Thursday, 9 May 2013

Short films at Trans Film Festival

Sunday 5 May, was the last day of "Divergenti 2013", the international film festival in Bologna (Italy) on transgender themes. It was also the day of short films.

I was fortunate that on each day of the festival, I was able to watch/attend at least one film or event, though I missed two films that I would have really loved to see - Noor (France & Pakistan, 2012) and Facing mirrors (Iran, 2011). This festival has been an intensive full immersion course into transgender issues for me.

Coming to the short films in the festival, there were five of them on 5 May. I love the short film format and wish that there were more of these films. Here are my impressions about the five short films shown in the festival:

Lili longed to feel her insides
(USA, 2011, 5 min., directors - Adelaide Windsome and Wren Warner)

If you wish, you can watch this film on the youtube video.
Apart from expressing the angst of Lili Elbe, the first person who was identified as transexual in USA and who went through the transition surgery, I am not so sure if I have understood all the things that this puppet-based film wanted to communicate. It shows the challenges and anguish of Lili through a puppet and a background song.

In the film, I was struck by the shot of a butterfly (or was it a crab?), pierced by a stick, fluttering and writhing, trying to get away. However, I am not so sure about the symbolism of the hole on the Lili-puppet's tummy, and pulling out of her body parts, or the stick fixed in her nose.

Perhaps, this film is not about any rational understanding, but it is more about communicating the emotional state and anguish of Lili's experience? Thus, like abstract art, it is not important to ask for meanings, but rather we should focus on the feelings evoked by the images and the song? If you watch this film, I would love to hear about your impressions about this film.

Burmese butterfly
(Myanmar, 2011, 12 min., director Hnin Ei Hlaing)

This is the first film of director Hnin Ei Hlaing from Yangon Film School. The film tells the story of Phyo Lay, born as a boy named Kew, who from her early childhood, felt that she was a girl. She lives with her grandmother in Yangon and calls her "mother". Her grandmother initially tried to control her and to make her behave like a boy, but Phyo Lay's feelings were too strong to be chained.

Duped by a man proposing a job in a bar in Thailand, Phyo finds herself stranded in a border town. She finds work in a bar in a small town of Myanmar and then finally goes to Thailand, to work in a factory. Finally back in Yangon because "I missed my mother", Phyo now works in a beauty parlour, is open about being a transexual and her grandmother has finally accepted her for who she is.

In the last scene of the film Phyo says, "Next time, I want to be born as a girl. There is just too much prejudice against us."

It is a simple straight forward film with some sepia coloured flashback scenes shot with actors to illustrate significant moments in Phyo's childhood. It provides a glimpse into the transgender and queer community of Myanmar. It also tells a universal story common to transexual persons all over the world.

Undress me
(Original title Ta Av Mig, Sweden 2013, 15 min., director Victor Lindgren)

Swedish film "Undress me" is about a MtF transexual girl called Mikaela (Jana Bringlöv Ekspong) and her encounter with a guy (Björn Elgerd) in a pub (check the trailor on Youtube).

The guy is attracted towards her and also a little puzzled. He says, "I have never met a girl who is taller than me and has a voice deeper than me".

The girl explains that she is transexual. The guy is shocked but also a little curious. He goes to her house and wants to see her body. She wants him to reciprocate, by showing his body.

The film shows the curiosity about the bodies and genitals of transgender persons and at the same time, their difficulties in being seen as persons with feelings and desires. For example, in the film, Mikaela and the guy, they never kiss.

The guy is attracted and at the same time, afraid. And there is a feeling of underlying tension in the film related to the insecurities of masculinity, as if violence can erupt suddenly. It is not because the guy is particularly rude or nasty, but I think that in general our societies are less tolerant of diversity and being rude or not behaving properly with persons who are "different" is seen as "normal".

I liked a lot this film.

Il Mio Genere - My gender
(Italy, 2012, directors Marta Cioncoloni & Cesare Bonifazi Martinozzi, 20 min.)

This film tells the story of Emanuele or Lele, born a girl and his journey to become a FtM man. He explains very eloquently about his growing up years and the slow understanding about his own desires linked to different events in his life that make him decide on the transition.

"The girl that I was so many years, sometimes she still wants to come out and express herself. I accept those moments with serenity, because she is also part of my history and part of me", he explains. Thus, his FtM transition is a shift along a spectrum that can range from points situated somewhere between the extremes of masculinity and feminility, but that continues to have elements of both.

