Womanism 2.0 // Nyala Moon
by Juliet Cangelosi·
Interviewed by Juliet Cangelosi
We’ve all been waiting for Nyala Moon—we just don’t know it yet. I walked away from our conversation with my head tingling with excitement and a profound sense of anticipation for what is next for the Harlem born-and-raised filmmaker. It’s no surprise that within the weeks since our conversation, she’s announced a grant win from Netflix and multiple film festival awards following the release of her latest comedic work: How Not to Date While Trans.
While Nyala’s storytelling has been ever-evolving since her start as a grad student in film school a few years ago, common themes of love, tenderness, and the trans experience persist throughout her work. She spoke to us with the candidness and warmth of an old friend about her journey into filmmaking and why she chooses to tell the stories she tells.
We can’t wait to introduce you to this woman as we present the next installment of Womanism.
Tell me a bit about yourself!
My name is Nyala Moon and I am a filmmaker. A lot of the stories that I talk about or that I write and have made have been about queer people or trans people and that’s kind of my genre. Particularly trans comedy and telling the trans experience, showing I think what the experience is for me and my friends. I like to sometimes say “the modern trans experience.” I’m really interested in telling my story and stories about my community and my friends.
And you’re originally from New York?
I am originally from Harlem. I call New York home and I love it here.
What would you say first sparked your desire to make films?
At first I wanted to be an actress. I used to watch old Hollywood cinema with my grandmother and I used to imagine I was Lauren Bacall or Ingrid Bergman. I wanted to pursue that but I was transitioning in high school and reality hit where people were like, trans people can’t do these things. I was a little stubborn where I tried to pursue it and I took acting classes but they were just like, we don’t know where to put you. Then I got into modeling a little bit which was a whole thing. But I decided there was no space for me there.
So I went to business school… in the city and I was in my last semester and I was going to go to law school. I was like, oh I’ll be a lawyer, I like that too. I find that interesting. I was interning at a firm and my boss—her partner went to NYU and they were a huge film buff and she was also. We were always talking about stuff… I started making [film] shorts and a lot of my shorts were not good in the beginning because I had no formal training but I kept making stuff until I made something finally good enough to get into graduate school. I went to City College’s MFA program and I really fine-tuned my artistic ability to be a filmmaker as in a craft.
Also, what really led me down that path too was there were no opportunities for trans people and there were no trans people telling our stories. Me and my friends, we would see stuff and critique it because we were like, that’s bullshit. Like, what? That’s crazy. No, they need to push farther, you know, they need to understand further what our experiences were. And I was like, I’m so interested in trans stories.
Growing up, in literature and in cinema, I ate that shit up. Even watching Jerry Springer, even though it’s so problematic, I would be like, oh my god it’s trans people! There’s trans people on tv! When Jerry Springer or Maury would be like, “the most beautiful trans woman! Is that a man or not?” And I’d be like, they’re so beautiful, I want to know more about them. What are their lives like? It led me to wanting to tell specifically trans stories because it’s so needed. I know I needed it as a kid. I’ve done pretty well for myself but I wonder what it could’ve been if there were more trans stories by more trans people out there. How could it have affected me positively?
So you’re saying that just having representation, even if it was problematic representation, was still really impactful, which is wild to think about. You’ve previously said in an interview, “Where would I have been if I saw trans people just existing on screen?” I’m curious where you think you would have been? And what do you think these stories of “just existing” could look like?
I’m very shy of the whole activist thing to be honest. It’s very needed and people who do it, hats off to them. It’s hard work. In terms of trans people existing on screen, I think it needs to happen more outside of activism… A lot of my work in the beginning was very melancholy, you know: this is the bones and bits of being trans and the hard parts about it.
Now, I’ve moved towards trans people existing on film and I guess this correlates back to how it could’ve changed me because for a while as a trans person… there was no roadmap. Me wanting to be in a relationship openly, I had to really work my brain around that because it was something so taboo and unseen. I think showing that on film in a just-them-existing way can help people who have those roadblocks because if you don’t see those things it’s very hard for you to see yourself. I’m so into telling trans romantic stories… it’s hard for us to be in romantic relationships because we don’t see positive romantic relationships where people love us onscreen so it warps us to what we will accept and our self-esteem.
I have a master’s degree, I’m an artist, I live pretty well. It’s a huge privilege to be able to do that. In terms of seeing trans people exist on screen— and I also like to say in the mundane ways— it would’ve broken down a lot of roadblocks and walls that I had, that I still have… and it would’ve helped me love myself in a more complete way… and I want my art to have that effect on trans people.
… We need to push forward in how we see ourselves and making that more normal and I think that art can change that and remove those roadblocks.
It’s so powerful and beautiful that you’re thinking about your work as providing a path and direction. I want to talk about some of these love stories you’ve told. I’ve noticed that a lot of your work is centered around a kind of tenderness. Even with it not being my experience, seeing these things represented creates this feeling of elation for me to just see more stories of human beings told on screen outside of what we’re always used to. Can you speak more about the love stories and intimate moments in the stories you chose to tell?
I actually loved the way you described that, that’s so cute. I feel like intimate tender moments are universally relatable and some of the art that I’ve really appreciated have those moments of connection and I think that’s what centers the human experience. I love having those moments because I think it’s so humanizing and refreshing for people to see that… I also want to add those moments so people can be like, I’ve had that moment with someone before and the people who are having those moments [onscreen] don’t look like me but I can relate to that experience.
Can you talk to me a bit more about your transition to making comedy and this new project you’re working on?
