Mermaids offers break from being human

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      With transgender rights having crossed over to the mainstream, could transspecies issues be next on the horizon?

      Granted, this is being asked somewhat facetiously, but remember that it was the 2014 edition of the DOXA Documentary Film Festival that showcased A Brony Tale, which dove into the world of Bronies, adult male fans of the children’s cartoon My Little Pony. As this year’s festival lineup suggests, the notion of escaping our human form is gaining ground and escapades into nonhuman forms can have a fascinating impact.

      Such is the case in Ali Weinstein’s Mermaids.

      On the line from Toronto, the former synchronized swimmer says that when she discovered the mermaid subculture and community, she sought to delve into the psychology of transformation.

      “All of my subjects have a certain yearning to identify with something bigger and more extraordinary than what we often experience in our everyday lives,” she says. “I’m hoping that by the end of the film audiences will be able to see why our subjects feel this deep connection to this archetype and [that] it’s not about being crazy, [or] wanting to be something different, but it’s more a striving to be beautiful and powerful and strong when maybe they don’t feel that way otherwise.”

      What she discovered was that almost everyone she spoke to experienced unanticipated therapeutic effects, from women who worked at Florida’s Weeki Wachee Springs State Park as professional mermaids to a mother and daughter mourning the loss of a family member. Unlike cosplay or drag, and beyond simple escapism, there’s the added experiential dimension of being immersed underwater. What’s more, Weinstein points out that donning a functional mermaid tail endows wearers with enhanced swimming ability—and a sense of power.

      “You can put on a Wonder Woman costume but it doesn’t mean you can fly,” she points out.

      Weinstein says female audience members have felt moved and empowered by watching these women discover self-expression and confidence. One of the most powerful stories in the film is told by Julz, a transgender woman who finds the acceptance she’d always sought within the mermaid community.

      Interestingly, a transgender woman is also the main subject of the French documentary Être Cheval (Horse-Being), also screening at DOXA. Karen, a 51-year-old retired schoolteacher, travels to Florida to be trained by an aging farm owner as a “pony”, a person who wears horse fetish gear and submits to the command of a rider. No sex occurs; it’s supplanted by the submission-and-domination relationship. As Karen explains, it’s actually a form of affection, to lose yourself in the role and trust someone else completely.

      A different kind of human-animal transformation is on display in Harry Cepka’s short “Ovis Aries” (part of DOXA’s Everything Is Performative: Shorts Program), which captures a Montreal dance company re-creating the movements and behaviour of sheep in a Norwegian field for an outdoor audience. While none of the humans featured in these films desire to actually become nonhuman, all of these examples turn the tables on the traditional anthropomorphic treatment and perspective we impose on other species.

      After all, instead of training animals to behave more like humans, isn’t it more humane for humans to learn from the behaviour of animals?

      The DOXA Documentary Film Festival runs from Thursday (May 4) to May 14. More information is at