As a filmmaker, my own creative practice of telling visual stories and making films has not only been an inspiring and balancing process in my own life, but the outcomes have often inspired and created change in others. I would like to highlight this process as an important one, that can also be embraced by the Arts Health Network of the creative work not only being undertaken by and for patients, but also by practitioners.

My latest social issues documentary ‘Becoming Colleen’ follows the gender transition of 85 year old Colleen Young from male to female, as she enters aged care in regional Australia. The film documents Colleen’s earliest memories of feeling she was a girl trapped in a boy’s body, and how she would carve beautiful dancing shoes out of her old working gumboots in her years back in rural New Zealand. Even at such a young age, Colleen found a form of artist expression that gave her a sense of valuing her true inner self.

Over the course of her life, Colleen was subject to countless medical and psychiatric examinations, electric shock treatment and stood a number of times on the brink of taking her own life, because she could not find a way and an environment where she could feel openly and honestly accepted for the transwoman that she is. This also seemed to be a time in Colleen’s life, as so many of us experience, that we are told to ‘grow up’ and often don’t allow ourselves the simple act of creating things we feel essential and of ourselves.

But Colleen was lucky to be married to Heather. When Heather discovered Colleen dressing in her shoes in their 40’s, she chose not to judge and ostracise Colleen, but rather to value the love they celebrated between them. The two embraced Colleen’s inner self and would dress up in Heather’s finest and go promenading around the deserted streets under the cover of dusk. The dressing up together reminded me of the power of performance, and although we dress up often as someone else, this may also be a way of expressing what is true and real and what lay beneath the layers of our outer societal expression.

It was only after Heather’s death, that Colleen at 82 decided she did not want to keep her secret any longer. She courageously started out on the journey to live as the transwoman she always knew she was. But living in a conservative regional environment with little context and support, this became an existential struggle for Colleen. Her greatest dream was to travel to Thailand for gender-affirmation surgery, but due to ill-health found herself having to move into a conservative Christian run aged care home instead.

All through Colleen’s journey the connection to her collection of women’s shoes gave her a sense of her inner self. What opportunities could have existed for Colleen if she had been allowed to creatively express her self, her thoughts and her desires through creating or working with artefacts like her shoes.


How healing may it have been for Colleen’s fellow aged care residents to have explored ideas around diversity through arts based practice to encourage an opening of minds and hearts towards someone living a life they may never have encountered before?

Certainly for Colleen, after living most of her life in fear of ‘her secret’, becoming involved in the making of a documentary about her own journey became and exciting interaction for her. She firmly believed if that by sharing her story she may make it easier for others – it was a journey worth going on.

I know for myself as a filmmaker, my own creative practice has given me a strong sense of self purpose and value and very often given me the strength to weather many physical and mental health challenges. And for that, I am Colleen extremely grateful that she granted me this opportunity to make this film.

For more information about the documentary ‘Becoming Colleen’ go to

‘Becoming Colleen’ is also screening as part of THE BIG ANXIETY festival on the 9.11.19 at 3pm at UNSW Art & Design. More information is available here:

Posted by Ian W Thomson