The film also has interviews with a psychologist working in a "Transexual advisory centre" and with a surgeon who has experience in transition-related surgery. I think that for persons who know little about transexual issues and for young persons going through a crisis of identity, this can be a good educational-informational film.

It sounds a little jarring to hear the doctor refer to transexual persons as "patients", as if they are sick (though he is talking about his role as a doctor so perhaps the use of word "patient" is understandable). But then medicalization of all issues related to alternate sexualities is a common issue for different groups of persons, and not just for transexual persons.

These educational/informational parts of the film are very verbal and do not use any images or models to explain anything. However, before the screening one of the directors, Martinozzi, had explained that this is their first film, made without any kind of external funding, so it is easy to understand its limits.

You can watch the full film in the Youtube video, though it is in Italian and does not have subtitles.

La Victoria de Ursula - Ursula's Victory
Spain 2011, directors Julio Marti & Nacho Ruipérez, 16 min.

This film is a little jewel, complete with gothic atmospheres, and strange looking characters, who give an idea of hidden mysteries and conspiracies. In some ways, the film is like a Spanish version of Addams family. The film starts with a stormy night and a young girl dressed in red raincoat with a hood, carrying a suitcase, walking through a lush foliage, who breaks the chains of a cemetery and then starts digging at a grave. The secret of her actions is revealed at the end, with a well-constructed surprize.

You can watch the full film in the Youtube video - it is in Spanish with English subtitles.

The film has an eloquent message about people's fear of society and thus how persons who do not fit with the society's norms, such as transexual persons, are hidden and mutilated to keep up the appearances.

Among the short films of "Divergenti 2013", I liked this film most.


I think that the understanding that comes from a "story" is completely different from the understanding that comes from someone explaining something. Both kinds of understandings can be important.

However, if I have to judge a film, I would like to feel it in a cinematic language - that means, a communication through images and words, and not some kind of lecture. That is why I liked "Ursula's victory" most because of the way it uses the cinematic language and the way it is able to provide an emotional connect to the persons in its story.

Actually the English translation of the film's title "La Victoria de Ursula" takes away an important aspect of film's meaning. The film is about victory of Ursula, who manages to respect the dignity of her father. At the same time, the title of the film can be seen as change of the name "Victor" into "Victoria" on the tombstone.

Some documentaries rely almost completely on words - that is, people speaking and explaining. Probably these can work equally well as radio programmes. I personally feel that explaining everything and not letting the audience discover their own meanings, is boring and is less effective in terms of communication.

Thus, in the short films, for me the element of how much is not said/explained is really important because, then it can become like a broken tooth and your mind constantly goes back to it, trying to decipher its meanings. In that sense, I think that "Undress me" was the strongest short film in the festival, because it does not give any kind of explicit message, it does not give any clear judgement and in the end, it makes you question yourself. Four days after watching it, I still find myself occasionally thinking about it. Thus while "Ursula's victory" had an immediate strong impact, in the long run, "Undress me" is more effective.

Internet gives you the option of watching three of these films, so why don't you take a look at them and make your own opinions? I would love to hear about your opinions.

Regarding the Trans film festival of Bologna (2013), I have already written two more reviews - "Nessuno è perfetto" (Nobody is perfect) about MtF transexual persons and "Sexing the Transman" about FtM transexual persons.


Monday, 6 May 2013

Sexing the Transman - the path to manhood

"Sexing the Transman" is a 2011 documentary film on FemaleToMale (FtM) transexual persons by Buck Angel. I saw this film in "Divergenti 2013", the International Trans Film Festival in Bologna (Italy) organized by Movimento Identità Transessuale (MIT - Italian Transexual Identity Movement) in the first week of May.

I had never really thought about FtM transexual persons before. More than a decade ago, during a research on sexuality and disability, I had read something about difficulties of surgical construction of penis in the FtM persons compared to the relative ease of constructing a vagina in MtF transexual persons, but somehow, after finishing my research I had never really thought about it.

As general public, we are much more aware of the Male-to-Female (MtF) transexual persons, especially in terms of the stereotypes of flamboyant and exotic personalities that are often used as caricatures to elicit laughs or as villains and perverted personalities in films and mainstream media. I do not remember seeing or reading about any FtM character in any film or book in any language. There have been a few films where women dress as a man (for example, Albert Nobbs, where Glenn Close dresses as a man in the 19th century Ireland to find a job and Yentl, where Barbara Streisand dresses as a man to get Jewish religious education), but in those films, the women do not really wish to be a man, they are only forced by circumstances to cross-dress.

