You Should Know… Jules Rosskam

Jules Rosskam (Provided)

Jules Rosskam, 39, might be a Baltimorean now, but his career as a filmmaker and professor has allowed him to call many cities home. Born in Chicago, but raised in Philadelphia, Rosskam studied as a painter at Bennington College in Vermont before discovering his talent as a video editor in New York City. To further his career, he returned to Chicago to get his MFA in film, video, new media and animation at School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Since then, he’s taught at Purdue University in Indiana and Hampshire College in Massachusetts before accepting a position as assistant professor of visual arts at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in 2016.

Rosskam, a transgender man, has explored gender and familial relations in most of his films, including his most recent, “Paternal Rites,” which played at the Creative Alliance last month. He is currently finishing a film about the trans community’s relationship to dance, called “Dance, Dance, Evolution.” The film is funded by the Rubys Artist Project Grants from the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance and the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation. It is set to be released in early 2019.

How did you get into filmmaking?

I got into filmmaking in a circuitous way. I was originally trained as a painter. After leaving school, I became more politically involved and I couldn’t find a way to resolve or explore my political concerns through painting. I was given a video camera by grandmother for my bar mitzvah. I always had it around with me, but it never occurred to me that it could be a career. But I became involved with a nonprofit organization in Brooklyn where I began teaching people video editing and video production before I had done much of it myself. It was through teaching people video that I became interested in making my first feature film, without any formal training, in 2005. It was pretty successful and I went back to school to get my MFA in 2006.

You’ve made films with transgender characters and themes for more than a decade. Has the audience reception changed since 2005?

My first two films, which came out in 2005 and 2009, played in dozens of film festivals around the world and were broadcast on PBS. I think because there was such a dearth of films about the trans experience at the time, there was a lot of attention paid to them. My most recent feature film is really about the family in general, not so much about trans themes. I mean, I am trans and I am in it, so it comes up, but it’s not the main focus. There is a much broader understanding and awareness that trans people exist in the mainstream. That wasn’t true in 2005.

Mainstream audiences are not only open to viewing films about trans people, but are interested in and actively seeking those films out. As is always the case when a marginalized group becomes more accepted by the mainstream, the representation of the people in those groups become more complicated. We’re seeing slightly more complex representations of the trans experience now.

How has your Jewish upbringing impacted your work?

My interest in and commitment to social justice is totally rooted in my upbringing as a Reform Jew. I think that really impacted my sense of morality. Learning is a core value of Judaism and a core impetus for me in making a film. I usually make a film because I want to learn something. I either don’t understand something or I want deepen my understanding of something, and I do that by making films.

What’s your favorite part about being a film professor?

As I mentioned earlier, I really value learning, so I’m very excited about being part of someone else’s learning. I really enjoy watching young peoples’ minds expand. I really value the mentorship process that goes along with teaching and helping young artists develop their voice.

Have you seen any good films recently?

A film I saw somewhat recently was “We the Animals.” I saw it at the Maryland Film Festival last May, but it was playing again at the SNF Parkway Theatre last month. It is a family sort of coming-of-age film and it’s really just beautiful.

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