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VIDEO: "Prodigal Sons" is not your typical transgender film

After graduating from high school, Kimberly Reed couldn’t wait to leave her hometown of Helena, Mont.

“Like most young people I had this wanderlust and I needed bigger worlds to live in,” she told SDNN. “I could find different solutions that didn’t exist in Helena.”

At the time, Kimberly was known as Paul McKerrow, the star quarterback of his high school football team. He received an M.A. in film from San Francisco State and was looking forward to a promising career as an editor. But the woman inside him could no longer be suppressed. Paul transitioned genders and became Kim.

“Prodigal Sons” is Kimberly Reed’s coming out film though this is not your typical tale of a sex change operation. Using her 20-year high school reunion as a starting point, Kimberly returns to Montana to attempt reconciliation with her family, most notably her estranged brother, Marc McKerrow. Well into production, the sibling rivalry between Kimberly and her adopted, mentally disabled older brother gives way to the startling revelation that Marc is the grandson of Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth.

The film also has a San Diego connection. Kimberly’s younger brother, Todd McKerrow, is a local architect. Todd is on the promotional trail doing what he can to help support his sister’s film. The shy, soft- spoken member of the McKerrow family just got back from the New York opening and regrets that all three siblings can’t endorse the project together.

“I really wish Marc was able to go to some of the Q&A’s,” Todd said. “Marc always envied our genes and now we envy his.”

Both Todd and Kimberly will make personal appearances this weekend at Landmark’s Ken Cinema. Transplanted New Yorker Kimberly came to town a few days early and spoke to SDNN from Todd’s house in Sherman Heights.

Scott Marks: At a time in cinema history when audiences are more intrigued by technological effects than personal storytelling, what do you think the chances are that people will go to “Prodigal Sons” instead of “Avatar” or “Alice in Wonderland”?

Kimberly Reed: There’s a lot of escapist fare out there and there always has been. We’ve been lucky enough to travel around the world with “Prodigal Sons” and it has been absolutely astonishing to see how well it connects with audiences all over the place. I think that films, especially documentary films, should portray the real complexity of our lives.

You watch the first 20 minutes of the film thinking that it’s going to be another documentary exposé about a dysfunctional family along the lines of “Tarnation” or “Capturing the Friedmans.” Then comes Marc’s blowup at your mom’s house and from there on it’s impossible to turn away from the screen. Marc was in a car accident when he was 21 and that caused him to lose a piece of his brain. He constantly mentions that, almost as if it’s a badge of honor.

Yeah. He does talk about that a lot. It was the most important event in his life, much more significant than finding out the news of who he is related to.

Why do you think that he keeps talking about it to anyone who will listen? Is it a way for him to gain sympathy?

That’s part of it, but it’s less that than a desire to explain his behavior. It’s a way to orient people to who he is and what’s wrong with him.

Growing up did you ever live in fear of Marc?

There were some pretty scary episodes but nothing like what happened after the head injury. Even if things were dicey beforehand, it’s nothing like dealing with someone who has lost their impulse control. That unpredictability is what makes things really scary.

Could you talk about the guilt you harbor over the decade lapse in your relationship with Marc?

I think it’s important to acknowledge that because I think there are a lot of families that feel this rift…alienation, estrangement. This movie is about overcoming that rift. The way that the film is structured…there is talk of me being transgendered. You can’t really avoid it. But there are also times when that issue disappears and it’s not the only thing going on in the film. Before we made this film, all of the movies I had seen on transgenderism dealt exclusively with transgenderism. It’s like that film “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” There is this one issue and that’s all they are going to talk about. That is not how my life is nor is it how I exist within my family. I think that the trans community is ready to move to a point in the media where we can talk about ourselves. It’s a part of who we are but it’s not the entirety. By talking about my guilt and my responsibility in this rift between the two of us, I had to be as hard on myself as I was on anyone else. One of the film’s big themes is people…making peace with their past.

In that sense you have succeeded because you are very hard on yourself in the movie. Growing up you were the center of attention in your family. You were the star quarterback on the high school football team. The years of built up resentment on Mark’s part is apparent. Suddenly you discover that Marc is the grandson of Hollywood royalty and the tables turn a bit and for the first time in his life he gets a spot in the limelight as you’re pushed off to the background. That must have been very difficult for you to deal with.

