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A new film written and produced in Nova Scotia that follows the journey of a transgender woman finding acceptance in her rural hometown premiered at Canada’s largest LGBTQ film festival this week.

Dawn, Her Dad and the Tractor follows the story of Dawn, who returns to her rural Nova Scotia home after the death of her mother, with the hope of mending her relationship with her estranged father.

The feature-length film premiered at Toronto’s virtual Inside Out LGBTQ Film Festival on Thursday.

It was written and directed by Shelley Thompson of Wolfville, N.S.

The cast of Dawn, Her Dad and the Tractor on set. Left to right: Reid Price as Byron, Maya Henry as Dawn MacGinnis, Robb Wells as John Andrew MacGinnis, and Amy Groening as Tammy MacGinnis. (Dawn, Her Dad & the Tractor – the Movie/Facebook)

Thompson started writing the film about seven years ago and drew from her son’s experience of being trans.

“This film was sort of my love letter to my son’s community, and the hope that [people] understand how important it is … that families and communities support trans people,” Thompson said in an interview with CBC Radio’s Mainstreet on Wednesday.

The film was shot entirely in Nova Scotia last summer, including in Windsor, Halifax, Chester and Antigonish.

Thompson said she wanted the locations to represent rural communities across Canada, which often struggle to accept LGBTQ kids — something her own son has experienced.

Producer Terry Greenlaw, left, and director Shelley Thompson, right, on the set of Dawn, Her Dad and the Tractor last summer. (Courtesy of Dan Callis)

He left home after graduating high school, which inspired Thompson to write about the hardships that trans kids often face when living in rural communities where support and resources might be lacking.

Maya Henry, who stars as Dawn in the film, said she can also relate to that experience.

“[Dawn and I] both come from rural towns and escaped to large cities in order to find our community and to access resources to transition and be the truest version of ourselves,” Henry said on Mainstreet.

Henry, a trans woman from Ontario, has been chronicling her transition on her YouTube channel, which has more than 200,000 subscribers. 

She said the character of Dawn takes a different approach when discussing her transition.

“She is a lot more private about her transition, [as] a way to convey that she is still very much the same person,” Henry said.

“She might look different, but she is the same underneath and she just wants to be a part of society like everyone else, so I think that’s a really important story to tell.”

Thompson said that lesson is the focal point of the film. As Dawn restores an old family tractor, her father, played by Robb Wells, must learn to support his daughter and renounce his small town’s transphobia.

Henry said the film highlights just how important family support is when transitioning. 

“This film really shows how families can really come around, how there is a great deal of patience that’s needed sometimes, but that most people — when faced with obstacles — want to do the right thing, and it’s just a matter of time, education, learning and wanting to be there for the people you love,” she said.

Representation matters

Thompson said ever since she started writing the script, it’s been imperative to cast a transgender lead and a diverse group of people.

“It was very clear that not just Dawn was going to be played by a trans individual, but that we were going to try to surround Maya with individuals that she recognized as part of her community,” Thompson said.

This is Henry’s first feature-length film. She said the experience was life-changing.

By casting trans individuals like herself, Henry said the film provides representation for the trans community but also normalizes trans individuals being accepted off-screen.

Mainstreet NS12:45N.S. film shares story of transgender acceptance in rural communities

Screenwriter Shelley Thompson and actress Maya Henry spoke with host Jeff Douglas about their new film Dawn, Her Dad and the Tractor, which centers on a young transgender woman and her experience of finding acceptance in rural Nova Scotia. 12:45

“It really sends home the message that trans people are everywhere,” she said. “They’re anyone, and we deserve to tell our stories as authentically as possible.”

Dawn, Her Dad and the Tractor is expected to make its debut in Nova Scotia at the FIN Atlantic International Film Festival in September.