I stumbled across River Gallo on Instagram late in 2018, while scouting the web for filmmakers to feature at our short film night. Upon discovering the Instagram of River’s film Ponyboi and reading its bio – A short film about an intersex runaway, looking for love in all the wrong places – I was immediately intrigued. The narratives of intersex people are rarely (if ever) covered in the mainstream media, while the intersex community face identity erasure from not only wider society, but also within the queer community itself. It is LGBTQIA+, guys.
Intersex is an encompassing term that needs to be understood on a spectrum, relating to a range of conditions in which a person is born with an anatomy that doesn’t fit the typical definitions of male and female. Due to a lack of understanding within the medical field, doctors around the world are performing unnecessary and often traumatising surgeries on intersex children that they don’t consent to.
In Ponyboi River Gallo brings to light a few of the many struggles faced as an intersex person, from a child dealing with ignorant doctors to an adult who is coming to terms with his identity. Ponyboi is the film that society needs; a dreamy tale of hope and kinship that the intersex community has been missing, and a chance for people to educate themselves, generate awareness and help fight for intersex rights.
Ponyboi has just been released to the public, check out the captivating film below, and our interview with director River Gallo:
After 2 years how does it feel to have Ponyboi released to the public?
I feel crazy! It’s wild how a movie starts off as this little seed of an idea in your head, these feelings and images in your body, and then slowly it becomes words on a page, to then a blueprint to work and collaborate with other artists, to then actual human beings watching and feeling all those things that were present inside you for so long. It’s like being pregnant and I’ve just given birth! Everyone adores my baby! Haha.
Ponyboi is an incredibly inspiring and cinematically beautiful film. How did the journey into the writing & production begin?
It began with my passionate yet complicated relationship with my home state New Jersey. New Jersey has always been my biggest muse, in that much of my trauma growing up intersex is rooted there. Most of life I dreamed of running away from New Jersey and all the painful memories I experienced there. As I got older and discovered my intersex identity, I began to appreciate and be grateful for what those experiences taught me.
I cultivated a reverence for that highway heaven and all the affliction and loneliness I had feeling like an outsider in my teen years. However, being a misfit can be one’s greatest gift. If you survive and come to terms with your struggle, you realize that you had the power all along to change and to get what you want out of life. This is what I tried to convey in the script and in the actual production. I think I did a pretty good job, if I say so myself.
What inspired the stunning art direction/cinematography?
Firstly, I’d have to thank my cinematographer Madeline Leach and my production designer Alexah Acuña who are masters at what they do, and really understood my vision and made it their own, with the help of my co-director Sadé Clacken Joseph.
We were really inspired to create a world of contradictions, pairing dreaminess and fantasy with grit and grime. We wanted the audience to feel like they were trapped in a paralyzed Americana where time didn’t exist, because that’s how Ponyboi viewed his world– getting high and always keeping his head in the clouds to avoid the realities of his life. Also, I wanted to feel like I was in a Lana Del Rey music video in every scene lol.
For most people their “coming out” is an intimate event. However, yours occurred on-screen. What was that like for you?
Tbh I experienced a lot of anxiety, leading up to filming, on set, and even now when I show the film at festivals. The film still stirs up a lot of pain for me and sometimes I can’t believe I did something as crazy as coming out as intersex with a film that’s being shown around the world. However, I wouldn’t trade it for anything else. The way it’s resonating with audiences, opening their eyes, minds, and hearts as well as becoming a platform for people to learn about what it means to be intersex, and all the human rights violations that occur to intersex people makes it worth it to me.
Visibility and awareness for the intersex community is a definite issue, and Ponyboi is groundbreaking in the way that it addresses this. How important is it for you to maintain your stance as a voice for the intersex community as well as queer rights?
Incredibly important. I’ve always been passionate about being socially conscious and politically engaged, but never did I imagine I would be an advocate for intersex rights & visibility. However, this cause–being intersex and wanting to teach the world that my community’s life is at risk and that the idea of a gender binary is an absolute fallacy– is something that fills me with so much passion and anger and fervency that I feel like for the first time in my life I am walking in my purpose.
Congratulations on your TV debut in Hulu’s ‘Love, Victor’. What was it like being a part of such an iconic episode with key members of the original movie, ‘Love, Simon’?
Being part of that episode was so much fun. There was a lot of love between the cast and crew and it really shows on screen. The series has so much heart! The day I shot the author of Simon vs The Homosapien Agenda, Becky Albertalli was there. She recently posted a BTS photo of us from that day on set, with the caption that our episode “is going to save lives.” There’s a lot of truth to that. I think the whole series is going to save the lives of queer youth by helping them feel seen.
What’s special about episode 8 is that it’s the first time Victor experiences being apart of a queer family and what it feels like to have that connection and be lovingly embraced for being himself. That’s a very powerful thing to show on television, for queer youth and otherwise.
Representation for non-binary characters on-screen is still incredibly limited. What kind of discussions would you like to encourage film & TV writers to have when looking to create greater visibility for queer and non-binary characters?
This discussion isn’t just for writers, but to all creatives in the film/TV industry, specifically, directors, casting directors, producers, and execs who influence casting decisions and the gatekeeping or championing of diverse representation in front of the camera!
Everyone just needs to open their fuckin minds and challenge their preconceived ideas of what a character’s gender or identity should be. The industry needs to realize that non-binary, queer, trans and gender-nonconforming actors can be characters in a world with cis characters without necessarily having a narrative that revolves around their identity. We should be integrated. We can exist in tandem and just be. Audiences are ready for that. The fear that people will be put off or not understand a non-binary actor unless there’s a whole storyline around their identity is simply outdated and quite frankly dumb lol.
What motivates you as a filmmaker, writer & actor?
I’m motivated by hope as a concept and a catalyst for change, and to make the world better. I feel like hope is a responsibility that all artists must carry in 2020. It’s radical and not easy to have hope when the evidence that everything is falling apart all around us. If your art isn’t offering something to the world that can help someone or reveal some sort of deeper truth about what it means to be a human, I think you’re wasting everyone’s time. And there’s no
What’s next for Ponyboi?
I just finished writing the feature script earlier this year! It is Jersey-liscous and goes so much deeper into Ponyboi’s experience of growing up intersex and the strife it caused within his Latinx family, particularly with his father.
The feature film has a lot more of my own personal story in it. It was challenging to write but I am so proud of it. I’m currently developing it with my company Gaptoof Entertainment, and we are in talks with other production companies. I expect to shoot sometime next year and release it in 2022. Big things and good things ahead.
Stay tuned with River’s adventures on Instagram.
Images & interview by Sahar Nicolette @theyshootthem