Caleb Roberts is an up-and-coming Northern Irish trans-filmmaker director. He tells us about his moving short Boxed In which screens as part of GAZE film festival and Homebird, his directorial debut.
Can you tell us a little bit about your own personal background and pathway to film-making?
I started making short films during high school, taking Moving Image Arts as a subject from GCSE to A-Level. I then decided to study film further, graduating this summer with a master’s degree in Film Studies at Queen’s University Belfast. Film had always been an artistic medium I enjoyed engaging with growing up and was a massive sci-fi movie buff – but it wasn’t until I reached my late teens that I realised it was something that I could actually pursue a career in.
Can you tell us about how you connected with Jackson Lennon, who wrote Boxed In and also stars in it as AJ?
In November of last year, I was casting for the main character of my first funded stage play The Third Date as part of the Outburst Queer Arts Festival. I wanted to authentically cast a transgender man for the role and had seen Jackson perform in short film that screened at the Galway Film Fleadh the year prior. I reached out and we got talking; sadly, unable to get him up North due to Covid at the time. However, a month later Jackson reached out to ask if I’d consider directing a short he had written titled Boxed In which was funded through the Screen Ireland Actor as Creator programme. So, myself and my partner Peter Young ended up co-directing the short alongside one another – working with Jackson and his crew to bring the film to life.
In the lead up to directing Boxed In; I was writing my own works which dealt with vaguely similar themes surrounding the topics of family acceptance, rejection, and masculinity. I was familiar with the subject matter Jackson had explored in his writing and drew upon a lot of my own personal experiences in that regard. However, as Boxed In was based on Jackson’s own experience with his brother Jordon (who stars as Niall alongside him) – we felt it necessary to not take too many creative liberties in the execution of the project.
What lessons from making Boxed In did you carry with you when striking out with your own directorial debut Homebird?
Boxed In was an interesting collaborative experience that allowed us to travel South and work with essentially, strangers that we hadn’t met until the first day of shooting. When you’re put out of your comfort zone and have to think on your feet with little prep, it forces you to tackle challenges head on in a totally different way. This provided a great springboard into crewing up with Homebird; understanding that this was a much bigger project that would require a great deal of care and preparation beforehand – and most importantly building trust with a crew that would soon become a mini family helping to bring your vision into reality. So, I can only thank everyone involved in Boxed In for helping push me out of my comfort zone and therefore, allowing me to bring that confidence forward into my own written directorial work!
You are the first transgender writer/director to receive short film funding from Northern Ireland Screen. How significant an acknowledgment is this?
Being the first transgender person to receive funding from Northern Ireland Screen to write and direct my own short film Homebird was slightly terrifying! But I received nothing but encouragement and support in the development of my work. It’s significant in that we are finally seeing LGBTQ+ people writing their own narratives and receiving the mainstream springboards of funding development laid out to encourage underrepresented talent! I am so excited for Homebird to enter the festival scene at the end of the year and (hopefully) find a home at next year’s GAZE.
Do you find yourself bearing more responsibility to tell transgender stories and ensure lives are reflected on screen?
There is always the pressure to write what you know and for me; that just so happens to be queer stories showcasing authentic trans/queer representation to an audience. However, LGBTQ+ filmmakers are not limited to their own identity as a means for storytelling; and queer representation across all genres regardless of whether the narrative relies on their identity is equally as important. We need trans representation in horror, rom-coms, fantasy, comedy – you name it! But it must come from the perspective of trans people or those with possessing a genuine want to accurately represent truthfully, that experience with respect and grace.
What’s next for you?
For me, I am currently working on my next screenplay and gaining my first few feature film credits. I am gearing up to release Homebird into the world, and constantly working towards the development of a feature film screenplay on the side-line. Things are very exciting for filmmakers in Ireland right now and with the right support I hope to continue working towards bigger and better projects.
GAZE International LGBTQ+ Film Festival takes place from September 29 – October 3 at the IFI, Light House Cinema and on IFI@Home – and GAZE West, a new mini film festival at the Pálás cinema, Galway this November.