As she made plans to attend her thesis film’s final screening, Paige Murphy reflected on the satisfaction attached to creating something that made her proud. Her documentary “Just Benjamin” brought a family back together, and all Murphy did was tell a story she thought was worth sharing.
After two years of watching it on the big screen, Murphy said she found it difficult to believe that “Just Benjamin” was not the film she initially set out to make.
Murphy began working on her master’s degree in journalism at the UofA in August 2016 as a part of the school’s documentary filmmaking program. In early 2020, after moving to and from Los Angeles, she had to decide on her thesis film topic. Of course, it had to be a documentary and it had to be good enough to get her a degree.
“I came back from LA kind of not really knowing what to do,” Murphy said. “So, I just thought, ‘Well, I really like what Lucie's Place does.’”
Murphy originally intended to document an Arkansas-based nonprofit called Lucie’s Place that offers direct services and advocacy to unhoused LGBTQ young adults, but she said the COVID-19 pandemic spurred complications and caused her to reconsider her topic and cast a larger net.
By that point in the process, Murphy had decided she wanted to cover the Arkansas LGBTQ community. She felt a responsibility to provide someone a voice, she said. The weight of responsibility increased in 2021 when the Arkansas General Assembly took regressive actions. Residual spite about preconceived notions she generated while living on the West Coast also influenced her area of coverage.
“Living in LA, I felt a little bit of a defensiveness about being from Arkansas,” Murphy said. “I was determined to prove that not everyone from Arkansas is the stereotype of people in the South. So yeah, there was a little bit of a selfish desire to prove that, but I also want to better the lives of people around here. For the people who are in the LGBTQ community in (Arkansas) who either don't want to leave or can't leave, they deserve to have quality of life just like anybody.”
Murphy met Benjamin Davis through mutual friends while struggling to select a deserving subject, she said. She knew he was her guy after their first interview. Even though the documentary might not end up being exactly what she had envisioned, Davis’ story needed to be told.
At first, Murphy said she was unsure. She wanted to highlight the life of an individual in the LGBTQ community specifically choosing to stay in Arkansas. “Just Benjamin” ended up being a documentary about a guy leaving the state.
Doubt hung in her head as Murphy prepared for their first interview. She was disappointed in her inability to find someone who fit her preplanned narrative. But Davis’ life story compelled her as their conversation progressed, and she quickly realized this was her film.
Davis, 31, was born and raised in Arkadelphia. Better known by friends and family as “Benji,” he is an angler, an Army veteran, a brother and a son. In September 2017, he publicly came out as transgender and was open with his family about his transition. His family members, for the most part, were open and accepting of him, which is rare in rural communities with small populations, Davis said.
“It's more just a vertical thing,” Davis said. “Most people, it's due to lack of education. It's just word of mouth. They hear things, they don't understand them. So, it's all kind of a fear-based topic. The goal was to just show that we're everyday people with everyday families.”
The film ultimately followed Davis as he prepared to upend his life and move to Colorado. Murphy documented the moving process and interviewed Davis and his friends, father and stepmother about his upbringing. Her goal was to just hit record and see what happened, she said.
After the interviews were finished, the crew had shut off the cameras and the editing was complete, Davis said he gained a new perspective about his family.
Davis and his father had never talked about his transition, he said. His father was accepting and always offered unconditional love, but they had never discussed how he viewed the whole process. During his interview, Davis’ father opened up about how he noticed the struggle his son had gone through his whole life and wanted to be there to support him, no matter what.
“I actually had no idea of anything that he had said, and he had no idea of anything that I had said until we both watched the actual documentary,” Davis said. “And so I was emotional and cried, because I never noticed or realized that my father noticed the things that I was experiencing quietly. And so it was kind of an eye-opener of how he's been in my corner all along, he just may have not known how to address it.”
UA alumnus and research assistant Marret Lineberry attended a screening of Murphy’s documentary at the Arkansas Cinema Society’s Filmland Festival last November in Little Rock. He said the film was a perfect expression of how people should treat each other regardless of differences, and Davis’ father’s reaction surprised him.
“I'm kind of being judgmental saying this, but I assumed that it was gonna be Benji’s dad who wouldn't have accepted him,” Lineberry said. “Because like, ‘Oh, he's a country dude that lives in rural Arkansas. No way, he's gonna be open about trans people.’ But to see that his dad, like, put his love for his son before his biases and accepted him for who he was and tried as much as he could to strengthen their relationship, I thought that was pretty beautiful.”
Now two years later, “Just Benjamin” has screened in film festivals across the country. The film won the Audience Award for its screening at Filmland.
Davis was there to receive the award. He teared up talking about the impact the conversations brought on by watching it with his family have had on him. He hopes the documentary can spur similar conversations with other transgender individuals and their communities, he said.
“I am five years into my transition and I get the opportunity to be someone else's voice,” Davis said. “And growing up in the backwoods of Arkansas, in (Arkadelphia), I don't know how much smaller you can get than that. The goal was to — if it only reached just one person — to change their mind on how they view the community or how they just view us individually.”
With the final festival screening occurring in March, Murphy has started marking her calendar for her next project. She said she hopes to uncover more unlikely stories and help more unspoken heroes tell theirs.
“Kind of like with ‘Just Benjamin,’” Murphy said, “it could be that once I sit (a new subject) down and do this interview, it could take a whole new direction.”
Welcome to the discussion.
Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.