If someone asks you to imagine and describe a FtM transexual person, that is someone who was born as a girl and who later became a boy or a man, what kind of person will you think of? If someone had asked me this question before I had seen "Sexing the Transman", I think I would have thought of femminine looking men. Now take a look at Buck Angel, who is the scriptwriter, producer and director of "Sexing the Transman", and also an actor in some adult XXX films, and ask yourself if he fits in with your ideas of a FtM person?

However, thinking that all FtM transexual persons are like Buck Angel, would be equally wrong. Like all human beings, FtM persons also come in all shapes and sizes. A trailor of the film on Youtube can give you a glimpse into some of them.

The Film

"Sexing the Transman" takes you into the largely unknown world of FtM transexual persons in north America through some in-depth interviews. People talk about their childhoods, their understanding of how they felt different, their alienation from their bodies, their decisions to make a transition to a male persona, the effects of taking male hormone (testosterone), the surgeries to get rid of their breasts, and most of all, the liberating effects of the transition on their lives.

The film gave me the feeling of being in a locker room full of horney adolescent guys. The guys in the film constantly talk of dicks, jacking off and fucking. The only missing words in their vocabulary are related to female genitals.

Almost all the persons in the film talked about their feelings of being imprisoned in their bodies and their distaste (or refusal) towards their femminine bodies and genitals before the transition. In the pre-transition phase, some of them had been through the traditional female roles with their boyfriends, though they felt that something was missing. They describe taking testosterone as suddenly feeling alive for the first time in their lives. It is like a second adolescence, it makes them feel horney and sexually excited all the time.

Almost all the persons in the film have had some kind of surgical operation for the removal of their breasts. They say that breasts were non-sexual for them. After the operation and hormones, most of them feel an increased sensitivity of their nipples and understand the pleasure that comes from touching of those nipples. In a moving testimony, one of the guy explained the years of binding his breasts and covering himself with layers of clothes to hide them, and his joy in taking off his shirt in public after his breast removal operation - the joy of feeling naked skin.

Only one guy in the film has had surgical operation to get a penis. All the remaining persons seem happy with their slightly overgrown clitoris, treating them as penises. At the same time, those who do not go through the operation for the construction of a penis, they have their vaginas. Many of them say that after the transition, they feel more accepting towards their vaginas and some of them agree that they also like being penetrated. Compared to non-trans guys, the FtM guys in this film seem very much relaxed about their bodies, open to experimenting different flavours of pleasure.

All of them agree that transition has changed their lives completely. Some of them are in relationships, some have sex with other FtM guys like themselves, some like sex with men, some others like it with women. These discussions clarify the differences between their gender preference and their sexual orientation. In terms of gender they all feel male. In terms of sexual orientation, they are very different - some of them are heterosexual (they like women), some are gay (they like other men or FtM men) and some like to experiment with men, women and FtM guys.

Buck Angel

There are two women in the film, who talk about their sexual relationships with the FtM guys. One of them, Margaret Choo, is much more open to experimenting the different male and female roles in the sex with lesbians and with FtM guys. The other, Selene, looks at FtM guys exclusively as "male" and does not want to deal with the female parts of their bodies.

The film has a few explicit sex scenes, showing FtM guys having sex or showing their genitals and jacking off.


Some of the initial explicit sex scenes embarrassed me, especially the scenes of the couples (Sean and Dan, Buck and Fallen). I felt that the explicit sex scenes detracted from the film. If I was watching this film at home, probably I would have switched it off at that point. Fortunately I was not at home, but in a cinema hall and so I could not switch it off. After watching the full film, looking back, I feel that without those scenes, I would not have understood half as much. Or that I would have understood what it means to be a FtM guy only in theoretical/rational terms and not in emotional terms.

The film goes straight to the point and shows you how does it feel to be a FtM guy. As men, we are so much preoccupied about the length, width and the erection of our dicks, and the duration of our "performances". FtM world liberates you from such anxieties - you can still be a guy and have enormous pleasure and fun with sex even if you don't have any dick.

FtM world has its own jargon and the film touches on some of them. For example, "transition" is the process of changing from female to male persona, "top surgery" is breast surgery, "stone" is about ignoring your vagina during the sex, "Cis" is a person who was born as a male, and "strap-ups" are artificial penises that can be strapped up. Vaginas can be "lower half" or "the hole".