For most of my twenties, all of my friends when I tell them my dating experiences they’re just like oh my god, that should be a tv show. Last year I was working on a tv show called Love Life and I was also apart of Lena Waithe’s Hillman Fellowship, the television writing program, and I was writing this really heavy television pilot called “At Night on Christopher Street.” It’s actually based on a real story about my friends who became kind of like a robin hood character where they started robbing the johns. So it was really, really heavy and dark and I really wanted to write a fun piece and my friend was saying, you should write about your dating experiences.
The wheels started turning in my head about why characters talk to the camera and what that actually means and I was just like, what if I combined that personal experience of being with a trans person as they’re navigating dating? I wanted to talk about the actual nuances of it because no one has really asked trans people what their actual experience with dating is in the city. I combined that element of talking to camera because I wanted the audience to have a direct line. I wanted it to be super subjective. I wanted you to know it’s actually more than, “tell people you’re trans when you first meet them.”
With my dating stories when I tell my friends, I’m heartbroken and they’re laughing like, “Nyala, that is so funny.” I think it’s funny now and I tell these stories because I’m making jokes of it now. So I’m like it would be really interesting if I wrote a pilot in the style of Fleabag and She’s Gotta Have It and I talked about trans people dating, and that’s how [the idea] came. I feel like comedy gives you dignity. If you’re able to make the jokes about your experience you control the narrative of it. It’s like feeding people medicine with the honey.
…It’s very serious— trans people being murdered, hella serious, right, and it’s super sad. But when me and my trans friends talk about it, we’re not like, “Oh shit. We’re gonna die.” We kind of make humor out of it… and I wanted to open that door to how we make fun of it and sex work and being trans and surgery and all of that. I wanted to bring that to it because it felt less soul draining. With this I feel empowered. I’m telling you the joke; you enjoy it. I create the narrative of what this is. That’s why I’m so in love with comedy now.
What influenced your decision to pursue your master’s? Do you feel like it gave you the tools you needed? What was the experience like for you?
I know the cool thing now is to be like, I don’t need schooling— art is from inside you. And I definitely agree with that wholeheartedly but I think there’s foundational stuff you really need to be able to produce at your best level. For me, I always had the stories. I’ve always known the stories that I wanted to tell but I didn’t understand the language of cinema. Hopefully I do now because, you know, my degree was expensive! [laughs] I didn’t understand the language of cinema and the tools that could help strengthen my stories.
In these artistic institutions they definitely lack perspective. I remember being traumatized arguing with my professors. They’d be like, “Why do you always want to tell trans stories?” And they’d be like, “This is not realistic.”
My argument was because there is no story like this. That’s why we need it. There’s so many of the other in excess that we need something like this. So a lot of my time in film school was fighting for my stories because they were just like, “Why do you want to talk about this all the time? We get it, trans people are alive. You’re trans. It’s your thing. Just be happy you’re pretty and you’re here.” So a lot of times I was just defending why these stories need to be made and why I’m telling these stories.
There is a part of the good in terms of me learning the actual foundation and tools of cinema. I’m a take the good with the bad person. Was it traumatizing sometimes? Hell yeah. But did I get a lot of stuff that got me to this point? Yep.
We are presented with the same narrative over and over again and no one is as critical of stories that fit into the narrative we’ve always heard. No one is asking, “Why are you always telling stories about straight cis white people?” It doesn’t make sense that on the flip side, you’re being questioned.
It’s a scarcity mindset and it’s very cyclical because you’re getting asked these questions on why this story needs to be told, but then you’re not seeing any of those stories, and then that stunts you because you’re like, well, I’m not seeing any of these stories then maybe they’re not valid. It hinders the art you’re making. Then when you do make that art you’re like, this has to be the greatest piece of trans queer cinema ever and it puts a lot of weight on what you create and it’s stifling.
How do you deal with the self-questioning?
A lot of work. Talking to people who love me a lot and re-center me. It’s ok to be freer in your art. With my latest film I’m freer in my form and what I’m doing and the stuff I’m talking about and it’s opened me up to what is possible and how I’ve limited myself through having this lens of scarcity.
It’s a constant battle to deprogram myself from that and [from] listening the negative, transphobic, anti-Black talk that I have within myself.
Can you talk about how you define your family or community and how that has impacted you as a person and your work?
I’m so lucky because I have an amazing group of friends and I’m really close to my sister and I have supportive family. I’m so blessed because I do have a really healthy support system that supports my work as an artist and emotionally too because it’s tough doing the art game. I’m so thankful. I’m a super privileged person. My grandparents are college educated. My parents are college educated. Before I was like, I’m a Black trans woman and life’s shit for me. But now I’m thinking about what my family did and how that has led me to this point of being here. That’s a huge privilege that I have. They provided me with everything that I need to be here at this point. It’s been a long journey to get here and I wouldn’t have been able to do that if I didn’t have friends who were like, your voice and lens on the world is valid. People need to hear that. Hyping me up in ways that emotionally, intellectually, I wasn’t there. But I had friends who were able to see the kernel of a vision that I’ve had and see it more expansively and keep me on that path when I wasn’t able to.
And my sister. Me and my sister are so close— she has been super instrumental in pushing me to be an artist. And even in other trans women and being around other trans people as a teenager. Oh my god, that was such a blessing to grow up with people and transition with people together. Cliche, I’m hashtag blessed. I’m happy.
Interview by Juliet Cangelosi
Video editing by Sofala Knapton