The film’s eight minutes of conversation, drawn from five hours of recordings, offer a glimpse of a parent treating his adult child as a peer in candid exchanges.
“The only regret about feeling like a man is I’m not really still crazy about most men,” the title figure says in “My Parent, Neal,” a short documentary about family and change. For most of his life, Neal, a man with a beard and tattoos, was known as Nina, a schoolteacher and self-described “mama” to two kids. The documentary, created as a thesis by Neal’s daughter, Hannah Saidiner, when she was studying at CalArts, has since screened at more than a dozen festivals. “It’s been really exciting for both of us just to see that people care and that people are interested and they like the story,” Saidiner said recently over Zoom. “Just sharing that experience with him was really wonderful.”
Using a mix of animation and photography, “My Parent, Neal” documents two parallel transitions, one involving Neal’s gender and the other his relationship with his daughter. Over gently flashing illustrations and the tinkling of a piano, the pair reflect on Neal’s emotional and physical transformation and on some of the responses he’s received. With a variety of settings in the background—a waiting room, a restaurant, a recovery facility after a procedure—the cartoon Neal engages deeply with his daughter, answering questions but also simply sharing his perspective and pondering hers. The conversations feel at once casual and meaningful; the ever shifting backgrounds highlight the constancy of the central relationship.
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The idea for “My Parent, Neal” emerged around 2018, Saidiner said, but solidified after the outbreak of COVID-19, when she returned home from college. Suddenly and unexpectedly, she was living with the subject of her work, and could animate or speak to Neal from across the kitchen table. The resulting intimacy, captured visually and verbally, is clear.
The film’s eight minutes of conversation are drawn from five hours of recordings, and offer a glimpse of a parent treating his adult child as a peer in candid exchanges. “I really wish I had done this sooner,” cartoon Neal reveals about his transition, shifting from a meal with Saidiner to cutting her hair.
Because of its timing, “My Parent, Neal” has been an unconventional ride for its maker, now twenty-three. Rather than screen the film to a live audience as a CalArts student typically would before graduation, Saidiner had to be content with a digital première. But being back home proved creatively fruitful, allowing her to interview and animate Neal in person, and even inspiring a change of medium during the film’s final stretch. Going through old family photos of Neal and Saidiner at various life stages, she realized the resonance that the images could bring to the illustrations. “Our joy is visible as a family throughout,” Saidiner said, “but I think you can see him really burst with it as he becomes even more himself.”