I have already written about the other film, "Nessuno è perfetto" (No one is perfect), that dealt with MtF transexual persons. These two films are completely different - "Nessuno è Perfetto" is melancholic and more about challenges, difficulties, emotions, love and relationships; while "Sexing the Transman" is more joyful and it focuses on liberation, having sex and fun. The two films give a completely different glimpses of the two transexual worlds, though both may be partial glimpses!

I feel that "Sexing .." could have benefited by having some older FtM persons, who had the transition some decades ago and who could have looked back at longer periods to share their experiences and challenges.

I wish that more people will see this film to get an understanding about an area that is so little known. It would make you look at male and female roles in more open ways, and in the process, understand and enjoy your own sexuality in more fulfilling ways.

Note: More information including trailors and an adult XXX version of this film are available on the Buck Angel's Sexing the Transman website.

I was thinking that transitioning from male to female or from female to male, can pose some specific challenges. The answers to those challenges may not be easy in the present system. Here are three examples of these challenges:

Alessandra, one of my friends in Bologna, was born a male and had married. Only after marriage, she understood her desire to be a woman and went through a surgical operation. After the operation, she asked to be recognized as a woman. However, after legal recognition, her marriage has been annulled, because Italian law does not recognize marriage between persons of same sex. Alessandra has still the same body and is the same person who had married to a woman, she still loves that woman and they still live together, but because she had an operation and she took some hormones, her marriage is no longer valid.

Another Alessandra, Mr. D'Agostino, writer of an Italian book about FtM guys called "Sesso mutante - i transgender si raccontano" (Changing sex - the transgenders tell their stories), decided to become a man five years ago. He had some surgery and took hormones. However, he does not want to get his uterus removed. On the other hand, according to the Italian law, to be recognized legally as a man he must get his uterus removed. Thus, inspite of his manly body, beard and deep voice, he still has a female name and on his documents he is a woman, that create lot of difficulties in the daily life.

In the film Trans-America, the MtF woman is with her son whom she had fathered before her transition. Yet, because she is a woman, she can't be a "father" of her son, and is obviously not his mother. The film does not pose this as a legal question, but more a question of relationship between a son and his father.

All these examples point to the way the male and female gender roles are closely linked in our societies to being father and mother in a family. Transitions confuse these clear boundaries, and create paradoxes.


Sunday, 5 May 2013

International Trans Film Festival 2013

The 6th International Trans Film Festival of Bologna, called "Divergenti 2013" (Divergent or going in different directions) started on 2 May 2013. The festival is organized by MIT - Movimento Identità Transessuale (Transexual Identity Movement) of Bologna (Italy) and many other partner organisations such as "Some prefer cake" and "Cassero - Bologna Gay Lesbian centre". This year the festival is focusing on the way media looks at and talks about transexual persons and related issues.

Divergenti 2013 - trans film festival of Bologna

This year, I am planning to attend at least part of the festival, including a participation in a workshop on "Trans* and Media".

Though I did participate in the past in some GLBTI events and once I had interviewed Alessandra Bernaroli, who is fighting for her right to marriage, I have to confess my substantial ignorance about transexual issues. Thus, I am hoping to learn more about these issues from this festival.

MIT was initated in 1979 with the aim of fighting for "right to sex change" and is the first association of transexual persons in Italy. The law on sex change (Law 164) was approved by Italian parliament on 14 April 1982.

Porpora Marcasciano, president of MIT and an activist for human rights, sociologist, researcher and writer, opened the festival. In her speech, she pointed out the widespread stigma and prejudice surrounding transexuals. At the same time, she felt that the stories of transexuals are usually told by others, non-transexuals, so that one of the aims of the festival is to give voice to transexual persons themselves.

An Italian documentary film, "Nessuno è Perfetto" was the opening film of the festival.

Nessuno è Perfetto
(No one is perfect, 2013, Italy, 82 minutes)

The film is produced by Ar.Pa. films, is directed by Fabiomassimo Lozzi and its screenplay is by Fabiomassimo Lozzi & Antonio Veneziani.

The film focuses on the worlds of Male-to-Female (MtF) transexuals, through interviews with a group of transexual women who were born as male. The different stories are mixed together and do not follow a chronological order, thus the film feels like a chorus of different voices around the central theme of transexual women.

