Why ‘RBG’ Filmmaker Julie Cohen Joined Forces with Focus Features on Intersex Doc ‘Every Body’

After a two-year hiatus Focus Features is back in the documentary theatrical game with Julie Cohen’s “Every Body,” a film that explores the lives of three intersex people.

Defined as those born with sex traits that do not fit binary medical definitions of male or female sexual or reproductive anatomy, intersex people make up close to two percent of the world’s population. By some estimates that’s as common as being born a redhead, yet the intersex population is largely ignored by society, which is one reason Cohen wanted to make a film about the topic.

Cohen (“RBG”) first came across the issue in 2018 when she was working with NBC News Studios. There she discovered the story of psychologist John Money who, in the 1960s, claimed that a child, without consent, would take the gender identity he/she was raised with rather than the gender identity corresponding to the biological sex.

“In doing research into what might be the modern-day relation to that story I came to understand the huge impact that this crazy, stranger than fiction, holy shit story from 50 years ago had and how it related to what’s been going on for intersex people ever since,” says Cohen.

In the doc actor/screenwriter River Gallo, political consultant Alicia Roth Weigel, and Ph.D. student Sean Saifa Wall recount their experiences with societal stigma, social pressure, and nonconsensual surgeries performed on each of them as minors. Their interviews combined with archival footage reveal that the medical community and society still view intersex people as beings that need to be fixed and kept invisible.

Despite not being a doc about a celebrity, a crime, or a sport, Focus Features is theatrically releasing the 92-minute documentary in 250 theaters across the country on June 30. Other recent Focus docus include “Final Account,” released in 2021, and “The Way I See It,” about Pres. Obama’s photographer Peter Souza, which arrived in theaters the year prior.

Variety spoke with Cohen and Kiska Higgs, Focus Features president of production and acquisitions, ahead of the Tribeca Festival premiere of “Every Body” on June 11.

Julie, you developed this project with NBC News Studios. Since Focus Features is a part of NBCUniversal, was it assumed that they would take on the project?

Cohen: No. We had a conversation about pitching this project to a number of different places like streamers as well as a larger entity like Focus that does a lot of narratives as well as docs. Honestly, I wouldn’t have aspired necessarily to Focus taking this film. It seemed like a long-shot dream. I did the pitch, which was complicated, and within a week I heard that Focus was interested in funding the full project and being the distributor. The news was so good, I almost couldn’t believe it.

Kiska, What about “Every Body” appealed to you?

Higgs: Our partners at NBC Films, Liz Cole and Molly O’Brien, brought the project to us with Julie Cohen attached. We love all those women so it would have been an easy yes based on them alone, but it would have also been an easy yes based on the subject matter alone. As the film says, it is estimated that around 1.7% of the population is born with intersex traits, yet very few people (even in our age of widespread gender and identity discussions) understand the complexity and richness of what that means, much less hearing intersex people’s experiences directly.

In total Focus has released 12 documentaries including Edgar Wright’s “The Sparks Brothers” and Morgan Neville’s “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain” since launching in 2002. What are you looking for when it comes to docus?

Higgs: We look for the same elements in documentaries that we look for in narrative projects — compelling subjects and storytelling that hopefully enriches and entertains audiences.

Julie, how did you decide to focus on three intersex people instead of one or five or six?

Cohen: I had the thought from pretty early on that I didn’t want to focus on just one person. I’d rather focus on three people so I could get some variety and diversity of experience. I had the thought that I actually wanted it to be people who knew each other and were working together so that there was sort of an organic connection.

All three subjects are now leaders in a growing global movement advocating for greater understanding of the intersex community and an end to unnecessary surgeries. Are you hoping that the doc will help that movement further expand?

Cohen: I would say that the first hope is that people come out of the theater wanting to learn more. There’s a lot to know about this situation.

Kiska, since documentaries are very popular right now, will Focus be involved with more docs in the future?

Higgs: No prescriptions here at Focus. We try to get involved with stories we love, and hope audiences will love them too.

“Every Body” will stream on Peacock later this year.

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