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Tribeca: Behind the scenes of "Renee"

When Eric Drath's sister was a young girl, she went to an eye doctor. A prominent New York optometrist, Richard Raskind, treated her and corrected her problem.

This feel good story eventually took a bizarre twist when Raskind, a standout tennis player in addition to being a gifted optometrist, became Renee Richards and sought to compete as a woman at the U.S. Open.

"Growing up in New York, I was fascinated with the story," Drath said. "My family was a tennis family. My sister went to Dr. Raskind. That magnified things even more, gave us a personal relationship with the story. How could this happen? Could a great male player become a great female player?"

Drath explores this question deeply in "Renee."

The documentary not only tells the story of how Richards captivated a nation during her run to the 1977 U.S. Open, but seeks to answer questions about identity.

"There are two narratives in every life," Drath said. "The one you live and the one in how others see you. Yes, it's a sports story but it's more about identification and how we see ourselves."

What Drath's film finds is that Richards' life is made up of two vastly different components. Referring to her previous life as Raskind, Richards speaks in the third person, mentioning things that Dick used to do. She describes the confusion that comes with first identifying with a heterosexual male, before considering herself a heterosexual female.

But Drath also seeks out others affected by Richards' struggle -- interviewing family members, friends and opponents to explain how those closest to her felt (and feel) about her decisions. Among them is Raskind's son, a troubled young man clearly still dealing with the decisions his father made.

"You start a documentary and you never know where it's going to go," Drath said. "You start with this great story, you talk to people, you see where it goes. You see the ramifications of a decision made; you see the effects of a decision still in effect today."

One of the major challenges Drath faced was getting Richards to open up about her story, to speak deeply about what she had been through. Richards has long been a reluctant subject, hesitant to grant media opportunities.

"It took a lot of convincing," Drath said. "It took a lot to convince her that her story is important. It's inspirational. She has courage; she's a pioneer. She broke every boundary."

And, in a way, that's one of the binds between Richards' two identities.

"You can change your looks and your equipment," Drath said, "but you can't change who you are. He was a competitor; she was a competitor. There are certain things you can't change about yourself."