What’s Joy Got to Do With It? A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the New Film “The Right to Joy”

Coinciding with the release of REI’s documentary film “The Right To Joy,” Co-Director Jay Melena describes why representation of marginalized groups is important not just in front of, but behind the lens, in cycling and outdoor media. Continue reading below for Jay’s behind-the-scenes look at the new film and its contextualization within the current media landscape…


At my partner’s family cabin in the Sierra, there is a large collection of aging VHS movies – offering entertainment and an invitation to transport back to childhood when we consumed these stories with no filter. On one visit we chose the 1991 comedy ‘Soapdish.’ Having never seen this movie (but given its age) I knew I would endure a certain amount of cringe. I was pleasantly entertained until the end when the plot throws in an abiding trope. The woman that claims she is pregnant with the leading man’s baby in order to break up his romantic interest is exposed as a liar because she is ‘a man’ (the film’s words). Dun, dun, dun! The final joke is on her. The estranged cis couple who she had come between lives happily ever after having been saved from certain humiliation.

I’m a transgender person – trans-masculine or trans-masc – and I’m a cycling filmmaker and photographer. As the credits rolled, inside me awakened some self-hate pricked by this anti-trans media that had lurked undetected in close proximity. We threw the VHS away. How do these films get made, and why was it considered ok, even Hollywood big-screen worthy, to throw in an anti-trans joke as the movie’s final punchline? Quite simply, there were no out trans people who sat in that writers’ room coming up with the creative for the film. There were no trans people who funded it. There were no trans people anywhere near positions of power. If I’m wrong, please do get in touch. I’d love to hear your story.

Co-Directors Jay Melena (standing) and Tim Kressin (crouching) on location filming “The Right To Joy”

But this is a bike publication. And this is an article about a bike film – “The Right To Joy ” from REI Studios in partnership with Wondercamp, co-directed by myself and Tim Kressin. It started with Izzy, his love for bikes, and his desire to connect with other trans people who loved riding. We first met at a WTF Bikexplorers (now Radical Adventure Riders) event in 2019. We bonded over being two of the handful of tran-masculine people in attendance. A year later Izzy proposed the idea of a film to me on a bike ride for his cycling team, now called Wild Composite Racing. As production kicked off, we rode bikes to scout locations in Seattle and its outskirts. We filmed by bike. We invited the Swift Industries friends to ride on an epic filming day last summer solstice in Capitol Forest, WA. And Izzy rode, and rode 200 miles at Gravel Worlds, to finish the film. We rode bikes to darn near everything including the location of one of the heaviest scenes in the film.

We just kept our helmets on to move faster during filming.

I haven’t said much about the film itself, because you should go watch it through REI’s Uncommon Path journal. It follows Izzy’s journey “as he navigates the aftermath of a near fatal cougar attack, overcomes his fears, and becomes a vocal advocate for diversity and trans inclusion within cycling communities across the country.” (REI Press Release). We hope we have delivered a film that is about resilience, joy, and overcoming fear. We hope we connect with you, dear viewer, through these universal emotions.

Returning to the scene of the attack (film still), left; Riding in Capitol Forest, WA (film still), right.

As an antidote to the insults of past filmmaking (see above) this short documentary stars a trans person, was co-directed/co-written by a trans person, and crewed by queer and gender-diverse people. We chose an empathic and progressive production company, Wondercamp, to help us tell the story and elevate the final cinematic result. And it was chosen for not one, but two, Oscar-qualifying film festivals – Tribeca and Indy Shorts.

A still from the documentary where Izzy returns to the scene of the fatal cougar attack. 

If it is not totally obvious by now, content that fulfills a DEIB (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging) initiative for a brand must have representation in front of and behind the lens. It is self-evident why we need it in front of the lens. But still in 2023 I am amazed by how few brands understand and seek to ensure diversity behind the lens. We need representation behind for two reasons: 1) because we bring new perspectives and stories, and 2) jobs, plain and simple. If we don’t hire [insert marginalized group] filmmakers, we won’t have any [insert marginalized group] filmmakers in business, and no [insert marginalized group] people in positions of authority within the film industry. See first paragraph as to why that’s a problem. Supply and demand. Brands create the demand. We are the supply. If there’s no demand, well…

The film team, missing Tim Kressin and Abdul Kassamali. From L-R: Davis Goslin, Greg Balkin, Izzy Sederbaum, Martina Brimmer, Makenna Wall, Jay Melena, Megan Martinez Goltz.

I had the privilege to attend two film festivals this year: Tribeca in New York and 5 Point in Carbondale, CO. At 5 Point I met filmmakers of color who voiced this exact same sentiment – who struggled to get the introductions, get the funding, get the invitation to make adventure films about people of color. And at Tribeca I met filmmakers with disabilities who had these same experiences. To stay in business as a creator, we must have year round work not just in the month that celebrates our specific demographic group (ie, Black History Month, Pride Month, AAPI month). It’s not about one month’s worth of content to fulfill a DEIB initiative, it’s about retainers and multi-year contracts. It’s about adding us to your shortlist of people to call when you have a marketing calendar to fill.

After absorbing several nights of films at 5 Point Film Festival I anointed myself a somewhat qualified armchair expert on the state of adventure filmmaking. I observed a few themes: 1) humorous films, 2) DEIB films, and 3) the pure ‘shreddit.’ The shreddit needs no introduction – the catalog of RedBull Media is full of examples of the action film that has been elevated to its own artform. Humorous films poke fun at the shreddit, introducing athletes as parodies of themselves while creating a light but engaging piece while still involving bikes.

But DEIB films are following a basic Maslow hierarchy of needs and are still near the ground floor. We are first trying to explain to mass audiences the experience of exclusion and lack of community we find doing the activities we love the most (biking, climbing, fishing, skiing, what have you). We are first trying to find a home in these activities that bring us joy. I would love for DEIB filmmaking to reach the point of humor and ease that I see in the other genres of adventure filmmaking, but first we must feel at home.

The 2022 Gravel Worlds DEI Panel (film still) left; The start of the race at Gravel Worlds (film still), center; The 2022 Gravel Worlds Gender Expansive Podium (film still), right

“The Right To Joy” has been a deeply fulfilling film to help create. There is a broader social context in 2023 that this film resonates with as a myriad of anti-trans and anti-LGBT laws have been passed around the country limiting access to health care, sports, restrooms, books, and more. I believe the film’s laurels are proof that it has broken out of the adventure filmmaking niche while still being relevant within it. But that can’t be the end of the story. I would love to see the day when creating a comedic bike film centering trans people felt within reach. May it be so and may the industry take risks and share power so it can be. Too bad I may not be at the helm of that ride, I’ve been told I’m not that funny.

The full film is available to watch now at REI’s Uncommon Path Journal.