The title subjects of “Jack and Yaya” as children. Courtesy of Mary Hewey

“It’s the first line of my bio!,” filmmaker Mary Hewey boasts of her Maine roots. Indeed, the press kit for “Jack & Yaya,” her directorial debut, states boldly, “Mary hails from the great state of Maine,” so that checks out.

Despite having moved to Boston in 2010, Portland native, LGBTQ activist and organizer, and now first-time filmmaker Hewey is never far from home. Even if – as the current pandemic and its unending roster of canceled movie premieres grows – a planned “Jack & Yaya” Maine screening is on hold for now. 

Mary Hewey boasts about her Maine roots in her bio. Photo courtesy of Mary Hewey

Still, Mainers looking to watch Hewey’s documentary (co-directed with creative and life partner and other first-time feature director Jen Bagley) don’t have to wait at all, as “Jack & Yaya” hits Amazon, Vimeo and other streaming platforms Friday. The 84-minute film, a deeply personal and heartwarming documentary about two lifelong friends – both transgender – seeking love and acceptance, was already garnering praise and a healthy buzz in film festival circles before the shutdown, but Hewey says that she’s delighted that its own journey is taking it to video on demand. 

One might say, especially now. While all the current headlines surrounding transgender people are centered on a certain once-beloved children’s author and her regrettably ignorant anti-trans comments online, trans people face daunting discrimination every day, contributing to disproportionate rates of violent death (especially among trans people of color), and suicide and depression, particularly for those not supported by those around them.

Luckily for Jack and Yaya, their 30-year friendship has seen them surrounded by varying degrees of love and acceptance from their New Jersey families. As Hewey explains, “People hear, ‘New Jersey, working class’ and imagine ‘close-minded.’ But, in getting to know where both Jack and Yaya came from, there’s a lot of acceptance there, a whole lot of love.”

Hewey and Bagley’s film incorporates interviews with Jack and Yaya and their occasionally rambunctious families (Jack’s dad Tony apparently has a Pearl Jam/24-7 house rule), their extensive cache of home movies, and Hewey’s personal history as one of Jack’s closest friends and confidants.

“We met when we both moved to Boston,” says Hewey. “Where we were both sort of lost and almost immediately became best friends.”

There, when Jack first contemplated making his transition, Hewey gradually got to know Jack’s childhood bestie Christina (known as Yaya), and learned the story of two next-door pals who both knew from the time they could walk that they were transgender. It’s a remarkable and unique true-life story, and one that Hewey always imagined bringing to light one day. 

Jack and Yaya, all grown up, in a still from the film. Courtesy Mary Hewey

For Hewey, that day came in 2016, when she found herself unexpectedly jotting down, “Jack and Yaya documentary.” Having begun dating the more film-fixated Bagley, Hewey’s flash of inspiration came together the more they, Jack and Yaya discussed the possibility. Many visits to New Jersey followed, with the filmmakers being put up in family homes, usually over the hectic holidays, with the first-time directors scrambling to keep up with each extended family’s comings, goings and hearteningly loving reflections on an unusual situation that, to greater or lesser degree, everyone just accepts as part of life. 

“I knew Jack’s family through our pre-existing relationship,” says Hewey of her and Bagley’s experience interviewing two entire groups of relatives, “but with Yaya, it was pretty much starting from scratch. But pretty much everyone was so open and welcoming.”

Stills from the film show groups of people gathered around kitchen tables with cans of beer, the air of holiday bustle and the families’ natural energy always evident. Still, as Hewey says, people are different, and talking to Jack and Yaya’s clans netted a variety of levels of understanding and acceptance. 

“In showing the film, too, we’ve seen different responses from our own families,” says Hewey.

“I showed it to my grandmother and grandfather and they’re in their 80s,” laughs Hewey. “But we came out of the experience in conversation with each other. That’s something we’re hoping ‘Jack & Yaya’ will accomplish as more people see it.” (Again, Hewey is still planning to bring the film to venues here in Maine, as soon as we’re responsibly allowed back indoors.) 

And while “Jack & Yaya” is, at its heart, a documentary about friendship and loyalty in the face of an often hostile world, that world for trans people is indeed often bitterly hostile. Apart from the privileged likes of the J.K. Rowlings of the world, the film shows how kindergarten teacher Jack’s decision whether or not to get gender-affirmation surgery was wrenchingly difficult, and how no-nonsense New Jersey waitress Yaya – out for decades – still has to decide whether jumping through the multiple bureaucratic hoops (18 of them, in fact) to legally change her name is worth all the pain.

For trans people everywhere, life is hard enough. Luckily, as “Jack & Yaya” shows, friendship means always being there when you’re needed. 

“Jack & Yaya” premieres on video on demand on Amazon and Vimeo on Friday. For more info, check out jackandyaya.com. 

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.

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