Raymond Rea is a myriad of things. It’s hard to define with one singular overarching definition. He is an audacious award-winning filmmaker, whose films straddle the line between nonfiction and kaleidoscopic collage art that spring to life with humanity. He is also a professor at Minnesota State University Moorhead (MSUM), an artist, playwright, film buff, and above all else – deeply human.
Hailing from the New England region, Raymond’s father worked as an electrical engineer. His mother was a fine artist who worked by day as an elementary school teacher and encouraged his cursory artistic pursuits.
“Constantly through my life, through her, I got the idea that the arts were something you could go into,” Rea recalls. “She really encouraged artistic expression and awarded us when we did, so I have to thank her a lot for that.”
In high school, Rea explored music and theater, indulging in films in the Boston area in the late ’70s. One theater professor in particular exposed him to classic films that would later shape his tastes.
“He a was theater instructor and he used to bring in films for screenings. He brought in the old science fiction film ‘Things to Come,’ which is this black and white art direction masterpiece,” says Rea. “This is someone who, if I could find, I would thank him so much!”
In 1978, Rea moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, and spent two years at the University of Michigan exploring what little art they had to offer. At that time, they didn’t offer a film major or program – which is ironic – as Rea notes, “since Ann Arbor hosts one of the premier experimental film festivals.” The real allure for filmmaking opportunity was coming out of a Summer cinematography course in New York City.
In the summer of 1980, Raymond made the move to a post-“Taxi Driver” New York City and enrolled in a cinematography course where he spent the next six months reveling amongst the grit and neon glow of the city. The music at that time was especially vibrant as the glitz and glamor of the disco era and Studio 54 exploits was being snuffed out by the emergence of punk and new wave. Rea was particularly fond of the abrasiveness and how it expressed his inner turmoil.
Off in the West Coast, however, there was a new exciting focal point: San Francisco. Just a couple weeks shy of his 21st birthday, he made yet another move.
“I think as a kid growing up on the East Coast you just kind of hear legends about San Francisco, says Rea. “I didn’t know a whole lot about it before I moved out there but when I did in 1981, the city was radically different.”
When Rea arrived in San Francisco he realized he had entered the epicenter of the LGBT world. The Harvey Milk assassination, which happened in the city, had just taken place a few years prior in 1978, and the weight of his death hung over the city like a crimson veil.
“[When] I moved out there all that stuff was still very fresh for people so there was a lot of political movement in the queer world. Just a lot of radical, progressive thinking,” says Rea.
Raymond spent the next few years working as a bartender in dive bars just as the explosion of punk rock was seeping through the underground conscience and fueling his own personal exploits.
“I used to bartend at this placed called The Sound of Music and it was a real dive,” says Rea.
“Basically anyone and everyone could play at The Sound of Music and they did.”
Ray is Transgender so at this point in his life he was perceived as female. During 1983, at 24, he realized he is attracted to women so he lived in the lesbian community for the following 12 years.
As the years wore on, Rea made another move back to the East Coast between the years of 1984-1994 before returning to San Francisco. During that time, he completed his schooling and was teaching at the university level as an adjunct professor. When Rea turned 36 he started to hear about the possibility of transitioning to present as a male.
“As soon I knew it was a possibility, I knew it was right for me. I have so many friends that, when I did transition, came up to me and said ‘Well, obviously this is right for you’,” says Rea. “There was also something about me that was always a little too intense. I am much happier now. I started hormones and surgeries over 20 years ago so it’s not new to me anymore.”
Near the end of 2008 Rea did a nationwide job search in the hopes of finding a position that would later offer him tenure. The recession was just coming into view when he made the decision to move so the prospect was shaky at best. One of the first interviews he got was for a position as a professor in the film studies department at MSUM. He was offered the job and he immediately accepted.
The culture shock of moving from the liveliness of a sprawling city like San Francisco to the sleepiness of Fargo was immense. On top of that, the winter of 2008 was particularly tumultuous – it was one of the worst winters in recent memory and led to a massive flood in the spring of 2009.
As he settled into a quieter life, he began to poke around the university, seeking interest in a local LGBT film series that he could host. He brought in members of the local community to engage with and slowly but surely built enough steam to create the area’s first and only LGBT Film Festival in North Dakota.
Even just 10 years ago, the area’s LGBT community was surprisingly diminutive and tepid in its embracing of the transgender population, Rhea says luckily, it’s improved vastly with the LGBT community constantly organizing and creating events that offer support and comfort for those on the outside.
“At some point when I went back and I pitched the idea to them about the festival, there was dead silence. Someone just across the room said something like ‘We could go over to Bob’s house and watch DVDs’,” says Rea with a laugh. “It’s interesting that that was happening in everything that was considered the transgender community back then, so that’s something to say about how far we’ve come in just 10 years.”
The FM LGBT Film Festival just celebrated its 10th year with selections of experimental, narrative, and documentary films all exploring what the queer experience is like through the lens of the artists. Rea’s own personal work is no different.
“Density Over Duration” is Rea's film, digital media, and theater production company – and it accurately describes his art and life experiences so far. His films pulse with life and unrelenting liberty, and when you sit down and talk to him, you realize that he’s lived in the same way. With art as his shining light, he has navigated uncharted waters to a life filled with depth and reflection.