Every Body: Julie Cohen, Doc Subjects on Intersex Film

Intersex activists Alicia Roth Weigel, River Gallo and Sean Saifa Wall from EVERY BODY, a Focus Features release. Courtesy of FOCUS FEATURES / © 2023 FOCUS FEATURES LLC.

Julie Cohen and Every Body documentary subjects Alicia Roth Weigel and Sean Saifa Wall were on hand to discuss the film during Tribeca.

Our conversation took place one day after the world premiere at Tribeca. If I had more time, I would have asked about the end credits. However, this film is more than just its end credits because Every Body is a pivotal film in the fight for intersex rights. It’s a film that should get people talking. People should be moved to take action. That the medical establishment is still causing harm in some states is just unfathomable.

Focus Features will release Every Body in theaters on June 30.

Julie Cohen attends the premiere of "Every Body" during 2023 Tribeca Festival  at Village East Cinema on June 11, 2023 in New York City.
Julie Cohen attends the premiere of “Every Body” during 2023 Tribeca Festival at Village East Cinema on June 11, 2023 in New York City (Photo by John Lamparski/Getty Images for Tribeca Festival).

Julie, what was the genesis behind making the documentary?

Julie Cohen: The genesis comes from the NBC News archives. As you may know, I was a Dateline producer for a long time before I was a doc filmmaker. I was back there in 2018—they asked me to come do some developing, look through their archives for old stories that might make jumping off points for cool new docs. That’s what led me to that David Reimer Doctor Money story that’s kind of in the middle of the doc, which had amazing material, including that exclusive interview with David Reimer, which was so moving and surprising. It kind of led me to looking in a little bit to how might we update this story all these years later.

I don’t think it was in the original Dateline story but in the field tapes, there was that moment of David saying the reason that he had decided to show his face on camera and talk publicly as himself for the first time was that he had heard how his case was impacting intersex people and the way that medical treatment had happened over the decades. When I saw that moment, I was like, this is amazing and I wonder what’s up with that today and how much this is still going on. It kind of now makes me think of the moment in the film where Saifa says, all the years that this has been happening and how is it that this hasn’t been stopped. I started looking into the modern day intersex rights movement and was really—I don’t know whether to say thrilled or saddened or both to find that there’s this incredible blossoming movement that just isn’t getting attention that—it’s not just that you guys deserve attention because you’re cool. There’re things that are being asked for that are pretty specific and if people were educated about, it might really change the way they thought about the way that care is being given or withheld from a group of people. That’s what led to this film.

How did you go about finding the interview subjects?

Julie Cohen: Well, everything starts out with the internet. If you Google—I guess I was Googling intersex activists. Alicia was the first one of the first things to come up. I guess—I don’t know what the timing might have been but maybe she had released something—a video—that was getting a bunch of attention recently. We had phone call. I think even in that first phone call, she mentioned Saifa as being another incredible activist who happened to live in the UK. Saifa and I had a Zoom, like, okay, these people are amazing. We started filming. River came to a demonstration that these two had organized. That was kind of on our first shoot. Next thing you know, we had three amazing activists whose stories to follow.

Alicia Roth Weigel attends the premiere of "Every Body" during 2023 Tribeca Festival  at Village East Cinema on June 11, 2023 in New York City.
Alicia Roth Weigel attends the premiere of “Every Body” during 2023 Tribeca Festival at Village East Cinema on June 11, 2023 in New York City (Photo by John Lamparski/Getty Images for Tribeca Festival).

How does it feel to be at Tribeca for the premiere of Every Body?

Alicia Roth Weigel: Feels like it’s about damn time. We have been doing this work for three decades but not enough people have been seeing it. I think the opportunity to work with someone with as amazing a track record as Julie lends credibility to our work. Premiering at Tribeca Film Festival only adds more of that credibility. And as I mentioned, unfortunately, there’s been plenty of work going on—just no spotlight on that work and now that’s finally changing.

Sean Saifa Wall: The way I look at it is that oftentimes, you do the work, you do the grunt work, the grind. You do that for years at a time and then you have these moments, which are openings, where people see the work that you do and there’s a lot of fanfare. Sometimes they keep going, sometimes it kind of settles down again. I feel like this is like an opportunity just to really highlight the work that has been done. I think it was just executed in such a way that was just really inspirational. I think it is really gonna give our movement and the work that we do just a lot more traction.

Yeah. When you’re looking at all these laws that are impacting the transgender community, some of them are crossing over into intersex without even realizing it.

