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Success of director Tristan Aitchison from Dingwall's 'niche' documentary feature which can now be seen by millions on Amazon Prime Video: LONGER READ

By Margaret Chrystall

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A FEATURE documentary made by a Dingwall man while in Kenya for his sister’s wedding is now available on Amazon Prime Video to an audience of millions.

Director Tristan Aitchison’s film Sidney & Friends has won 13 best documentary awards at film festivals around the world since an early screening for cast and crew at XpoNorth in Inverness.

Sidney & Friends director Tristan Aitchison
Sidney & Friends director Tristan Aitchison

The film tells the story of young Kenyan Sidney, who was born intersex – which means a baby is born with reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t fit in the boxes of ‘male’ or ‘female’.

When Sidney’s family try to kill him, a new life begins in Kenyan capital Nairobi with a group of transgender friends fighting discrimination and finding love and a future for themselves.

Following the documentary’s world premiere at the prestigious BFI Flare – London's LGBTQ+ Festival in 2018, Sidney & Friends went on a two-year-long international film festival tour and has been screened 100 times in 10 languages, won 13 best documentary awards and was nominated a further 11 times.

Tristan said: “It did incredibly well at LGBTQ and Queer festivals around the world. But it has also done really well in documentary and human rights festivals, in festivals in the African diaspora, and in more general mainstream festivals – Inverness Film Festival and other festivals that show a whole array of films.

“That is something that we are really proud, that it has sparked emotions in audiences at all different types of festivals.”

Tristan said: “It has screened on every continent apart from Antarctica. The interest has been incredible.

“When we were trying to raise finding for it back here in Scotland all those years ago, we were told it was too niche, and we really struggled with raising the funding.

“But it has gone on to play in the USA, Canada, all across Europe, all the cities in Chile, it’s been in Ecuador, Honduras, Tobago, Thailand, India and Taiwan – 28 countries.

“It hasn’t really screened publicly across Africa, for obvious reasons,” Tristan said, as the situation in Kenya hasn’t changed much for intersex and transsexual people. “Hopefully there will be some uptake in South Africa and some more liberal countries across Africa.”

The poster for the feature documentary which is now up on Amazon Prime Video.
The poster for the feature documentary which is now up on Amazon Prime Video.

As far as changes in Kenya, there is movement, he explained.

“I think in terms of legislation, especially for intersex, things are changing.

“But in terms of society, I don’t think anything is changing. And until that does, they can’t live their lives fully or safely.”

Tristan had just taken a camera, tripod and microphone to Kenya, hoping to do some interviews for an organisation that wanted to use them in conferences and on YouTube.

In the film, Maria has goals and is determined to reach them.
In the film, Maria has goals and is determined to reach them.

But people who are intersex and transsexual fall on the edge of society there and risk their safety. Tristan had to take those taking part in the film into a forest to interview them.

“It was guerrilla style,” he explained. “There was no funding at that point.It was only after I got back to Scotland and saved up money to have translations done of some of the interviews which were in Swahili – that I realisedthat more than six standalone interviews, this could go much deeper into the story as a feature documentary.”

Tristan is still in touch with Sidney and those in the film.

“They are all doing really well. Sidney is continuing with his activism work.

“Everyone shared such a large part of their lives with us and were incredibly, incredibly brave in doing so.

“Our film was a snapshot of that time, so I think it is respectful to leave them to their lives now and how they want to live them.”

Sidney with his best friend Ben at the door to their plot in Nairobi’s second largest slum.
Sidney with his best friend Ben at the door to their plot in Nairobi’s second largest slum.

But once the film was made, much more work lay ahead for Tristan and the small, dedicated team behind getting Sidney & Friends funding, finding an audience and getting it seen around the world.

Now that the documentary has been picked up by Amazon Prime Video, millions of people around the world will get the chance to see it.

Tristan said: “We had several options throughout the course of the last year. People saw it was doing well and was winning some awards, so different agencies came to us and showed interest. Some of the interest didn’t go any further, some did. We had interest from a wide variety of places.

“But it was always our thought, choice – and wish – that the film, which is quite niche in its subject matter but not in its themes, as it relates to people about friendship, love, family, wanting to get on in life and equality we wanted to get to the widest possible audience.

“That was then Amazon Prime Video because it is worldwide, because tens of millions of people across the world have access to it.

“It was also because they have dealt really well with other gender-minority issues – one of the first Amazon Original shows was Transparent.

“So Amazon was always a really good fit for us and it’s a wide audience.

“If we had gone to something that was just documentary, then it is just people who subscribe to that documentary channel that will watch it. Or, something that was just LGBTQ, again, it would just be that audience that watched it.

“On Amazon Prime Video, anyone can stumble across it or it can come up on their recommendations, so that was always really important to us.”

Getting the documentary to this point has taken a lot of work, Tristan emphasises.

“If I thought when I had taken out that camera and packed it in my case all those years ago that I’d end up here now, I would probably think twice about putting the camera in my bag, to be honest!” he laughed.

“It has been really tough, but also so gratifying.

“When I came back at the beginning and had so many doors closed to me, that we have got to this stage now …

“The film came up yesterday on my TV ‘what to watch next’, beside all the Hollywood films, that is kind of incredible!

“It has been a journey, but nothing that compares to the stories and the journeys our contributors have shared in the film.

“And it’s not just me, there have been others who have been amazing support – either throughout, or who have played their roles in the journey, like Amanda Millen (an executive producer) from XpoNorth, Paul Terry – executive producer and composer, Paul Dunkley who worked on the titles, Silas Miami and Lana Crowster who did the spectacular vocals on the soundtrack.

“A lot of people have invested a lot of love and time on the film and have sprinkled their magic across it, so we’re really grateful to them.”

In the film, Maria faces the world head on every day.
In the film, Maria faces the world head on every day.

Talking back in 2017, before the world premiere and the documentary started to make its way in the world and win nominations and awards, Tristan was clear what he had wanted the film to be.

“I started Sidney And Friends with the idea that I wanted to make something that was hopeful or full of hope, rather than some hard-hitting expose.

“And it was quite difficult at times to do that. You’ve got all this information and footage – and you put more hard-hitting stuff in and more horrid stories, more tears, more thoughts of suicide or stories of suicide.

“But no, you have to reel all that back and stick to the guns of it being about hope and feelings and thoughts – and I’m so glad that we did do that.”

Tristan hopes there will be another film project soon.

“People keep asking me,” he said.

As Tristan said, making the film was just the first part of the Sidney & Friends story.

“It has been pretty much a full-time job! Once the film is finished then what I’ve learned is about 50 per cent of your journey is done!” laughed Tristan.

“But I also work in children’s residential care and I really enjoy that.”

“My executive producer Paul Terry is very keen, and I am too, that the next film will be set up here as some sort of love letter to the Highlands.

“And that would make it much easier to do, rather than setting it in Kenya where half the interviews were in Swahili!

“The Highlands is my home and this is where I feel comfortable, at ease and relaxed and it is somewhere that I have chosen to live.

“You sometimes get this ‘Oh, you’re living up in the back of beyond’.

“But the Highlands is chock a block with people doing creative things, all the way through from crafts and textiles to fashion and literature or film and TV work.

“It’s an inspiring place.”

Sidney & Friends is now available to watch on Amazon Prime Video: watch.sidneyandfriends.com/primevideo Find out more about the film: https://sidneyandfriends.com/

Watch the trailer:

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