Starbucks Filmmaker Brings Transgender Story to the Screen
When Aaron Bear’s “Finding Kim: A Documentary of Transformation” made its world premiere recently at the Seattle International Film Festival, it marked a hard-earned milestone for the filmmaker and the man he chronicled.
The subject of “Finding Kim” embarked on a female-to-male transformation after he turned 40, having endured years of trauma and isolation. Bear, the director and producer of the film, has devoted countless hours over the course of three years of filming and editing to bring the story to the screen, dealing with his own trials along the way, albeit ones, he’s the first to point out, that pale when compared to Kim’s lifelong ordeal.
Bear, who is a producer on the Digital Productions & Operations department for Starbucks, said the documentary’s origin goes back a dozen years to when he and K.J., as he’s sometimes known, became acquainted through mutual friends in a circle of rockabilly aficionados. When Kim (who prefers that his last name not be used) confided his gender-transition plans to him at a party a few years back, Bear didn’t bat an eye. “It made perfect sense,” he said.
Though he reacted to his friend’s literally life-changing decision with casual understanding, Bear began to ponder tracking the experience as a filmmaker. Having worked in television and film for years, he was anxious to complete his first long-form documentary.
Kim, for his part, was initially reluctant to give his consent. A shutterbug since high school, he is comfortable behind the camera, but was hesitant to put himself in front of the lens.
“If I got attention, it was usually harassment,” Kim recalled. “Not good attention. So the thought of being on film was very scary and surreal.”
'It was difficult to be so personal’
Filming began in November 2012, just prior to Kim’s 49th birthday, and wrapped up in October 2015. For nearly three years, Bear and a small crew checked in with Kim for casual conversations and intense interviews with a three-person film crew.
At times, filming took its toll on both the documentary’s subject and Bear. The project demanded a serious investment of time and money with marginal promise of a financial payoff at the end. Both men continued to work through the filming – Bear at Starbucks headquarters in Seattle, and Kim as a barista in the city’s Ballard neighborhood. Working at Starbucks was Kim’s first job as a legal male.
“You’re dedicating your weekends to shooting all of this. You’re dedicating any time off to this," Bear said. "I haven’t had a tried-and-true vacation in years.”
Dealing with a jumble of emotions ranging from excitement to vulnerability, Kim’s willingness to cooperate wavered at times. “It was difficult to be so personal sometimes,” he said. “It is very strange to be a private person, yet very social and outspoken. The two can clash in weird ways.”
Related: Starbucks Commitment to Inclusion
“In the times when Kim wanted to give up, I sort of kicked into friend mode,” Bear recalled. “My friendship with him was more important than being a filmmaker. It was a matter of talking through things and talking him off the ledge. One of the reasons he told me he did this was to help people and not make 18-year-olds wait until they’re 50 to do this because there’s regret and there’s so much sadness that comes with that.”
With the world premiere wrapped up, Bear heads into the film-festival circuit to promote the 82-minute production. “I’m just going to take it slow and let ‘Finding Kim’ have its own transformation and its own transition, because it deserves it,” he said. “It deserves to have a little bit of love.”
Kim, meanwhile, left Starbucks in mid-2015 and moved to Bellingham, Washington. He’s open to returning to Starbucks in the future, but for now he’s considering his options and processing the activity around “Finding Kim.”
“I’m concerned about what people will think of the film, of course, and what they’ll think of me,” he said. “I’m no hero, that’s for sure. We trans folk, we’re just are who we are and do what we must do to survive.”
About Seattle International Film Festival
The Seattle International Film Festival, which runs through June 12, has been bringing unique film experiences to the Northwest for more than 40 years. Starbucks, a supporting sponsor of the festival, offers copies of the official SIFF 2016 Free Guide at more than 300 participating coffeehouses in the Seattle area and is featuring seven short films from SIFF through June 12 on the Starbucks Digital Network.