Interview with Derek Hallquist, filmmaker behind DENIAL - Documentary About First Trans CEO Christine Hallquist's Efforts to Transition Herself & Energy Industry's Future
Christine and Derek Hallquist (photo by Aaron Woolf)

Interview with Derek Hallquist, filmmaker behind DENIAL – Documentary About First Trans CEO Christine Hallquist’s Efforts to Transition Herself & Energy Industry’s Future

Q&A with Derek Hallquist, filmmaker behind DENIAL, an introspective documentary about the transgender transformation and the intricacies of it’s impact on family and business. Official Synopsis: Every day our changing climate pushes us closer to an environmental catastrophe, but for most the problem is easy to ignore. David Hallquist, a Vermont utility executive, has made it his mission to take on one of the largest contributors of this global crisis-our electric grid. But when his son Derek tries to tell his father’s story, the film is soon derailed by a staggering family secret, one that forces Derek and David to turn their attention toward a much more personal struggle, one that can no longer be ignored. Aaron Woolf

Joanna: Growing up at any point, did you ever think/feel Christine was discontent with the personal self before you learned of this transition?

Derek Hallquist: While I was growing up, I never really had any idea that Christine was unhappy as a man. But, looking back now, the way she portrayed being a man then seems almost like a bad actor now. If you have ever seen an actor who overplays their role in a movie or TV show, that is exactly what I am talking about. It was almost like she took the roles of macho actors as her guide.

Q: Do you think that things would have worked out just fine if Christine had transitioned earlier in life, when you were a child?

A: Transitioning earlier in life would have been much more difficult for Christine if she had transitioned earlier in life. Arguably she is facing major challenges along with the other members of the LGBTQI community. The United States is not a safe place for her yet, but has come a long way. Hopefully in 2025, when White men become a minority, we will see a massive shift. Currently, we are painfully living in a surge of antiquated hate and ignorance leading the country. As long as the entire country votes, we will never see anything as bad again. It would have been worse for her and the other wonderful loving people of this community 10 years ago, even worse 20, 30 and so on.

Q: Do you think you would have been able to process this when you were a child or teenager?

A: I am not sure what it would have been like to process this as a teenager. I think it is important not to judge people, I also think it is important to understand that we do not know what it feels like for others, using that thought process, it is nearly impossible to know how someone, even myself at a vastly different time, would feel. I took it pretty hard anyway, so I think if anything, it may have been easier before spending so much of my life now, thinking of my dad as Dave, the over-the-top “man”. It really is an interesting concept to discuss. I may have taken it easier because I had not yet totally created a relationship yet with my dad as an adult. In the end, I really am not sure how different it would have been.

Q: Do you feel like Christine is much more content or happy now?

A: Christine is so much more content now. She is so focussed on facing challenges head-on. She is much more patient, listens better and has a huge sense of empathy for others. Empathy becomes more and more rare, so I think that is important. She lacked empathy while pretending to be a macho male.

Q: Do you call Christine your father or mother now?

A: She is my parent. In public, I just say her name Christine. It is much easier to continue moving forward if I think of her as Christine, my parent. It is confusing to bring in male identification norms. It is also great to think of her differently now compared to when she was unhappily portraying a macho man as my dad/father. We are in a new and better time, so different ways of thinking are best.

Q: When making this film, why did you choose to intertwine the stories of work and his personal life both, rather than just personal life?

A: I think Documentary is in a much different place now and I am not excited about it. I argue we don’t watch many documentaries anymore and the documentaries that get widely distributed are not documentaries. We all watch well thought-out, scripted, non-fiction essays that entertain and confirm our bias. It is a shame that people think we should change stories around that happen to fit into a narrow-box that other filmmakers such as Michael Moore have pushed us into. His films are more like selected facts, put together in a very fun to watch narrative. A narrative that often confirms our bias and unfortunately pushes more division. While I love and enjoy these films, they are not a documentary!