(Laughing) It kind of messed with my head and forever changed the dynamic of our relationship. Marc used to being envious of me and my genes and all of a sudden the tables turn. It was hard to go through as a person, but if you take a step back from it there is something funny about the whole thing.

Your father and Marc’s mother are the two people that I wish we could have heard from during the film. But sadly, both have passed away. You refer to your father as the bedrock of your family. Was he able to control Marc any better than your mother?

I think his presence did. The character of my father in the film really operates as a ghost hovering over the proceedings. He was the strong silent type who didn’t have to exert a lot of influence. Both my parents have an unswerving kind of quiet power about them and together they made a very good team.

I wanted to know more about Marc’s mother, Rebecca Welles. How cooperative was the Welles estate?

Oja Kodar (Orson’s longtime companion) and Chris Welles (Orson’s daughter) came forward. That was a situation where I felt it was my job as Marc’s sister and also as a filmmaker not to insert myself in that process. I didn’t wish to create connections that would not have been there without the film. It was my job to follow things as they naturally happened as we did when we went to Croatia upon the invitation of Oja. I was there to support and follow along on that crazy roller coaster ride we were on.

There is also one enormous question that the film doesn’t raise let alone answer: Why was Marc put up for adoption?

I’m not sure. The most basic answer to that is just that Rebecca was unmarried. It was the late 60s and hardly anyone had children out of wedlock then. And on top of that, her parents were two of the most famous people in the world. I don’t know if it was just general societal pressure or self-imposed. We’re not sure and that’s part of the reason that some of those answers are not in the film. They weren’t available to Marc. While everyone is freaking out about Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, Marc had these deeper questions. He just wanted to see his birth mother.

Oja seems to lose interest in Marc as soon as she discovers how severe his mental problems are. Are they still in contact?

She has continued to try and stay in touch. I felt like she really was hanging in there and trying to understand Marc. It’s such a complex thing when they meet and to try to imagine the extent to which he is reflecting Orson for her. It had to be so frustrating to her in a lot of ways.

This is your first film. How did you manage to get a distribution deal with First Run Features?

A lot of patience. I felt really lucky to connect with First Run because in film school many of the filmmakers I studied were with First Run. The whole process really started out with out co-production deals and early support from the Sundance Channel and BBC. Actually, CBC Canada came in with the very first bit of support.

How did your work as an editor prepare you to direct this film?

I had witnessed a lot of directors get inside this subjective bubble and not be able to see the footage they really had. I knew I was not going to get inside that bubble. Having been an editor, I knew the first thing I had to do was hire a good editor. That was really important (so that the) film wouldn’t get lost in subjective naval gazing.

Do you think Marc has finally been able to come to terms with your relationship?

I think so…I think that us kind of connecting through the film was a part of that. I’m very happy about that. Marc’s physical condition had deteriorated but my relationship with him is better than ever.

So this was basically filmmaking as therapy?

I think if you ever set out to do that it’s a really bad recipe, but if you follow some of those stories there can be a therapeutic element to it. I know that the film has helped everybody in our family understand each other better and repair a lot of the relationships between us.

And how is your relationship with Todd?

Todd has always tended to step back from the fray and I think that’s a really healthy way to handle things. He also had a better relationship with Marc than ever before. All of us have stronger relationships with each other. Had the film not been made, we would be closer just because we had gone through many turning points in our family over the last couple of years. The fact that there was a camera rolling during the most intense and important moments in the life of my family had a galvanizing effect. That’s a big part of the reason we are all doing better than before.

Filmmaker Kimberly Reed. (Photo by Mathew Zucker)

Event info:

What: Screenings of “Prodigal Sons,” with appearances by filmmaker Kimberly Reed and her brother, San Diego-based Todd McKerrow

Where: Ken Cinema, 4061 Adams Ave., in Kensington

When: Friday, March 26, at 4:45 & 7:15 p.m.; Saturday, March 27 at 4:45 p.m. and 7:15 p.m., and Sunday, March 28 at 2:15 p.m. and 4:45 p.m.

How much: $7 and $9.50

Tickets/information: (619) 819-0236; Website

Scott Marks is an SDNN contributor.