Adam Rohe is the subject of documentary Man Lessons. (Photo: supplied)
Adam Rohe is the subject of documentary Man Lessons. (Photo: supplied)

Pop CultureJune 20, 2020

Man Lessons: How to make a documentary about transitioning

Adam Rohe is the subject of documentary Man Lessons. (Photo: supplied)
Adam Rohe is the subject of documentary Man Lessons. (Photo: supplied)

Over six years, Ben Sarten filmed Adam Rohe (who was assigned female at birth) on his journey into manhood, forming a friendship that to them has become as important as the documentary itself.

Most documentary-makers put in hours, days, or years before a subject trusts them enough to do a film like Man Lessons. But Ben Sarten didn’t need to: the subject of his documentary, Adam Rohe, thought he was cool, and that was enough to launch the pair into over half a decade of injections, birthday parties, and hard conversations.

They met about a decade ago at the New Plymouth YMCA’s rock-climbing gym where it’s small, crowded, and easy to make friends in. Sarten was teaching and Rohe – then a Year 13 student at St Mary’s – was learning.

Rohe’s from Statford, named for the birthplace of Shakespeare. One of the small town’s many tributes to the bard is its glockenspiel clock tower from which carved figures of Romeo and Juliet call to each other four times a day. Rohe, an actor, was the voice of Juliet for years; a huge claim to fame for anyone in Taranaki.

“The guy doing the music and recording and the guy playing Romeo were a couple,” said Rohe. “The whole situation was really gay.” It’s exactly what Shakespeare would have wanted.

Following his Shakespearean destiny, Rohe eventually moved to Auckland to study acting. In 2016, he came out as trans and began to transition. By this time, Sarten was making documentaries and filming up and down the country. Rohe gave him a call. “I was like, do you want to hang out and make a doco?”

Sarten was staying in a friend’s very large hot water cupboard on Waiheke Island when Rohe reached out. “I hopped on a ferry, and we had a chat,” he said. “I still have the recording of that whole thing as well.”

Sarten turned his camera on the minute they reconnected and six years later, it’s still running. He’s spent that time following Rohe through doctor’s appointments, surgeries, psychosis, and the day-to-day of things. They worked for the same company at one stage, so Sarten’s filming and stream of personal questions became constant. They were either going to become best friends or piss each other off. Thankfully, it was the former.

“We spent six months living in the same bed,” said Sarten. “The better our friendship got, the more I wanted to take care of our friendship before I made a documentary.”

Ben Sarten (left) and Adam Rohe. (Photo: supplied)

“I’ve seen it in a lot of documentaries, where the filmmaker often has a motive that is not disclosed to the subject,” he said. “It sometimes can be quite damaging.”

When Rohe ended up in hospital suffering from psychosis (brought on by a cocktail of stress, work, and hormones), Sarten pressed pause for a second. “None of the things around me made any sense, and I felt really scared,” said Rohe.

They didn’t have consent to film in the hospital, but more than that, Sarten felt he had a duty of care. “I didn’t want to prey on Adam while he was vulnerable,” he said. “I just picked up the story afterwards and asked people what happened to fill in the gaps.”

Rohe said it still worked to tell his story. He said his motivation for persevering as the subject of a six-year project of eroding personal boundaries was pure and simple: the kaupapa.

“In issues like this, where a swathe of the population [trans people] is being marginalised and brutalised and is sick and dying for no reason at all, that’s more important than me being worried about people knowing about my personal life,” he said.

Rohe has a job, friends, family, and a home, and said he comes from “a position of huge privilege”.

“When I was super crazy I couldn’t work, but there was WINZ. I was cared for. So many people in my community are not cared for because of bullshit, prejudice, and fear that’s grounded in nothing.”

“I have the opportunity to attack that ignorance that’s causing heaps of damage,” he said. “The kaupapa of the thing is more important than me.”

As an actor, he’s vulnerable to fraud syndrome. “My job is to become people, who I’m not so convincingly that you believe that’s what I am,” he said. “That made being interviewed [by Sarten] really hard, because I was like, am I doing that? Or am I being honest?”

He spent nights lying awake, second-guessing his own identity. “Once the ball starts rolling, it’s really heavy momentum down this track, so I was like, is this just some fuckin’ ride I’m taking everyone on?”

Years later, the fear and anguish of those moments is clear; taking control of your identity is something very few people have the strength to do. “Nobody can check, nobody can verify,” he said. “I have to do this myself.”

When he began to transition, someone suggested he get “man lessons”. The first lesson Rohe would learn was that power doesn’t come from a man, it comes from a mass.

“So much of being a man is tied up in being powerful, and to be emasculated is to lose your sense of power,” he said. “But real power doesn’t come from the individual.”

Even Jesus had 12 disciples, and Rohe would like to see more men focus on building a collective. “If you move your focus away from yourself and onto the change you want to see in the world and those who want to see those same changes as you, that’s where you’ll find power. Not in going to the gym some more.”

Rohe’s learned plenty of man lessons, but has even more to give; he’s a man, but he’s one with some insight on the alternatives.

Man Lessons is tentatively scheduled for an end-of-year release, but Sarten is hoping to raise some more money through a Boosted campaign to get the process properly underway. He has six years’ of footage to sift through, so some extra hardware and labour hours would be help. 

Rohe isn’t the director, but ultimately, this is his story, and he wants it to shine a happier, healthier light on what it is to be a man, to be trans, and to just generally grow as a person.

“Human beings are constantly crafting themselves all the time, just not consciously. I was doing it on purpose, which is fucking terrifying.”

“But you’re good at it,” said Sarten.

Keep going!