Whether it’s punks in the Philippines, the Jewish gay party scene in London, or the Asia's largest transgender gathering in India, Jess Kohl has developed a rare skill to embed herself within outsider communities to bring their stories vividly to life on screen. She says she is drawn to people “living on the outskirts of society, whether they choose to be there, or have been pushed to the side by the mainstream”.
Being an independent self-shooter gives Jess an opportunity to travel and immerse herself in communities that fascinate her, and which wouldn’t necessarily allow access to a larger film crew.
For Nirvana – the term adopted by the Indian trans community to mark the day they undergo surgery – Jess had the good fortune to bring art director Derek Hardie Martin on board. “So I wasn’t totally alone in the field this time,” she says. “Having that extra pair of eyes and hands definitely helped.”
Most importantly, in bringing the story of the Koovagam beauty pageant in Tamil Nadu - the biggest gathering of transgenders in the world – to life, Jess wanted to tell a larger story about the issues attached to being transgender not only in India but globally.
“I’ve always been intrigued by the role of the 'third gender' in Indian society,” says Jess. “Both feared and respected, these colourful and beautiful trans women attend weddings and funerals, demanding money in the name of their god, Aravan.”
Being gay isn’t really an option. So being trans is society's way of acceptance."
"The women have an odd place in society. They are accepted, but only in the roles of sex workers and beggars. When I discovered Koovagam, I knew I had to go and immerse myself into this culture. The longer I spent there, the more I began to see how heavily Indian queerness contrasts with the West. Being gay in India is still very much illegal and not accepted, which, in my opinion, is partly why there is such a huge community of trans women. If you’re an effeminate boy you will be pushed into this community, because being gay isn’t really an option. So being trans is society's way of acceptance."
Nirvana focuses on two contrasting characters – Chintu, who is accepted by her family, and Aaliyah who, shunned by her family, has made her own life on the street. Chintu is independent, she has a boyfriend, and is not tied into the 'Jamaat’ (the archaic Indian trans family system). “It was therefore really important for me to find a contrasting character,” says Jess. “I met Aaliyah at the pageant, and she really stood out - she was wearing a red, western-style dress, while the other girls wore traditional saris - she wore her hair in an afro, which is unusual in India..”