The Pearl, Jessica Dimmock’s film of transgender women
Nina, formerly Reinhardt, conceals her gender identity from a partner of 40 years and only openly transitioned after her wife died.
When filmmaker and fourth-generation New Yorker Jessica Dimmock carves time out of her frenetic city life to recharge in the Berkshires, the allure is not Tanglewood, MASS MoCA, or Great Barrington’s trendy restaurants.
Instead, she favors outings to the wooded and undeveloped shores of Upper Spectacle Pond in West Otis, a short walk from her family’s second home, which she has frequented since childhood. She calls one clearing “the most beautiful spot ever,” with its glimpse of the 72-acre pond just a few miles from the center of town.
“I never see anyone, I never expect to see anyone, and because of this, I always spend time there with my guard completely down,” says Dimmock, who yearns for this stark, natural landscape tucked neatly away on protected land when busily ensconced in her creative endeavors. “I crave driving down the roads, long walks, and changing seasons,” she adds wistfully, fresh off the premiere of The Pearl, her first feature-length documentary, filmed and directed in the style of her photojournalism.
First screened at the True/False Film Fest in March, it will be shown at the Dallas International Film Festival, held April 14-24, and Toronto’s Hot Docs film festival, from April 28 to May 8.
Hardly a newcomer to the artistic scene, Dimmock spent three years tracking a group of heroin addicts for her 2007 monograph, The Ninth Floor, which garnered numerous international photography awards. In 2010, she received Kodak’s Best Cinematography Award, with director Mark Jackson, from the Hamptons International Film Festival for Without, which premiered at MoMA.
Dimmock’s talents behind the lens run the gamut; in addition to her book and feature-film debut, she was commissioned by the Grammy Award–winning soloist, Moby, to create the video for the song “Wait for Me,” and most recently worked as photographer/videographer for the four-part, Emmy-nominated HBO series, The Weight of the Nation.
The 37-year-old, self-professed “shooter and storyteller” organically moves from still photography to filmmaking. Her images bear the hallmarks of high contrast and light, and allow her to shoot in a “very dark, cinematic way.” Dimmock has been heavily influenced by what she calls “this New England thing” and goes on to acknowledge “a very Northeast identity which is quick, at times impatient” that causes her to “like things to move at a certain speed and intensity.”
These attributes play into her cinematography of The Pearl, in which she teams up with Christopher LaMarca to explore the midlife transformation of four blue-collar, transgender women in the Pacific Northwest, a predominantly male-centered society full of war veterans and mechanics, steel-workers and husbands. Dimmock describes her film as “not about transitioning into womanhood, but instead taking masculinity off.”
This daring documentary explores the struggle of trans-womens’ quest for identity and, more important, their struggle to find a safe space. Dimmock speaks earnestly about not wanting to do a soft, resolved version of the story. Pain and hardship are central to the trans life. “It felt really important that we lean into the struggle of the women that we were following,” she says.
A sense of place feeds Dimmock’s creative energy and affords her what she calls “creative head space.” She openly acknowledges, “[while] I am from the city, the Berkshires has been a place I escape to that offers balance.” This dichotomy between places is present not only in her personal life, but also in her cinematic work as well. While filming in the Pacific Northwest, she made it a goal to “[evoke] a sense of place, even if ambiguous.”
Dimmock was successful in effecting the space of the Pacific Northwest as a notably masculine culture. In this setting there are, according to Dimmock, “strict ideas of what it means to be a man, and what it means to be a woman,” and these prescribed roles invite an alluring question: How do these trans-women remove the armor they have hidden behind for so many years?
The answer lies in shedding the “hard, dark, crude shell,” as Dimmock describes the symbol of masculinity, to reveal a pearl, a simple and beautiful object of nature. This requires a literal “peeling away of an exterior.”
It is in the unshackling of these women—long since considered an enigma in our society—and eradicating their need to hide that they are given a voice. In the bleak, opening scene of the documentary, rife with alienation and isolation, an unseen character comments, “There is so much potential here; that’s the dilemma.”
The potential in Dimmock and LaMarca’s collaboration lies in the important conversation they bring to the table. Dimmock hopes their film will be seen by “the crowd that needs more converting” and a candid discourse will arise about basic civil rights and how we treat people in our society who are different.
And like the remote shores of Upper Spectacle Pond, Dimmock’s perspective through The Pearl ultimately reveals something hidden, yet exquisite.
BEHIND THE LENS
Jessica Dimmock assumes a progressive stance as she follows four transgender women home from the annual Esprit Conference in Washington state. She sees the desperation in her subjects and understands that society has not made this a safe world for them.