Mark Wenzel always stood out from the crowd, but not necessarily in a good way. In grade school, in Plymouth, he towered over other kids and they brutally teased him. But in high school he turned his size — 7 feet tall and 350 pounds — into an asset by joining the wrestling squad and playing on the football team. A jock, he was accepted by his peers
But Mark was unusual not just in height but in another way, which he tried to keep secret. “When I was 8 years old I was getting caught wearing my mother’s clothing,” he, now she, says in Matt Kliegman’s immersive, surprising, and heartbreaking debut documentary, “Markie in Milwaukee.” When she was 15 she heard about Renée Richards, a tennis player who had undergone transgender surgery. “I knew that was what I needed to do,” she says.
But in the ’70s such a change was widely regarded as transgressive, so Wenzel repressed her female identity, which she called “Markie.” When a friend caught him wearing her grandmother’s clothes, Mark decided to get psychiatric help to get rid of Markie. It didn’t work. It wasn’t until Wenzel attended a prayer meeting at the University of Wisconsin in Oshkosh and had a revelatory conversion experience that Mark felt he had finally put Markie behind him. Wenzel got a degree from Bob Jones University and became a fire and brimstone preacher who denounced the LGBTQ community and all those who had succumbed to the temptations he had resisted. He married, had three kids, and all would have been well except Markie just wouldn’t go away.
Then Wenzel’s son found a box of women’s clothes hidden in the basement. “Everything fell apart from there,” Wenzel says. Her wife divorced her, and she was expelled by the church.
Kliegman picks up the story in 2008, when Wenzel is living in a cluttered Milwaukee apartment eking out a living as a TSA security guard. She is planning her gender-reassignment surgery, attending support group meetings, and taking part in work-related social events. But she also expresses sadness at her separation from her family, at her isolation and loneliness. She suspects that people don’t really like her, that they are secretly making fun of her, a fear unsupported by Kliegman’s footage; in one touching scene at a barbecue a little girl says, “Are you a girl? Cool!”
Kliegman spent 10 years with Wenzel, his camera following her through the twists and turns of her sexual identity crises and her struggles with her faith. The fact that the film, which follows a non-linear chronology, opens as Mark once again renounces her identity as Markie, dumping all her clothes, shredding photographs, and even symbolically interring her female identity in a cemetery, suggests that the struggle is ongoing. Like Jeff Malmberg’s “Marwencol” (2010), Kliegman follows the unexpected developments as they unfold. He intercuts his footage with Wenzel’s cellphone videos, home movies, and photographs. Segments are punctuated by ominous black screens. An unobtrusive soundtrack enhances a mood of anxiety and melancholy.
This is Kliegman’s first feature and it impresses with its artfulness and insight as it captures the tormented soul of its subject. Wenzel is hard not to like and admire. She is a good person who believes in God and who is trying to reconcile the truth about herself with a world that does not accept it.
Perhaps if Markie Wenzel had been a patient of Dr. Jess Ting, subject of Tania Cypriano’s intimately observational and moving “Born to Be,” her struggles with identity and change would have been less fraught and prolonged. Ting is a plastic surgeon at the Mount Sinai Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery, in New York City, one of the first and most prestigious such facilities of its kind.
Ting fell into this position by chance. “Up until a year-and-a-half ago I didn’t know transgender surgery,” says Ting, who had already established himself as an accomplished plastic surgeon. “How did I start doing transgender work? Essentially they just asked everyone else and everyone else said no but me.”
Since then he has gotten up to speed and then some, developing innovative techniques for “bottoms” — vaginoplasties (creating vaginas for those born biologically male) and phalloplasties (creating penises for those born biologically female). He also does “tops” — his original specialty was breast reconstruction surgery. “I make a mean penis,” he says. “And nipple.” Like many surgeons, he regards his work as a kind of art form, and before being pressured by his parents into becoming a doctor he had attended Juilliard to study the double bass. He still plays the instrument, and the soundtrack includes his renditions of classical works by Bach, Beethoven, and others.
Unlike the ethically challenged plastic surgeons in the now-defunct TV series “Nip/Tuck,” one of Ting’s greatest assets is his empathy. When he started at the center he was shocked when one of his patients had committed suicide. He learned that 44 percent of transgender patients attempt to kill themselves. “That changed my understanding of what these patients go through,” he says.
Cypriano follows Ting as he cares for five of those patients. Among them is Cashmere, an aging sex worker who had been involved in the Drag Ball scene depicted in Jenny Livingston’s 1990 documentary, “Paris is Burning.” She sheds grateful tears when Ting finishes his work. Twenty-something Garnet comes from a well-to-do family that fully support her decision to undergo male to female surgery. Nonetheless, the process pushes her into depression, and she attempts suicide.
Others aren’t ambivalent and find the procedures liberating. Mahogany, once a famous male model in South Africa, gave it all up to become a woman. She asks Ting to modify her masculine facial features. It’s a tricky procedure, and this would be the first time Ting has done it alone, but he sees why it’s necessary. “We’re going to make her external face and her internal identity match,” he says. “We’re going to make her whole.” When Ting unwraps the bandages and Mahogany looks at her new face in the mirror for the first time, her joy shows that he has succeeded.
“Markie in Milwaukee” can be streamed via the Brattle Theatre Virtual Screening Room beginning Dec. 11.
Go to www.brattlefilm.org.
“Born to Be” can be streamed via the Coolidge Corner Virtual Screening Room. Go to coolidge.org/films/born-be. The Coolidge will stream a Q&A on Dec. 8 at 8 p.m., with participants including Cypriano and Ting. Go to www.youtube.com/watch?v=qDb0u6NuE7U&feature=youtu.be.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.