Hansen Bursic was at work the day he received a congratulatory email notifying him his documentary “The Toothmans” had been accepted into San Francisco-based Frameline42, the largest and oldest LGBTQ film festival in the world.
“My boss just saw me completely break down,” said Bursic, a junior film student with a concentration in directing who works for Temple University’s Strategic Marketing and Communications team during the school year. “I never expected something like this to ever happen, let alone [so young].”
“The Toothmans” is an eight-minute documentary about Deb and Jim Toothman and their 17-year-old transgender daughter, Cooper. The Toothmans are a rural family from McConnellsburg, Pennsylvania, a remote area of Fulton County.
In the film, Cooper opens up about realizing she was different at a young age because of the clothes she wore and the toys she played with. Her parents ended up accepting and supporting her need to transition before she graduated high school.
“[Jim’s] very much a rural guy,” Bursic said. “You look at somebody like that and you’re often like, ‘Oh, they’re homophobic and transphobic.’ He kind of breaks down that stereotype, which I think is really exciting.”
“The Toothmans” also focuses on the discrimination Cooper experienced at school after her transition, like being told to use a single-user bathroom to separate her from other students.
“[That] isolated her and drew attention to her being different,” Bursic wrote in an email to The Temple News. “Kids at school would bang on the door and do other things drawing more attention to her situation.”
Cooper was suspended one day when she decided to use the women’s bathroom after school let out.
Bursic said “The Toothmans” shows how important family is and what parents should do if they discover their child is transgender.
“It says, ‘Well what would I do? I’d love them because they’re my kid,’” Bursic said.
Frameline42 ran from June 14 to June 24. After the initial shock of being accepted into the festival, Bursic called the people who helped him through the filmmaking process: his mother Eve; Jason Landau Goodman, the executive director at statewide LGBTQ youth advocacy organization Pennsylvania Youth Congress and Catherine Pancake, a film and media arts professor and Bursic’s mentor.
“If it wasn’t for [Pancake] I would have never even submitted to a festival like that,” Bursic said. “She has really been a mentor to me in a way that I’ve never had before.”
During the film editing process, Pancake suggested a few changes to “The Toothmans” and gave Bursic a list of festivals to submit to.
“I think he’s going to be somebody who is going to go far,” Pancake said. “We’re really excited as a department to support him. I felt like that was just a good, amazing first step, getting into a major, national film festival when you’re a sophomore.”
“The Toothmans” is a part of a series of documentaries telling the stories of transgender youth in rural Pennsylvania. The film was a collaboration between Goodman and Bursic, who is also a lead media coordinator at PYC. Goodman developed a relationship with the Toothmans after they contacted PYC for help, and he later asked the family to be a part of the series.
“Once we can show what our [LGBTQ] experiences are like we can have conversations about how to improve each other’s circumstances,” Goodman said.
Bursic, Goodman, Deb and Cooper attended Frameline42, which showed more than 150 films from more than 30 countries. “The Toothmans” was presented alongside five other films as part of the Coming Up Queer – Shorts Program on June 17 at Victoria Theatre.
“To have Hansen’s work even centered in the youth showcase is a great achievement and really speaks volumes to both the urgency of trans youth issues and to the high quality of Hansen’s work,” Goodman said.
Pancake added that Bursic represents the spirit of the film department by making films focused on social and political change.
“Seeing his work with the Toothmans, it was sort of something that people aren’t really talking about that much,” said Pancake, who is from a rural area of West Virginia and identifies as transgender and queer. “There are tons and tons of queer, trans and gay youth all over rural America, particularly Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Those voices aren’t heard.”
After the film played at the festival, Cooper and Bursic participated in a Q&A at Victoria Theatre. Bursic said there was an audible gasp from the audience members when they realized Cooper was on the stage.
“I was so happy I brought her because so many people asked her questions…and said how proud they were of her and how amazing her story was,” Bursic said.
Audiences also viewed “The Toothmans” at several film festivals across Pennsylvania. The documentary won an “Audience Favorite Award” from the Pittsburgh Underground Film Festival and a “Best Documentary Award” from the Lancaster International Short Film Festival.
“They’re just the sweetest family in the world,” Bursic said. “I was just very, very happy that their story was the one that people really resonated with because they really are those genuine people.”