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Interview: Daresha Kyi discusses new documentary Mama Bears [SXSW 2022]

headshot of Daresha Kyi
Daresha Kyi’s latest documentary premiered at SXSW 2022. Pic credit: Naylon D. Mitchell (courtesy of Mama Bears)

Emmy winner Daresha Kyi created a heartfelt and timely documentary about transgender youths, showcasing the importance of familial and community support. Mama Bears follows a group of conservative, Christian mothers with queer children and their fight for acceptance within their communities and against anti-trans laws.

Kyi, who directed the 2019 TV documentary Trans in America, premiered Mama Bears at the 2022 South by Southwest festival. While she was in Austin, Texas for the event, she also organized and spoke at a press conference at the state capitol to protest recent anti-trans legislature.

“When we were arranging it, we looked to people who are working with us. Our executive producers put it together, in conjunction with our input. As it started coming together, it was amazing. We only started working on it about maybe 10 days before and the response was just phenomenal,” said Kyi.

Daresha Kyi talks Mama Bears premiere

Monsters and Critics had the opportunity to chat with Kyi about the documentary’s premiere, her connection to the subject matter, and the biggest barrier she had to overcome.

“I didn’t realize how much I missed watching movies with audiences. As soon as people started laughing, I thought, ‘this is great.’ They were laughing at things that – when you’re making a movie, it’s funny the first, second, or maybe the third time, but by the 25th time you watch it, you’re like, ‘yeah, whatever, keep it moving.’ If it’s working, let’s keep going,” the director said about her in-person premiere.

“So I forgotten that there were some really funny moments. I knew there were going to be some tearful moments, but the laughter really surprised me. It was a welcomed surprise,” she recalled.

production still from Mama Bears
Pic credit: Mama Bears

Interview with Emmy winner Daresha Kyi

Monsters & Critics: Talk to me a little bit about your inspiration behind the documentary – what drew you to the Mama Bears?

Daresha Kyi: I am the stepmom of a gay child. I am a mama bear. I am a queer woman. I belong to the community. I’m not religious- I’m spiritual, but not religious. And so, I didn’t have a full understanding of the role that religion played until I started making this film. But I did know, instinctively, that it would have a very powerful impact for LGBTQ members who were religious. It is important for them to know that there are conservative, religious people who love and accept them just as they are.

That was one of the things that inspired me. These women are heroic. They go through this incredibly difficult journey of examining everything they believe, losing friends, family, and some of them even husbands, to take this journey and to support their children and love their children and really practice the love that is supposed to be at the center of Christianity.

M&C: What were the biggest challenges you faced while dealing with the sensitive subject matter?

Daresha Kyi: It was actually very easy because these women wanted their stories to be told. And Kai [Shappley] wanted her story to be told. On the storytelling level, the hardest part was getting the money to document them, and then running up against COVID. Those are our biggest challenges. These people that I was lucky enough to meet and document their stories, they are extremely articulate beings. They are passionate, and they understand the power of storytelling.

production still from Mama Bears
Kai and Kimberly Shappley in Mama Bears. Pic credit: Mama Bears

M&C: Your relationship with Kai is incredible. I was at the press conference and got this picture of her standing on a chair [to reach the microphone] and you’re behind her, holding the chair to make sure it’s safe. I felt like it was a great metaphor. I would love to hear a little bit about the collaboration process.

Daresha Kyi: The ACLU put out a call for a web series about transgender rights and because they were fighting ferociously for Kai to be able to use the girl’s bathroom, I pitched the story to the ACLU and they commissioned it. They gave me the rights to the footage after I finished the documentary for them, which went on to win an Emmy. I reached out to Kimberly [Kai’s mom] and told her who I was and what I wanted to do. She’d already heard of me because I had started shooting the Mama Bears feature. From watching the footage that was already out there about Kai, I knew this was an old soul. She knew exactly who she was and exactly why she came here.

I had to approach her the same way I approached everyone else, all the adults, because that’s how she functions. I asked her permission to make this film, just like I asked everybody else. I asked her permission to share difficult painful moments, like when she has accidents at the school and stuff like that. And I told her, ‘I know it might be embarrassing, but I think it could help other trans kids.’ My relationship with Kai is one of friendship and respect, and mutual respect. I understand that she’s still a child in many ways – she’s not an adult, but she has a very clear sense of herself. Clearly, because she convinced her Tea Party Republican mother who she was at the age of three. I have nothing but respect for that girl because she is going to change the world. She’s already doing it. Her advocacy, her speaking ability, her self confidence.

Monsters & Critics: How did you receive funding and what are some of the biggest barriers you had to overcome?

Daresha Kyi: We got all of our funding through ITVS co-production, grants, and some Indiegogo donors. When we were trying to shoot the the second leg of Sarah [Cunningham]’s Free Mom Hugs tour, we didn’t have any money, so we did an Indiegogo campaign and that’s how we paid for the that shoot.

M&C: How can others support your message and future projects?

Daresha Kyi: There’s just not enough in the documentary field to go around. People can start more documentary funds. Start more funds and create that demand, so that we’re not all crabs in a barrel. I know that when I get a grant, chances are most of my friends are not getting that grant, and it sucks. One of the dirty secrets in the documentary field is that the people who get to make the most movies are the rich people, because they can afford to keep shooting when the money runs out. We can’t.

Mama Bears is currently seeking distribution. You can find their upcoming screenings at MamaBearsDoc.com.

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