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    Trans Filmmaker Talks About Adapting Aristotle and Dante for the Big Screen

    By Gary M. Kramer–

    Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, opening September 8 in the Bay Area, is trans writer/director Aitch Alberto’s superb adaptation of the award-winning YA novel by Benjamin Alire Sáenz. The title characters are two Mexican American teenagers in 1987 El Paso—cue ’80s music needle drops—who first meet at a swimming pool. Introverted Aristotle aka Ari (magnetic newcomer Max Pelayo) learns to swim with the assistance of the outgoing Dante (Reese Gonzales). The two teens develop a close friendship that becomes a kind of bromance. However, the art and poetry loving Dante drops a bombshell when his family moves to Chicago for a year—and then another, when he comes out as gay. Will the teens’ relationship be the same when Dante returns? Alberto’s sensitivity is in every frame as the film traces the emotional ups and downs of these teens in ways that are poignant without being cloying. As this wonderful film delivers all the feels in its conclusion, it is hard not to cry happy tears.

    The filmmaker spoke with me for the San Francisco Bay Times about making Aristotle and Dante.

    Gary M. Kramer: It took you 9 years to make this film. Why was Aristotle and Dante your passion project for your directorial debut?

    Aitch Alberto: There were points where I didn’t think it would ever become a reality, but there was a nagging thing inside me that would never leave me alone. It goes back to reading Ben’s book for the first time in one sitting and having this visceral reaction to it. It was his approach to these characters that we don’t often read books about—or much less see films about—that was moving beyond a narrative that I’m so tired of seeing. It was a very gentle, nuanced approach to queer and Latin people in a way we haven’t seen before—which is, ironically, what made it a long journey to get made. The industry is so fear-based. It is hard for people making decisions to see value in stories that we have not seen before. As much as it was my mission, it was also my biggest challenge. I compromised a lot, but I would not compromise on telling a story that celebrated the nuance about everything they are.

    There is a void of [Latinx] filmmakers, because generationally, we didn’t know this was an option for us. Our families and parents immigrated to this country with a small view of what it was to make it in the United States. That was manual labor, and following the trajectory of becoming a lawyer, or a doctor. That is the immigrant mindset. The arts in general were not an option, so there is a big void in our existence and representation and diversity.

    Gary M. Kramer: What can you say about depicting the bromance between Ari and Dante?

    Aitch Alberto: It was building a trust between Max and Reese. They were these characters innately, spiritually, and fundamentally. It was making sure they trusted me and each other and how we were using the camera. And then I could easily guide them through their natural instincts.

    Ari never says he’s gay. He always says he loves Dante. That is what it is about—love transcending sexuality. That was at the root of this story. Both boys North Star while going through this. It was an undeniable connection found with an unexpected person and in an unexpected place, devoid of whatever identity you claim.

    In my life, pre-transition, these boys would fall in love with me, and it would confuse them, because they really saw me. It didn’t change their sexuality. They just fell in love with me, and I think that’s similar to what’s happening with Ari and Dante.

    Gary M. Kramer: As a trans filmmaker, why did you choose not to make a trans film?

    Aitch Alberto: I think it is a trans film. I am a trans filmmaker, so my lens will always be trans. But I don’t think it has to be overtly about transness. My journey mirrors that of Aristotle. It’s me not allowing myself to feel the love for myself and the love around me. And missing that and taking so long to step into truth and not having people see me and say, “You’re allowed to be this person.” It mirrors my experience, even though it isn’t one to one.

    Gary M. Kramer: I love the character of Tia Ophelia (Marlene Forte), who gives Ari so much love and support, but he doesn’t quite know it yet. What can you say about who or what influenced your self-acceptance?

    Aitch Alberto: Non-queer folks don’t recognize who Tia is in the story—that she sees him. She is not as prominent in the book as in the film. Someone had to make it OK for him to be himself, even if she was never able to say it out loud. Queer people are the only ones who recognize that. My self-love took a long time. I pretended to be many versions, but there was a moment where it came to me not wanting to die living a lie and realizing that I had love and support around me. Despite my family’s ideas of who I should be, I knew that they would love me no matter what. But it was me fearlessly having that conversation with myself and being willing to lose those people in order to live truthfully.

    © 2023 Gary M. Kramer

    Gary M. Kramer is the author of “Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews,” and the co-editor of “Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.” He teaches Short Attention Span Cinema at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute and is the moderator for Cinema Salon, a weekly film discussion group. Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer

    Published on September 7, 2023