We followed a story for almost a decade and told that story. Many people tried to force us to separate them, others wanted us to leave parts out and the small, core group of wonderful producers were the only ones that saw the importance of sticking to the story the way it happened. I had to sit through multi-award winning documentary filmmaker presentations about the template you must follow when making a successful documentary. Well, that was a wake-up call to me. Documentary is in a bad place. We don’t follow stories anymore, we script them and find experts to talk on screen about them, edit them creatively with B-roll and music and send them out to a predetermined audience. I get it, audiences want these kind of films, but there is a certain point where we pander to audiences when we should be challenging them instead. So there is my long rant about why we stuck to the story and put a lot of weight on our talented editor’s shoulders. Anoosh Tertzakian did an amazing job intertwining the stories almost exactly as they unfolded!

Q: What were some parts of the film that you wanted to keep in but had to edit out?

A: There were so many parts of the story we had to leave out. We had such deep information about the energy grid as well as family struggling to accept our new reality, but you only have 90 minutes.

Q: Did you have a plan or raise money to do this film before starting it?

A: I had a small plan, but faced an uphill battle because we didn’t have a script with exact story we would tell like other “documentaries” have. It was a truly depressing process that piled onto a difficult time.

Q: What was your motivation in making this film, and your ultimate goal?

A: There were many motivations beyond my personal anger towards the fall of true-form documentary filmmaking. I wanted to show everyone, I mean everyone including environmentalists, that we are all stuck in our own ideals when dealing with these big issues is more complex than any one single group. We have to stop being divided. We can’t have environmentalist issues separate from LGBTQI issues, we can’t have Climate Change activists fighting with Labor activists….we have to come together. I still face backlash from very intelligent people that this film should not have been about two separate subjects. I now smile because it means I am right about Documentaries failing to challenge viewers about the bigger picture. My goal was to get people to understand these issues are the same and no matter how much any one of us thinks we know, we do not know enough even in small groups to fix them.

Q: Have you noticed significant or any changes in US societal acceptance since you began this documentary?

A: Unfortunately, I have seen major shifts waaaaaay backwards with acceptance in the United States. I have found that society has created a world where it is celebrated to deny reality. Our current president is the worst thing to happen to every major complicated issue of our time. He is a simple minded person rewarding others for oversimplifying our challenges. Everything we face is complicated and requires soooooo much more than one solution. Just look at his stupid response to immigration. If we look 50 years ahead, there will be millions of refugees and immigrants displaced by climate change. How will we face that challenge if we can’t even face a couple thousand immigrants seeking a better life. He is killing the American Dream for the majority and creating an American Dream for the angry minority.

Q: It was clear that Christine was worry about how the company would react to the transition, but were you ever worried that the business itself or it’s adversaries/competition would use this openness somehow against Christine and the business?

A: I was more worried about her national leadership role. She already struggled getting everyone to accept the reality of Climate Change in long term planning. My fear is that this would give those people who live in a state of denial and delusion another reason to dismiss every complicated issue. Members of the VEC board required her to stop saying Climate Change publically. That is how bad things are. Unfortunately, we as the United States, continue falling into a deeper state of DENIAL on almost every major challenge facing us all.

Q: Were you ever concerned that doing a documentary on this may effect the family an/or business more adversely and have more negative consequences than positive consequences?

Derek: I was very fearful this documentary would put our family and Christine’s work in jeopardy. In reality, the film never saw a large audience, so I still do not know what effects it will have. There is so many things to watch out there and as I said before, we would rather watch something that confirms our bias and not films that challenge us. Argue all you want with that statement, but it is just a fact. Environmentalists will never celebrate this film because it is not 100% about them and LGBTQI activists will never either. I hope I am proven wrong, but so far, it is like a poorly scripted show where we all know the next scene, but the issue is, it is real life. We have to make drastic changes. It starts with each and everyone of us.

Joanna: Thanks to Derek for the Q&A and insight into this very insightful, well done and honest documentary. You can find more info and some pics on DENIAL below.


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(Photo courtesy of Henry Diltz)


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