Every Body’s Filmmaker Julie Cohen Recounts Her Remarkable Journey
August 18, 2023
In Every Body, filmmaker Julie Cohen crafts a moving story focusing on the lives of three intersex individuals: actor and screenwriter River Gallo, political consultant Alicia Roth Weigel, and Ph.D. student Sean Saifa Wall. In telling their stories, Cohen foregrounds the ways the medical establishment and popular culture have historically denied the complexity of intersexuality by insisting on the existence of only two sexes. While the experiences of the film’s three stars have not always been easy, Cohen’s film demonstrates how joyful and inspiring their lives ultimately are.
Cohen, who received an Academy Award®-nomination, along with Betsy West, for RBG, has tackled subjects from Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to Julia Child, bringing to each film a profound sense of fascination and an extraordinary feeling of joy for her topics. And Cohen brings that same enthusiasm to Every Body. The Hollywood Reporter writes, “The film leaves you with the sense that, with greater awareness and collective action, the future for the intersex community can be powerful and bright.”
We spoke with Cohen about how she selected this topic, what was special about her stars, and why the subject is so relevant today.
The focus of your film has changed over time. What was your starting point?
Every Body grew out of my long-standing relationship with NBC News Studios, where I was a news producer for many years. In 2018, they invited me to look through their archives for stories that might make a good jumping off point for a feature documentary. I immediately gravitated towards a stranger-than-fiction medical case about this guy David Reimer. It was a mind-blowing story, which we recount in the middle of Every Body, but it was not ultimately the film I wanted to make.
How did you end up focusing on these three amazing participants?
I wanted to update the story of intersexuality that I found in the case of David Reimer, because I felt that it really touched on contemporary conversations about gender. That research pushed me into looking at how intersex people have been treated by society and the medical establishment. People born intersex or who developed as intersex—meaning that they have either anatomy or chromosomes that put them outside the strict male/female boxes that our society insists on—have often had their identity denied.
For a very long time, intersex people were either told not to talk about their own bodies or were simply not told about their medical history. They were pushed into a male or female box either through surgical interventions or hormones. But in the past decade, activists have come forward to tell their intersex stories and how they were treated by the medical establishment. It is a powerful story that I thought could make an incredible documentary.
What did you see as your chief creative challenge?
There were so many initial challenges from figuring out how much we would need to educate our audience to how we could encourage our participants to talk openly and honestly about their experience as intersex people without traumatizing them in the process. Luckily, we found these three incredible activists who both had amazing stories and a great deal of inner strength. All of them had been talking about their bodies and experiences before we started filming, so this film was not the first time they opened up about their lives. I think my biggest challenge was to make sure that the film was a feel-good movie. This subject matter can be tough, even sad, at points, but it was my job to turn it into a funny, fun, loving viewing experience.
How did you deal with the learning curve for audiences on the subject?
As filmmakers, we had to make sure audiences understood the basics of the subject. It's tough to make a film where the central subject matter is one for which many of the viewers have no frame of reference. So we made a decision to tell people right at the front of the movie what intersex means and allow the film to educate people.
What do you think are the biggest misunderstandings about intersexuality and intersex people?
I think that one of the biggest misunderstandings is that people often confuse intersex people with trans people. While these identities can overlap, they are not the same thing. One of the stars of the film points out, “People tend to fear what they don’t understand.” This fear has led to a painful situation for intersex people. I can only hope that the more understanding there is, the more we can erase the stigma around the subject. It's just a variation of human existence that hadn't been talked about.
Documentary filmmakers often talk about being transformed through making a film. How do you feel this film transformed you?
I think there was a lot of joy in making this film. I often feel when you make a documentary, there's a huge element of gratitude in getting the opportunity to spend time with the people in the film. I don't think that I experienced that feeling quite as much as I did in making this film. Getting a chance to observe and paint a portrait of each of these three impressive people truly transformed me.
Previously you have made films about Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Julia Child. What connects your subjects?
I like making films about people who overcome odds and break new ground. That is especially true for Saifa, Alicia, and River. They have faced some remarkable challenges and come through them with such grace, which is what we like in our heroes.
What do you want people to take away?
I want people to come away from this feeling that they've just started to learn about intersex people. There is a lot to this issue, and I hope people see this film as a jumping off point for the conversation that needs to be had. And I want them to come away feeling inspired.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.