Director Moby Longinotto had originally intended to call The Joneses, his feature directorial debut, Love on a Trailer Park. Indeed, the film largely revolves around love, healing and acceptance. The protagonists of the film are Jehri, a transgender matriarch in her mid-70s, and her two adult sons, Trevor and Brad, with whom she was reunited after years of estrangement. All three live in her trailer park home in Pearl, a small town of Bible Belt Mississippi. The Joneses is a touching story about the LGBTQ experience in working class America, but also an intimate portrait of strength and determination against all odds.
The genesis of the project can be traced back to 2006, when Longinotto made a short called Smalltown Boy about a 15-year-old who became the first ever gay male carnival queen. It was shown in many festivals all over the world and was seen by many people. One of them, was writer John Howard, who would become a producer on The Joneses and who hooked him up with Jehri, whom the writer had met while working on a book about gay men in the American South. Fascinated by Jehri’s story, Longinotto eventually traveled from London to her Mississippi hometown in 2009.
Pearl was quite the different setting to the Big Smoke where he’d grown up, and he recalls landing on a dark night and walking along a dark road with no pavement to get to Jehri’s trailer park. “I didn’t know what I was doing,” he confesses. However, despite the initial shock, he received a warm welcome from the Joneses; Trevor met him at their door and let him in. “I went into the trailer and Jehri was there, all dressed up, full of makeup. She offered me some mac and cheese straight away and I just kind of fell in love with the family; they were really welcoming and very lovely.”
This first encounter with the Joneses was quite important for the filmmaker. Moby is the son of Kim Longinotto, the celebrated veteran filmmaker of such acclaimed features as Divorce Iranian Style (1998), Sisters in Law (2005) and Pink Saris (2010): “She’s the reason why I got into it in the first place and certainly, she’s a big influence,” he says. “I guess I definitely aspire for my films to be similar to hers.” However, he also admits, half-jokingly, that he doesn’t know whether he likes documentary filmmaking, as it can be “horrible and it can be brilliant,” and that at the end of the day, “I love the people. Meeting the people is why I do it.”
He got along with Jehri and her family right away, and eventually made a short film in 2009, which was also called The Joneses. But in the beginning, the family was a little reluctant of being filmed, and having their story exposed to the world. Jehri, for example, was terrified about anyone in her trailer park knowing about her and the repercussions it may have on her, her family and her grandkids, who still, she felt, did not know about her “secret.” As a result, the short film never mentioned her being transgender, although it implied it and let viewers draw out their own conclusions.
What the Jones family was most worried about at the time was being exploited, as people on reality TV shows documenting the lives of people living in trailer parks often do. It took some time for Longinotto to establish a level of trust with them over time. “I was mindful that I didn’t wanna break that trust,” he says. “I’m a human being first and I don’t go in with an agenda. I think a lot of doc makers see people as a vehicle for them to make a film. But I’m very much against that.” This respect also extended into the editing process. “I’ve made a lot of documentaries and have really struggled with morals. As a doc maker, you can get people to trust you, become their friend, and then you can get into the edit suite and do whatever you want. You can edit people to make them look to be what they’re not, but that’s not something I would do and it’s something I don’t feel comfortable with.”
After the short film was released, Longinotto kept up a dialog with Jehri, and also began to think that perhaps he could work on a feature-length version of The Joneses. When he finally returned to Pearl, it had been five years since the short film had been made, and he discovered the trailer park had changed somewhat. With Obama in power, “views towards transgender had softened and people started modernizing.” Also, the trailer park that had once been all-white saw an influx of people of different races and from different cultural backgrounds.
Jehri was finally ready to talk and share her story with the world, but there was one thing that she would never get over throughout the production and that allegedly still makes her cringe: “I’ll be honest; once she agreed to talk about her gender reassignment and her personal story, she was most worried about the way she looked. When she was young, she had acne and she’s got all these acne scars. I don’t know if you can really see it in the film, but she can really see them.” After the film was completed, “she liked the content … but not the way she looked. She was really freaked out about that.”
A significant challenge that Longinotto faced during the making of the movie was the distance between Pearl and London. He explains that he would go over there in two or three week bursts and would often miss many of the events that would actually happen when he wasn’t there. This led to the decision to have The Joneses be interview driven. This way, “the camera became a catalyst for talking. I became someone that they would talk to about what they were going through in their life that maybe they wouldn’t normally talk to each other about.” It is through these conversations that we understand what they went through, the hardships they endured, but also the ways in which they develop and grow, discovering things about themselves along the way.
While most of the film is shot in the family’s trailer park home, scenes shot in her Church reveal the importance of religion in Jehri’s life. “Her religion is so important. She’s gone through her whole life being a Christian; she’s a Primitive Baptist, which I knew nothing about because I’m not religious at all. It’s a real hardline religion out there in South Mississippi, and it’s got all these rules. It’s quite conservative.” Despite the fact the Church does not accept her being transgender theologically, Jehri wanted to carry on being religious, and Longinotto believes this summed up an important part of the film’s story: “Her determination is really what the film is all about.”
Her strength and determination helped him connect with Jehri, and is also something that attracts him to any theme or character he is interested in exploring through his films. “All my films are about people trying to struggle through in life despite setbacks. They’re about standing up for who you are and what you believe in, even if everything around you, socially, isn’t accepting of it.”
As mentioned, The Joneses marks the feature documentary debut of Longinotto. This is usually regarded as an important step in the filmography of any director. However, he did not see it this way. Because he didn’t get any major funding for this project, he did not have to worry about deadlines and this allowed to enjoy a relative amount of creative freedom. “This project was my love project, if you like,” he explains. “I just wanted it to be the film I wanted to make. I didn’t want to feel like anything I do for a job, like the work that I do for TV. This was going to be my baby, and I wasn’t gonna let it be crowbarred. I wanted to let it evolve naturally and become what it was by itself.”