a round-up of this year’s trans storylines at bfi flare
watching disclosure in 2020 was a rude awakening to just how accustomed i’d gotten to derogatory portrayal of trans women and transfeminine people in the media – whether through parodising or hypersexualising – the only access people had to us and our identities was never on our own terms.
storytelling is a powerful tool: it has the power to trigger connections, compassion, empathy and coalition. and it can showcase – and potentially create – realities which may not exist yet.
sharing our stories with these principles in mind, rather than for personal gain, can aid our wider liberation.
this is why i find the existence of bfi flare – a week long film festival displaying global lgbtq+ cinema – so exciting. it provides a space where often untold stories are showcased, and where we may be able to witness some of the variety, depths and richness of our identities.
this year’s festival presented a plethora of trans storylines, from a documentary following six trans spanish women on a rural retreat, to a short film delving into the complexities of pregnancy and parenthood when trans.
whilst it’s promising to witness all of these beautiful portrayals, the number of transfeminine directors, producers, screenwriters and programmers at the festival is still minuscule – our stories are overwhelmingly led and shared by people who don’t hold our identities.
this is disappointing, and part of a wider societal issue where transfeminine people are not given the access, power and resources to undertake this work and i hope in the future we will be offered this, in order to show the world who we are on our own terms.
being in the position of reviewing these films feels like a rarity and a privilege – one that i hope many sisters will have in the years to come.
i believe that the storylines below were so successful because the subjects seemed to be directly involved in the process of their portrayals rather than just being silent and passive; the next step is providing us with the tools to lead on this directly.
it almost feels like a reality show, without forced production storylines, one that’s genuinely authentic and where the abundance of emotions of the women – from anger, to depression, to joy, to self-love, to self-doubt – are shown.
each woman reminds me of trans women i’ve encountered throughout my life: yolanda is the slightly chaotic diva with lots of wisdom to give, tina reminds me of the trans women who take on the role of caring mothers, lena is a young woman whose transness almost feels like just another element of her life, alicia is a glamorous incredibly smart girl full of confidence and pride, saya is hyper creative and highly intellectual, and cristina manifests all the complications involved in transitioning in your fifties.
i got the chance to meet and talk to alicia and saya, who illuminated me on the process of filming: one that involved direct participation of the women and their voices and minds (which is why i believe the film is so successful), with pre-emptive workshops and communal film screenings. when asked me about the process saya tells me: “it was an experience more than a film. it felt like a part of my life journey”.
the result is a documentary film like no other i’ve seen before – one that feels familiar and mundane, whilst also exciting and joyful.
the first fallen
the first fallen isn’t a trans storyline per se, but one of its main characters rose, played by the enchanting actress renata carvalho – who’s also an incredibly involved trans activist in brazil – really stood out to me.
the first fallen follows three friends confronting a positive hiv diagnosis in 1983 in brazil; at one point of the film rose says “if this plague is gay, its mother is a trans woman”. the film director rodrigo de oliveira tells me that “there’s no possible narrative of aids in brazil that doesn’t have a main character who isn’t a trans woman” he also shares with me that trans women were also at the forefront of caretaking in brazil, literally collecting hiv positive lgbtq+ youth from the streets – and i’m grateful rose’s character gives us a glimpse into that.
i was struggling to contain my excitement when i went to watch framing agnes, with iconic historian morgan m page as co-producer and writer, and writer jules gill-peterson as narrator, this mixed format film reviving 1950s gender clinic archives presents trans history with incredible dynamicity.
the trans “subjects” presented are rebellious, resilient and ambitious – in a very similar way to the trans people i see around me today.
what struck me the most is its analysis of visibility: at one point jules says “one of the many lies of visibility, is that being seen means emancipation. […] what would it feel like to be left alone? what’s the right to be invisible?” and, with trans day of visibility coming up as a “celebratory” day, those words keep echoing in my head – framing agnes is a must-see to ensure we gain inspiration from our rich history to fight for a better future, rather than falling into the trap of visibility .
there is a number of other feature films with deal with transness but stuck out to me is that in the festival’s shorts programme, trans(feminine) storylines are even more prevalent, and we see a better representation of trans directors and writers as well, with a lot of them also presenting notions of transness which exist outside the western and white paradigm.
it doesn’t surprise me that we see this mainly in the shorts section: trans people have a history of being (forced to be) resourceful, so some of these shorts, with smaller resources and budgets than the higher production-value feature films, actually bring forward bolder, more radical, and more challenging narratives.
pink & blue
one film that stands out in presenting a never-before-seen tale is pink & blue, which gorgeously highlights the complications of undergoing a pregnancy as a trans couple of colour.
as we build the future we want and the society we want to see through an alternative way of parenthood, this is a reminder we will also inevitably struggle in the process, due to a complete lack of previous reference point.
in the film we also discover the protagonist’s biological relationship to an elder hijra; when asked why it was important to tell this story shiva tells me that trans elders are all around us but “the way we approach language and vocabulary around transness varies from generation to generation, from different contexts, countries, environments, cultural filters… so acknowledging that how perhaps trans people of an older generation spoke about themselves and addressed their identities, or navigated life, could be very much different to how the current generation experiences that. but on a base level the existence of transness in itself can be so similar and can have overlaps and we can have that affirmation from one another.”
muhafiz (the protector)
the film presents layers of hidden identities – from being gay, to being a parent, to being a muslim – and culminates in a powerful spiritually embedded scene which challenges all the understandings and notions we may have of the traditional coming-out narrative.
prayers for sweet waters
throughout the film we get to discover her story, and the ones of two other sex workers in cape town, who emphasize that, despite precarious living situations, trans identities are ultimately ones of self-love.
with all the hardships brought on us by a system intimidated by our existence, the words of gulam, a cape town trans community organiser, serve as incentive to never let our lights be dimmed by this: