The Three Big Rules about Good Filmmaking…

“Vice” Executive Producer, J.P. Olsen, visits SJU to discuss documentary on transgender youth

Judith Fortunova-Russell, Contributing Writer

A new 2017 “Vice” documentary on HBO, “Trans Youth,” follows the stories and dilemmas of transgender children, as well as those of their parents, relatives and doctors, was presented to St. John’s students on Monday, April 3. The 30-minute film is part of the fifth season of the Emmy-winning series interpreting challenging topics in culture, science and politics and was presented by J.P. Olsen, Executive Producer of “Vice”. Approximately 50 people attended Olsen’s preview, which was made possible by Professor Gabriel Brownstein.    

“Trans Youth” is part of the tradition of the “Vice” HBO documentaries, which brings politically social causes and concerns to light. “One of the powers of documentaries is that they give a voice to people who might not necessarily have one,” Olsen said.

“We chose this film because we think it’s just such a beautiful portrayal of a difficult subject,” he explained further. “It takes an issue that’s very complex and it is on a visceral level, and we, the filmmakers, are sure that after seeing the movie, one will feel differently the next time when the topic comes around.”

The documentarian sought to inform students of the challenges of the journalistic process of selecting and presenting topics, by using the documentary as a framework.  He highlighted the importance of being sensible to the subjects, removing one’s comfort zones and being diligent in illustrating the truth.  

“Either you know what you doing, or you don’t. There’s no fact checkers. You have a culpability to yourself.” Olsen explained. “The expectation in journalism is not to ask permission to do things, because then you won’t do good work.”

The movie continued to pan through multiple transgender kids’ lives, and the personal and societal hardships they and their families face. While some parents battled bathroom discrimination on the behalf of their children, others were forced to question the ethics of using medical intervention, such as hormone blockers, in order to prevent puberty from occurring.

“When I first watched the documentary, it was difficult for me to understand their point of view, because it’s weird to see little kids make big decisions,” Eno Oken, a junior communications major, said. “But after watching it with other people I realized their perspectives, and that what they’re going through is actually saving lives.”

In addition to producing the “Vice” series and “Vice News Tonight,” Olsen, a Columbia University adjunct professor, also worked for over 20 years as a writer, producer and director with The New York Times and PBS. He has also authored books such as “The Narcotic Farm,” a story which tells the secret of the CIA-funded drug experiments at a U.S. narcotic farm.  

Holding up three fingers to the classroom, the producer explained, “I have three big rules about film: it’s like being in a band. First, can you do the work? Second, are you pleasant to be around? And finally, if everything is going really wrong, do you freak out or do try to find a solution? Follow those three steps and you’re bulletproof.”