Lifelong bowler Michelle Guzowski has been bowling at the iconic Mahall’s 20 Lanes in Lakewood for years.
After a bit of a hiatus, she returned to the league and came out to her fellow bowlers as a trans woman. Michelle’s story is one of change and acceptance and it’s also the subject of the recently released documentary Our League.
At its core, Our League is about change and the way people deal with it. Mahall’s is nearly 100 years old and when it came under new ownership a few years back, changes were imminent. There were fancy cocktails, a new music venue and a focus on event hosting along with more of an emphasis on inclusivity and diversity. Needless to say, this influx of change was – and in a way still is – hard for some of Mahall’s longtime patrons to cope with.
At the heart of the changes circling around Mahall’s and its patrons is Michelle Guzowski. She is a very kindhearted, open person. She also enjoys singing and when she’s not working or bowling, you can catch her performing with the Cleveland Transgender Choir through Baldwin Wallace University and Windsong, Cleveland’s Feminist Chorus.
But bowling is Guzowski’s first love. Having bowled at Mahall’s for over 20 years, those lanes and the league she plays on are like home. That’s why it was so important for her to come out to the bowlers at Mahall’s and redefine her place on the league as her true self.
“The idea is to get the message out there that being transgender is not a bad thing. It’s a good thing,” she said. “And if one person gets something out of this to help them realize their self-worth, then I’m happy with it.”
The documentary was produced and directed by Emmy award-winning and Oscar-nominated filmmaker Sam Cullman. He heard about Guzowski’s story through executive producer Ian Manheimer and co-producer/sound recordist Alex Jacobs . When Cullman came out to meet Guzowski and everyone at Mahall’s, the original plan was to just film a short profile about the people at Mahall’s in a Rust Belt community being responsive and accepting of people’s differences. But upon talking to everyone and learning more, Cullman realized this was more than just a short and sweet feature.
“It felt like a great means to tell a story about how people are coping with change and division and sort of defining themselves and their communities,” he said.
Filming started in 2018. Guzowski said she really didn’t mind having Cullman and his camera crew follow her around filming her day-to-day. In turn, she said she actually ended up learning quite a bit about the filmmaking process.
On Cullman’s side, he said most everyone at Mahall’s was open to the idea of the documentary and being on camera, even those who seemed to have a harder time coping with change on screen.
One of the big concerns filmmakers have is the moment they finally show their piece to their subjects, Apart from Guzowski, no one else at Mahall’s saw the documentary until they held a screening upon its release.
“Even folks who maybe aren’t represented as their best selves, I think they appreciated the fact that they were reflected,” he said. “They didn’t see a different image of themselves. That was the image they presented to me from the first shoot through the last one. I think there’s a general openness and honesty amiss the ugliness that I kind of appreciated there. People were their honest selves, warts and all.”
Upon its release, the documentary has been very well-received overall. At the screening event held at Mahall’s, Guzowski said everyone was very excited and reacted positively to seeing it.
Cullman, who worked with PBS to produce the film, was a little worried about the documentary being released on YouTube.
“YouTube is exactly where the real ugliness of our society can express itself,” he said. “There was obviously always concern that when the film would be released, how folks would perceive Michelle and how it would affect her. And as somebody who feels honored to have people open up their lives to you, it’s a huge responsibility to make sure they’re reflected and that no harm is done in the process.”
But for the most part, the comments on Our League have been overwhelmingly positive and supportive of Guzowski and her story. And being available on YouTube makes the documentary much more accessible to a larger audience.
Beyond the positive reception the documentary has seen since its release, it has also garnered attention from a variety of news outlets. Guzowski has done interviews with local publications, like Cleveland Scene, and even did an interview with the UK-based LGBTQ+ news outlet Pink News.
Cullman hopes that people who see Our League take away the ability to stare truth in the face and cope with change and others’ differences. Even the people in the film who have troubled perspectives about the choice Guzowski had made in her life still demonstrate the capacity to connect with her, he said.
“We have to make progress as a society and I feel like we have to have room for mistakes and unfortunate perspectives to be erred so we can move past them,” he said. “To Michelle’s credit, she is this person who can weather all that stuff and rise above it. She is this natural hero and her story is something that we could all learn from as a path to breaking out of these entrenched camps that somehow society has organized us into.”
For Guzowski, the process of being a part of the documentary and sharing her story on such a large scale has been empowering and she hopes that Our League can provide empowerment and inspiration to others who may need it.
“Being transgender is OK,” she said. “Don’t ever be afraid to let your true colors show. It may not always work out the way you want, but you have to be true to yourself. That’s the main purpose of the film. You are you. Don’t let anyone else tell you how you should be.” 🔥