The different voices about lived experiences of persons alternate with the poetry of Antonio Veneziani, an Italian poet, who writes about love, relationships, pain, abbandonment, identity, gender ... Though the trailor of "Nessuno è perfetto" does not have English subtitles, still you can take a look at it to get a feel about the film.

I think that among the transexual persons, the men who desire or feel to be a woman, are better known to general public, since there have been some important films around them. For me, the most important work in this sense is the Spanish film "All about my mother" (Pedro Almodovar, 1999), where I had loved Agrado as the warm hearted transexual prostitute.

Another important film about MtF transexual persons is "Trans America" (Duncan Tucker, 2005). This film touched on the complexity and challenges of the transition process including issues regarding surgical operations in biological males to become a woman and the complicated relationship of a transexual woman with her teenage son, she had fathered in her male days. (Check its trailor on Youtube)

Thus, Lozzi's film was not my first experience about the world of transexual women. However, still the film surprized me because it gave a glimpse of the absolute diversity of experiences and meanings of being a transexual woman. It made me realize that to be a "transexual woman" is not one stereotype experience, but rather each individual is different. Flamboyant and exotically dressed trans-women, popularly known as drag-queens, catch public attention and make us think that all trans-women are like that. Lozzi's film makes you understand that this is far from true, by presenting a palette of very different persons, none of whom fits in the "flamboyant and exotic drag-queen" group.

A group of transexual women, GLBTI pride parade Bologna - S. Deepak, 2012

Marcello seems more male than female. He dresses as a male and wishes to be known by a male name. He shares his the pain of his first traumatic sex experience. He has not taken female hormones like estrogen, has no female-breasts and not been operated. He is a woman, emotionally and psychologically rather than physically.

Daniela has been a wife for fifteen years. She talks about her operation in London because that operation gave "more depth" to her new genitals. The operation allowed her to become a woman legally and have a female name. Her mother in law did not even realize that she is transexual and keeps on hoping for a grandchild. Only when Daniela was close to her separation from her husband, she talked to her mother-in-law about her transexuality. Her mother-in-law's reaction, "..but my son's body is normal, I know it because I bathed him as a child" gives a glimpse into common misconceptions and lack of understanding about transexuality in general public.

Georgina talks about her controlling husband, and her fight to be her own person and to make her own choices. She also thinks that a "normal" family is made of a man, a woman and their children and thus does not think that couples with a transexual person have a right to marry.

Leila, an artist from Brazil, talks about her early exclusion because "she was not Italian", and also of the strong influence of church.

Andrea is a fish-seller and also a handicrafts person, talks of her initially difficulties and the social stigma. She also talks of her intense relationship for four years with a person who had lot of problems and how their relationship changed from passion to "maternal care". "It is heterosexual men, persons who like women, who get attracted to trans-women", Andrea says smiling, "but so many of them want me my dick, they want me to be the active partner."

Another story is that of Venecio, a pioneering trans-woman who was some kind of famous artist. Her part of story in the film is shown through a visit to a museum dedicated to her costumes.


The persons in the film talk of their initial difficulties, their first sex experiences, their love lives, their long relationships, their hormone therapies and operations, their struggles to be "normal" in a society that does not accept them easily.

Divergenti 2013 - Poster, Nessuno è Perfetto

On the whole, the film is sad and melancholic, focusing on difficulties, loneliness, challenges of finding love and companionship, of being used just for sex. Veneziani's poems that connect different parts of the stories, are also melancholic. The only happy parts of the film are where Andrea comes on screen.

I could understand from the film that the transition, the process of changing from a man to a woman, is an evergoing process, it does not conclude just because a person has been operated and has female genitals or takes hormones. Rather transition is a lifelong process of a new gender identity that must be forged constantly, fighting or dealing with external and internalized gender roles, stereotypes and expectations.

The film focuses on persons who have lived through tougher and more closed times of 1970s and 1980s when the issues of transexuality were just coming out and the battles for their human rights were just begining. They all feel that today things are easier and their is much more visibility, so it is easier for persons to transition and make their choices. I feel that the film could have gained by having one or two more contemporary stories of younger persons, who have different kind of experiences.

The film has many shots of Veneziani getting out of and getting back into a house, where he has to squeeze through a half-open door. I am not sure if it has some symbolic meaning (I didn't get the meaning) and why it is repeated so often. The parts about Veneziani, like the shots showing he is writing notes, seem like intellectual/literary posturing.

Globally I liked this film and I think it succeeds in giving you an idea of diversity of transexual women and their lives and experiences, especially in the above-fifty age group.

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