Christine Hallquist is a groundbreaking public figure in American political culture. After becoming the country’s first business CEO to come out as transgender a few years ago, earlier this year she put the world of industry aside to become the first trans person to run for governor in a Gubernatorial election. She may have been trounced by her rival in a safe Republican seat – but that a trans woman could have easily claimed a 40% share of the final vote tally is nothing to be sneered at.
Before her very public coming out, however, Christine spent decades hiding her secret from everybody – with the exception of her wife, Patricia. They had three children together, and over the space of a few years, started telling the truth to each of them. The final person to be told was her son, the documentary filmmaker Derek Hallquist, who coincidentally was making a film about the steps her business was making to become more environmentally friendly. The fight against climate change was supposed to hang heavy over the documentary he was making. Instead, Denial is now a more personal story, that asks a difficult question: do we have to hide our own identities in order for more people to take our beliefs seriously?
Prior to coming out as Christine, David Hallquist was still far from your average energy company CEO. David’s attempts to increase Vermont’s capacity for renewable energy, and introduce “smart” technology to help cap energy use in people’s homes, were fairly revolutionary – and not to mention controversial to the industry, as well as consumers worried about what these changes would mean for them. Derek has been following his father around on business meetings trying to document the changes he wishes to bring about to the energy industry. But a documentary that was to have a niche interest to the business and science sectors gets given a unique human interest angle after his father confesses his true identity. Derek is understanding, but vastly unprepared for such a revelation, and it comes to overshadow the film he was prepared to make in the first place.
The film is a deeply personal project for both Christine and Derek, and doesn’t water down their more complicated emotions. Derek confesses that he found it “hilarious” when he first saw Christine, while Christine herself (along with wife Patricia) don’t shy away from discussing their intimate sex lives in extensive detail. The film delicately handles these issues and more, answering the questions cis gender audiences may have with considerable depth and a warm, good natured humour that will likely leave you feeling as close to this family as your own.
Derek, working with co-director Anoosh Tertzakian, tries to keep the environmental narrative and the personal coming out story working in tandem, giving them equal focus. This works far better than you’d expect, and not least because of a Republican environment that’s as hostile to addressing climate change as it is to the LGBTQ community; these are two completely different struggles, but are inherently tied to the stubborn nature of American politics, where corporate interests and conservative beliefs trump the need for positive change and acceptance.
If there is a flaw to Denial, it’s that it can be too sugar coated. We’re told of unspoken adversity Christine received at work after coming out in a very public manner, but this is never displayed in the film. I understand why this decision was made, and it certainly makes a change from transgender characters being lazily characterised as victims in more mainstream oriented cinema, but it doesn’t help illustrate the significant stakes that are tied to such a public figure confessing their true identity. My heart was warmed by the film throughout, and it was only after viewing that these concerns became more apparent.
Overall, Denial is an effective documentary – and one that’s all the more remarkable when considering how juggles a personal story with a broader political one, and not watering down either. Christine’s post-coming out life is worthy of another documentary, but for now, Denial is a worthy portrait of an inspirational, trailblazing woman.
All pictures reproduced courtesy of Revry