home April 2017 Film Explores Gender, Body and Family

Film Explores Gender, Body and Family

Dominican-American filmmaker Arisleyda Dilone grew up in a hillside village outside of Santiago in the Dominican Republic.  From a young age, she felt set apart, and watched the women in her family with a storyteller’s detachment, observing their rituals and contradictions.  The women were strong, present caretakers and providers, and embraced a type of “hyper femininity” in their personal appearance, which they sought to impose upon the young Dilone.

“They wanted me to wear this dress; they wanted me to do my hair with a curling iron, and I was like ‘Bueno,’ It’s all fun, it’s all for show, all a fun performance for me, where for them, it was not a performance. For them, it’s who they are or who they see themselves as,” she said.

Dominican-American filmmaker Arisleyda Dilone discussed her short documentary Mami y Yo y Mi Gallito (Mom and Me and My Little Rooster) on campus on April 2.

Dilone is intersex, a term used to describe people born with reproductive or sexual anatomies that deviate from typical definitions of male or female.  Though she has presented as a female since birth, Dilone discovered in her late teens that she had male chromosomes, after consulting an endocrinologist when she did not begin menstruation or develop breasts.  The endocrinologist diagnosed her with 46,XY gonadal dysgenesis, a condition in which one’s gonads do not fully develop, and one of several variations along the intersex spectrum.

Within her family, Dilone’s intersex body was an “open secret.” In 2014, Dilone turned the camera on her mother and documented their first candid conversation about her body, which forms the centerpiece of her powerful short documentary Mami y Yo y Mi Gallito (Mom and Me and My Little Rooster), screened on campus on April 2 as a Film Intersections Series spring selection.

César Barros, an assistant professor in the Languages, Literatures, and Cultures Department and Latin American & Caribbean Studies Program, began the film series in fall 2015 to give the campus community “a rich space to talk about important issues like class, gender and race.” Barros described Dilone’s appearance as an opportunity for learning and thinking about gender constructions and their relation to our more intimate social environment–the family.

Though Dilone resists assigning blame to her mother, she described the extent to which familial and cultural ideas about womanhood shaped her decisions to normalize her gender. Noting that she has a “lot of internal conflict about what it means to be natural,” Dilone took estrogen and progestin in high school, which had no effect, and later opted for breast implants to feminize her appearance, which she has since removed.

“Not having breasts was this thing of shame and secrecy that I had until I got the implants, and I was like, ‘Okay, that’s resolved.’ There were all these levels of resolution … and then you figure out that now, at 34, that it’s never resolved. It’s never completely resolved,” she said.

In the film, Dilone’s mother wears full makeup and responds to her daughter’s questions about her birth and childhood by saying that she was a “normal little girl.” She resists the findings of Dilone’s doctors – “I don’t think you are a hermaphrodite” – and supports her decision to get breast implants, saying they will make her “complete.”

“As the nuclear social unit, families prepare and determine us as subjects, gendered subjects, racialized subjects, class(ified) subjects,” noted Barros. “One of the things that Dilone shows in her documentary, and that she also expressed in her answers during the Q&A, is the stubbornness of certain gender constructions and the efficacy certain narratives of gender identity–in this case, a form of Dominican femininity–can have in the subjects who are affected by them. Her documentary tries, I think, to both show and deconstruct these narratives.”

In the Q&A, Dilone also touched upon intersectionality, the struggles and aspirations of immigrant families, and the role of filmmakers in creating narratives that resonate and change cultural perceptions.

Dilone met her father for the first time when she was seven, when she immigrated to New York with her mother and siblings.  Dilone was raised in Long Island and was the first in her family to go to college.  She earned a master’s degree, lived abroad, and developed a “completely different sense of the world” than her hardworking, immigrant parents.

During her freshman year in college, Dilone underwent a traumatic surgery to remove her undeveloped female reproductive organs.  When she awakened from anesthesia, her Long Island doctor told her she’d never have children and walked away, leaving her alone and wailing. Dilone’s parents did not pursue counseling to help her better cope with the experience. “If you have an immigrant family, it’s just trying to survive,” Dilone explained. “Many of them are not going to seek out therapy when they’re working 16-hour days.”

As a filmmaker, Dilone strives to capture her family at pivotal moments in their lives in order to foster new understandings.  “My family has felt like they’re paving the way for us to really do whatever it is that we want to do, but along the way they don’t have the tools to teach us what that even means, so most people fall into a cycle,” she said.

While Dilone is currently working on expanding her short film into a feature-length documentary, Mami y Yo y Mi Gallito has already succeeded in opening up dialogue within her family.  Dilone’s mother recognized that she was guarded in the film and pledged to be much more open.  Dilone said their conversations have “led to many places,” including her mother’s own decision to get breast implants to feel more feminine and the identity of a Dominican cousin who is also intersex, whom Dilone hopes to meet and interview soon. Dilone has spoken candidly with her aunts and sisters about their own bodies as well.

In an effort to include multiple voices in telling her story in the feature length-documentary, Dilone conducted an interview with the Long Island doctor who performed her surgery. She shared a clip at the film screening, in which she confronts him about his bedside manner.

Responding to a student who asked if she is involved in activism, Dilone said she principally seeks to create very human stories about her life and family.

“I think that’s activism, because hopefully it will inspire other people to do that, too. That’s what art does – it reminds you of your own narrative.”

The event was sponsored by the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences; Department of Languages, Literatures & Cultures; Latin American & Caribbean Studies Program; and Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies Program.

Watch the trailer for Mami y Yo y Mi Gallito below.