Alicia Roth Weigel: Oh, no, they’re realizing it. These are very intentionally crafted bills that are targeting transgender children that include very specific language explicitly outlining not just the word intersex, but list some specific intersex variations. Unfortunately, we’re at a place that those who oppose our human rights have taken a lot more time and energy to learn about our bodies than those who would theoretically stand with us. I think that hopefully, this documentary will help change that. As I’ve mentioned, this should be an issue that is as commonplace in progressive spaces as climate change, Black Lives Matter, trans rights as any of these other issues that are constantly seen in media headlines. But until that happens, again, our opposition to our rights, who believe that transgender children are abnormal so they should be denied care, they also believe we are abnormal so they should force certain care on to us. Again, they have unfortunately done a lot more of the legwork to understand the issue than those who would stand with us as allies. I hope that that’s all about to change.

Sean Saifa Wall attends the premiere of "Every Body" during 2023 Tribeca Festival  at Village East Cinema on June 11, 2023 in New York City.
Sean Saifa Wall attends the premiere of “Every Body” during 2023 Tribeca Festival at Village East Cinema on June 11, 2023 in New York City (Photo by John Lamparski/Getty Images for Tribeca Festival).

I know Every Body has had a bit on the protests against Weill Cornell. What’s the latest on that?

Sean Saifa Wall: I think New York Presbyterian is such a behemoth of an organization. I think there hasn’t been any accountability for Dr. Dix Poppas. There are students at Columbia University, who are brave as hell—med students who are straight, queer, trans, maybe intersex, who have really been pushing—I don’t know the term but really raising the bar as far as advocacy and within their capacity as medical students to really challenge not only Weill Cornell, but to challenge Columbia University Med School and New York Presbyterian, specifically Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. There is movement but it’s limited because these structures are just really powerful.

Julie Cohen: Just to clarify, since Danielle is an out-of-towner, these entities are all connected now. New York Presbyterian, Weill Cornell has one parent company. It’s all one related entity.

As if keeping up with all these media company changes are not already enough!

Julie Cohen: Exactly! That’s exactly right. Soon we have to call it Max.

Alicia Roth Weigel: Yes.

Julie Cohen: The Max Hospital.

Alicia Roth Weigel: The Max Hospital, exactly.

Sean Saifa Wall: Totally.

Alicia Roth Weigel: Oh, lord. Well, I guess we won’t be selling to HBO now. (Laughs)

Sean Saifa Wall: Wait, huh?

Alicia Roth Weigel: I’m just kidding.

That office is right around the corner from AMC. I was walking right by it and I see a Max logo—I’m like, what’s that doing here?!?

Do you feel like people who are intersex do grow up with some level of shame?

Alicia Roth Weigel: Yes, unfortunately, we grow up steeped in shame. Yeah. Do you want to take this one?

Sean Saifa Wall: I think for me, what I’ve noticed is that just intersex children are born into a culture of shame and secrecy that is really perpetuated by the medical establishment. That also loops in parents as well. Right? I think what I have written about is this culture actually fractures relationships, right? It has the possibility of fractured relationships between parents and their children. And so, yeah, I do feel like if there wasn’t a culture of stigma and shame, there will be more people who are out. I hope that this movie sort of normalizes that however you’re born, whatever your experience, that it’s okay to be open about who you are.

What do you hope people take away from watching Every Body?

Julie Cohen: It’s really related to what Saifa and Alicia just said. One of the reasons that there hasn’t been more progress made in intersex rights movement, I think, is because of this culture of secrecy and shame. The reason that people are ashamed and secretive is because they’ve been fed a false line that there’s something wrong and bad about their own bodies. I mean, that’s been true in so many different struggles for rights. It’s not like the people that treat people badly are ashamed, but for some reason, the people that get mistreated or oppressed end up feeling ashamed. Intersex people, like gay and trans people before them, have been often fed by society the lie that there’s something to be ashamed about.

I think once you get into a process of reframing things and destigmatizing things, and being like—wait a second, I love the moment that even came as a surprise to me where Saifa says in the movie to the mom on video screen, who’s been told, Oh, don’t have any more children because genetically, you might have another intersex child. Wait a second, why would your doctor say that? It’s beautiful to be intersex. If people started seeing things that way, then there’s less stigma, then there’s less shame, then we can talk openly and rationally about things and then we can make progress. If this movie can play some small part in that whole chain of activity, that’s what I hope. I want people to come and get to know the people that are in the film and come and get to love them a little bit, but then kind of care and then think like, wait, they have nothing to be ashamed of. Oh, what are they fighting for? I want to learn more about that and I want to fight for it, too.

Alicia Roth Weigel: I think that last line is a good segue to what I hope people walk away with, which is that if there are the three of us and our stories that we’re focused on, and people hear that there are many, many more of us that they might gain a sense of curiosity to learn some more of those stories and understand that this shouldn’t be the only intersex story that they ever hear and that there’s a broad community of us out there and other voices that they should also be listening to. I really hope that this film serves as a jumping off point for people to learn more of our stories, learn more about the movement and what our demands are, and different ways that they can get involved in supporting that.

Focus Features will release Every Body in theaters on June 30, 2023.

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.