In March 2014, Capri Culpepper entered the S.C. Department of Motor Vehicles to get a driver’s license. The 17-year-old Culpepper was born male but had begun to identify as female, so she showed up in full makeup for her photo.
The DMV wasn’t having it.
Culpepper was told she had to remove her makeup. She was a “male,” and her makeup constituted a “disguise.” In response, Culpepper filed a lawsuit against the state.
Over time, she began to speak out on the issue of transgender rights, becoming one of the faces of a debate that would come to a head with North Carolina’s controversial “bathroom bill.”
In the end, the DMV was forced to change their policy regarding driver’s license photos to allow for makeup on men, as long as that person typically wore makeup.
The victory was bittersweet for Culpepper, however. The Anderson native was bullied so much at her high school that she had to transfer.
Through it all, an acquaintance of hers from Anderson, Caleb Holland, an aspiring filmmaker and student at the Savannah College of Art and Design, was by her side, filming a documentary about Culpepper’s junior and senior years. The final result is the documentary, “Chasing Capri,” which was released online last Friday.
Over the two years that Holland worked on the film, a series of historic events caused him to change the scope his film. Today, instead of telling Culpepper’s story alone, “Chasing Capri” now tells the stories of other transgender youths, a contentious election, a controversial piece of legislation, and a horrific massacre.
“Capri and I had met previously, and I reached out to her because I felt that it would be a compelling story given the rise in trans visibility,” Holland says. “But along her journey, so many things happened culturally that really shifted her life personally, as well as the LGBTQ community across the South, so we kind of expanded as we went.”
The documentary mixes footage of Culpepper and fellow trans youths Corey Maison and Shakina Nayfack as they discuss the discrimination and violence they’ve faced for simply being who they feel they are. The film is intercut with clips from Donald J. Trump rallies and, most disturbing of all, scenes from the aftermath of the Pulse nightclub shootings in Orlando, Fla.
“The film starts with a little history of Capri’s activism before the DMV case, and it ends at her graduation,” Holland says. “But we couldn’t have anticipated the bathroom bill or the Pulse shooting, so in 2016, we started going to all of these different places and covering the response to the bathroom bill and seeing how such a simple piece of legislation can hurt people on such a personal level.”
Holland adds, “And then during all of that, there was the Pulse shooting out of nowhere. For me, I felt the weight of that. I went down to Orlando a day or two after the shootings happened, and it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, filming the memorials and vigils and feeling them in a really personal way.”
Much like Culpepper’s story, the Pulse shooting was personal for Holland not only because of the staggering loss of life but also because as a young gay man growing up in Anderson, he knew what Culpepper had experienced firsthand.
“It was incredibly difficult for me, and I saw a lot of the same struggles that she faced in my own journey,” Holland says. “I know personally how incredibly difficult it is growing up in a small community and being a part of the LGBTQ community, and part of what that film addresses is the need for people to find different families if acceptance cannot be found within their own families.”
Ultimately, despite the moments of fear and uncertainty, that might be the most important message of “Chasing Capri,” one that Holland says he had trouble finding in his teens: There’s power in greater understanding.
“I think if we can continue to foster empathy and conversation in small communities, people can understand that we should all be proud of who we are,” he says, “and that no one should have to be afraid.”
You can view “Chasing Capri” at chasingcapri.com.