I stumbled across River Gallo on Instagram late last year, 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 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 unneccessary and often traumatising surgeries on intersex children that they don’t consent to. In Ponyboi River 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 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.
Ponyboi is making its way across the festival circuit both domestically in the United States and internationally, coming up at BFI London Flare Festival and the Tribeca Film Festival. How does that feel?
It’s a dream come true. As my debut short film, I couldn’t be more proud of what this little pony is doing and how many hearts it’s stealing.
If you could pick any actor, famous or not, to play you in a film who would it be and why?
Sophia Loren! Because she’s a goddess and who wouldn’t want an icon to play them in a movie. I think we kinda look-alike 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 2019. It’s radical and not easy to have hope when the evidence that everything is falling apart is 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
As a creative what’s next on your bucket list?
Writing poetry, scripts, and developing the Ponyboi feature-length film. Continuing to act and expand my production company Gaptoof Entertainment. Doing anything that will get me to the Oscars lol. I’ve began modeling too, which is so wild to me but also so fun. I want to keep having fun in everything I do because, otherwise, what’s the point?
Images & interview by Sahar Nicolette @theyshootthem