesticulating with the microphone or their body; being in their body. I had to break it up with actual performance footage because I wanted to make sure I still had that balance of intellectual and felt emotion.

This short is really built around Alok’s statement that their most controversial pronoun is not they, it’s we. Pronouns, trans people, queer identity have been incredibly politicized, but the doc doesn’t really engage with that negative tension. Was that a conscious choice or simply a byproduct of what you and Alok spoke about as you interviewed them?

It was absolutely my choice, and it was based on who Alok is and how Alok moves through the world and is constantly in a practice of compassion and generosity versus retaliation and defense. What’s interesting about it is that it’s not some kind of spiritual practice. It’s very practical. They understand that the more compassionate they are, the more gentle people are with them also. They will get a comment on their page saying the most wild things and they will respond with “I love you more than you love yourself. I want you to know it’s OK.” They’re not being incendiary. They are actually really and truly approaching that person with love.

So for me, I had to be really careful. I wanted to show what was at stake, and I wanted to do it quickly and get it out of the way. I was not interested in engaging in a cultural war. The film is absolutely not about division, about us against them. That is the framing so often, whether you’re watching MSNBC or Fox News. “We’re going to make jokes, and we’re going to minimize them.” It’s dehumanizing, and Alok is all about humanizing. They are about bringing in all the parts of ourselves that we have a hard time facing and sitting with. I had to try and find a way to talk about Alok, to talk about what they’re up against, and to show the way they deal with it.

This is on paper an 18-minute short profile of an artist, but your talking heads really speak to that we concept — going beyond just who Alok is and their relationship to them, but really digging into the concepts Alok is discussing. Did you want this element of the doc to feel more communal?

It was not intentional initially. I was going to say that I was really paying attention, but more than paying attention, I was really in the experience of making this film. How it was affecting me; what was being said; how it was waking me up; how it was challenging me; how it was frightening me; how it was inviting me. I was watching myself change as I was making it, in the same way as the people who I was interviewing. I was watching a conversation that was shifting, but I felt like the conversation naturally, when you’re really embodied, moves away from the “I” into the “we.” It becomes a communal experience. What happened with this film is that every single aspect of it became a “we,” and it’s reflected in the interviews. And you’re not seeing how that was reflected behind the scenes. It was a we experience with the producing of it.

A queer couple, there were three women producers, my wife, who’s the executive producer — first time we’re working together. There were two editors using different software, having to work together in a technology that doesn’t match. There were so many aspects of communal versus individual. The people who are closest to Alok are already operating on a certain wavelength. They’re not just coming in talking about me and my experience coming out as trans or what my parents did to me — me against them. It was us, and this idea of us kept getting reflected. At the very end you’ll see, when it kind of crescendos, their hand gestures are mimicking each other. They’re putting their hands on their chest and then pushing them out. They’re doing this exalted physical choreography.

This film doesn’t just capture who Alok is, but seemingly captures the entire spirit of queerness — or the freeing, expansive power it can have. How has your definition of queerness shifted since doing this film?

What I learned is that it queer is yes. Queer is all of it and more. Queer is the thing that we haven’t seen, that we haven’t experienced yet. The things that we’re about; the things that we came from; the places we knew; the places we have not yet found; the dark; light; the grey in between; the love; the fear; the despised; the incredible; the everything. The way I edited the documentary, of course, I want it to make sense, but I wanted it to feel alive. I wanted it to be moving. I wanted it to be like a symphony. There’s a lot of music in it. I wanted it to be a sensorial experience. I didn’t want it to just to be an intellectual one. I wanted to use all of me so that the audience could feel as much of themselves as possible — pain, grief, joy, laughter, wonder, descriptions, contradictions, sexuality, gender, whatever that is, the color.

This isn’t a documentary about protecting trans rights, which, by the way, can we please protect trans rights. This is an invitation for everyone to open, to unfold, to discover, to thrive. To be as much of themselves as possible. I want everyone to be able to relate to this. I want straight people to relate to this. I want queer people to look at this and be like, “Oh, I actually have been living in a box. What are the areas that I’ve kind of cut myself off?” That’s why I loved when Alok said, “I look in the mirror, and I think ‘Oh, really? I still look like that?'” It was so poignant because of all the small ways that we diminish ourselves, or we tuck that part away — whatever that thing is. We’re doing it all the time, and we’re doing it outside; we’re doing it to others; we’re doing it in the world. With this film, there is an invitation to move forward in a different way.

Best of The Hollywood Reporter