Markie in Milwaukee

 

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This year's second outstanding documentary about transgender people.

 
Markie in Milwaukee
   

Earlier this year I gave a rave review to a film concerned with transgender issues, Sébastien Lifshitz's Little Girl, and, since it seemed unlikely that any other film on the subject would come even close to matching it, I approached this work by Matt Kliegman warily. For Markie in Milwaukee is indeed another documentary on the subject, albeit one differentiated from the French film by the fact that its central figure, Mark Wenzel, went through his transgender crisis in his forties and fifties whereas in Lifshitz's film the person in that situation was an eight-year-old. In the event, though, what counts is what the two films have in common. Although transgender issues can be very contentious, neither work tries to preach and refuses to adopt a didactic tone. In each case the viewer is invited to see and to share in the life of the person who takes screen centre and this is an approach that encourages both empathy and understanding. Against the odds, Markie in Milwaukee is almost as fine as Little Girl: both of them are amongst the best documentaries of the year.

 

Mark Wenzel clearly put his trust in Matt Kliegman and built a rapport strong enough to encourage the idea that Kliegman should spend some years filming him. The story of Mark Wenzel's life is a particularly unusual one because, having made the decision as a married man and a father to transition from male to female, when it came to the time to undergo surgery some years later he suddenly backed down and reverted to his male identity. Both as a dramatic hook and as a neat way to indicate the course that events would take, Kliegman starts his film with shots taken in 2013 showing Mark shredding photographs of himself as Markie, the name he had taken six or seven years earlier when he had started out to dress and live as a woman. Mark narrates his story largely in chronological order and when we get back to 2013 he ascribes the reversal as due to the voice of God telling him that it would have been wrong to submit to surgery. Interestingly this deeply religious man regards his relationship with God as a personal one and refutes any suggestion that the Baptist Church to which he had belonged as a minister had pressurised him on account of its disapproval of his original choice.

 

Markie in Milwaukee could easily have been a film which took sides simplistically, but instead it leaves it to the facts to speak for themselves so that viewers can draw their own conclusions. Thus Kliegman includes footage of the pastor of another Baptist Church that takes a very different liberal view, but even the pastor of Mark's own church, the Faith Baptist Church, emerges as totally sincere and concerned for this member of his congregation. When late on our protagonist refers to the cost of doing what is right it still remains up to the viewer to decide what that is and what weight should be given to the footage which has shown the extent to which Mark was at ease in the days when he was Markie.

 

Despite later reconciliation with some of his family members (Mark has three children), what stands out in the film is the behaviour of those of them who, blaming him for disrupting the family, are unable to express any awareness of the genuine conflict that Mark himself was going through or to offer any sympathy for him. In contrast to that, Kliegman's film enables us to understand it fully and the film falls short only in its final scenes set two years after the rest. The implications of what we see then are such that we have questions to ask, but the film ignores them - for once we have a feature film which would have been improved had it been a bit longer. It's also the case that Little Girl happens to have an ace up its sleeve because in addition to the transgender theme it features a beautiful portrait of rapport between a mother and her child. Nevertheless, despite Little Girl emerging as the more completely satisfying film, Markie in Milwaukee is a fit companion piece, undoubtedly a film to see and all the more remarkable because Kliegman, unlike Lifshitz, was making his feature debut .

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Featuring  Mark (Markie) Wenzel, Dean Noonan, Jamie Washam, Christina Wenzel, Daniel Wenzel, Sarah Wenzel, Patricia Connors, Patti Wilson.

 

Dir Matt Kliegman, Pro Matt Kliegman, Andrew Moynehan, Zachary Stuart-Pontier and Morgan Z. Whirledge, Ph Matt Kliegman, Ed Matt Kliegman, Ross Laing, Andrew Moynehan and Morgan Z. Whirledge, Music Jens Bjørnkjaer and Sam Hirschfelder.

 

Glass Eye Pix/Steamclam Media-Icarus Films.
88 mins. USA. 2019. Rel: 20 November 2020. Available on VOD. No Cert.