“Jack and Yaya” is a beautiful new film that is the brainchild of filmmakers Jen Bagley and Mary Hewey. It centers on friends who both happen to be transgender and was inspired by Jen’s friend, Jack, and the stories he told. Jen recently discussed this film via an exclusive interview.
Meagan Meehan (MM): I’d like to congratulate you on a beautiful film. How did you discover your subjects?
Jen Bagley (JB): Thank you so much! It has been such a rewarding experience making it. Mary Hewey (co-director, co-producer) has actually been best friends with Jack for ten years. Mary and I started dating in 2015 and, since I have a background in film, Mary approached me with the idea of doing a short about Jack and his best friend Yaya.
MM: How well did you get to know Jack and Yaya before the shoot?
JB: I had hung out with Jack a lot and I even went on a glorious cross-country road trip with him, so we were buds. I had only heard amazing stories about Yaya but had never met her. Then, when the film was becoming more of a reality, Mary, Jack, and I Facetimed with Yaya and I witnessed the magical love that they have between them. We had more calls to prepare for shooting but the first time I ever met Yaya in person was when I was filming Jack’s arrival in Jersey, which is in the movie.
MM: Were they at all nervous or concerned about having a film made about them?
JB: There was definitely some hesitation on all of our parts, but I think that came later as the project grew. When we were first starting out, none of us really knew what this was going to be; we just knew there was something there that we wanted to capture and maybe we’d make a short film. Jack and Yaya were mostly eager to talk to us. They both have quite a background and stories to share and I think they know that it’s inherently important for more trans voices and faces to be heard and seen. When we realized their friendship was too big to contain and needed to make it a feature and enter it into film festivals, that’s when the nerves came out. There has been so much positive feedback about the film, and all the love has been very affirming for them so, ultimately, I think the huge risk is paying off.
MM: What makes their friendship special?
JB: It is not something that can be explained in words; it’s something you need to experience, which I guess is why we made a film about it. Jack and Yaya have known each other since ages 2 and 3. The fact that they are still friends in and of itself is pretty remarkable, and because of that deep connection they are absolute soulmates. They talk for at least an hour on the phone every day and sometimes call each other several times a day. Sometimes they’ll just call each other and go about their business on the phone together not saying anything. Even though they live in different states and have their own partners, they are so enmeshed in each other that they seem to be moving forward through life together as a unit. I’ve never seen anything like it. I think most people dream of a friendship like that.
MM: How hard was it to condense the doc?
JB: Our first cut was around two hours. Since we were planning on making it a short at the time, we knew we had to kill our darlings. There were so many little subtle moments that Mary and I loved because we were so immersed in the families. It was hard to know whether something was actually funny or important, or it just was to us. We were really lucky to have our executive producer, Jorgy Cruz (Funny Pains), look at a long cut and help us cut the superfluous (albeit hilarious) scenes. I am very grateful for Instagram (@jackandyayafilm) because many scenes that were cut needed to be available to be seen.
MM: Did it take long to complete the film?
JB: We filmed Jack and Yaya for a year of their lives and the editing process took around six months. Compared to a lot of documentaries, I feel like that isn’t that much time. If we had more resources, I’m sure we would have filmed them for longer and maybe even made a television series until they kicked us out because there is so much there.
MM: Where and when did you first screen it?
JB: We had our premiere at the 2019 qFlix Philadelphia LGBTQ Film Festival. Both Jack and Yaya and their families were there and the theatre was filled to the ceiling with love. It was quite a film festival to start with because we ended up winning the first ever Thom Cardwell Grand Jury Award and the Audience Award for Best Documentary. I’m pretty sure it was the best weekend of my life so far.
MM: Tell us about the feedback you’re getting?
JB: It has been so amazing. A lot of folks seem to connect with the film and so many of the characters. Some people quote it! Since Mary and I have been living with it for about 3 years now we quote it all the time and it’s really something to have complete strangers share in the enthusiasm. We made this movie for a lot of reasons but it is absolutely the best compliment when LGBTQIA+ folks enjoy or feel empowered by the movie. As a queer filmmaker, my number one mission of this movie was to write a love letter to our chosen family and community so when people see that shining through, I feel like I’ve done my job.
MM: Do you feel it’s an even more appropriate time to release the film now – when people could use an ‘uplifting’ story?
JB: I have been feeling that way ever since 45 came into office and started chipping away at LGBTQIA+ rights and protections. When I was researching and watching other films about different trans experiences, I realized that there was a lot of emphasis on the challenges but I was missing the joy and beauty of life as a trans person. In no way does Jack & Yaya minimize the trials but we were also most interested in the everyday triumphs and the happiness that comes from living as your most authentic self. I think it is hugely important for trans and GNC people to see themselves on screen thriving, laughing, and simply LIVING.
MM: What’s next for you?
JB: Our (Mary and I) newest project is about a queer woman in her seventies living with her tortoise and adopting a cat. It’s been put on hold since we want to be super careful of her health at this time, so in the meantime we are making stop motions to stay sane. I am also writing a queer horror movie script based on my experiences living with my dad, who was a city police officer. If anyone wants to collaborate HMU.