"There is only one plot—things are not as they seem"
- Jim Thompson
How many plots are there when it comes to films with trans people... well, not many. 1) Trans person transitions—confusion ensues; 2) Trans person is found out—violence ensues; 3) Trans person has a lover—loss ensues. Needless to say, there aren't too many films about trans people with happy endings, especially ones where they have a happy relationship. One might mention the unique 1990s British film, Different for Girls (she got the jerky boyfriend she wanted but it probably won't last long). In the past few years, there have been a number of well reviewed European films about trans sex workers and their boyfriends. It seems as if we got a theme going here.
Crossing over to Italy by train, Princessa is stared at
by a young girl who whispers to her papa.
Princessa (2001) is based on a memoir by Fernandinho Farias de Albuquerque, a Brazilian trans woman (sometimes called travesti) who moved to Milan, Italy to do sexwork to ultimately afford her SRS. In 1990, she was convicted for the murder of someone she said stole money from her. In men's prison, she met one of the members of the revolutionary group, Red Brigade, who helped her write her autobiography called Princessa. Her book was optioned by director Henrique Goldman, but she ultimately commited suicide before the actual filming.
The title role of Princessa was ultimately played by Ingrid De Souza, a trans woman who also moved to Italy from Brazil and was a sex worker who had never acted before. She gives a low key yet highly moving and real performance as the main character. She does identify as a woman (unlike her crossdressing sexworker friend) which is one of the reasons she's highly prized as someone different from some of the other sex workers. She has profound insecurities about her humble origins, being accepted and who she'll ever be able to become. De Souza gives tremendous vulnerability and likability to the role, far beyond many professional cis actors who've "performed" being trans in films. She is a real life Cinderella and you ache to think what her life could have been like had her circumstances been different.
Social Context -- foreign to US filmmakers
What gives Princessa its power is how it places trans women in the sex trade within a class structure and a society which ultimately marginalizes yet uses them for it's own momentary secret curiosity and pleasure. Princessa deals with immigration officials, her messed up travesti friend who seems destined to OD or get murdered, a psycho trans woman pimp, her johns, and the "straight" people of Milan. Ultimately, she meets a middle class man who becomes obsessed with her, leaves his wife and shacks up with Princessa, albeit with her having to assume the role of housewife.
There are some moving scenes in this film. When Princessa first enters Italy by train, she's intensely stared at by a young, white upper-middle class tween sitting with her father. She stares at the immigrant and Princessa smiles back, girl to girl. But the girl then witnesses Princessa being hassled by the Italian border officials. One can feel the shame and aloneness being put upon an impoverished woman as seen someone who was born into Western European privilege. Another powerful scene is when her boyfriend's estranged wife connects with her woman to woman and literally pleads for Princessa to not break up her family—a moment unlike any other I've seen in a trans-related film. This film is a case where reading the plot does a disservice to the complexity it ultimately presents. And it's all the more timely considering the recent scandals which have erupted over high level Italian politicians involvement with Brazilian trans sex workers which resulted in the suspicious death (perhaps assassination) of one of the prostitutes.
Wild side is a 2004 French film by gay filmmaker Sébastien Lifshitz. I can't say I think it's on the same level of filmmaking as Princessa, but it has some unique aspects. One of them is certainly it's wonderful opening sequence featuring Antony Hegarty of New York queer-chic band Antony and the Johnsons. He walks through a room full of trans women from a Parisian gender center. The camera focuses on their languid, thoughtful and sometimes sad faces as Hegarty sings a mournful song about losing an androgynous love (perhaps himself?). It's one of most heartbreaking openings to any film I've seen. The rest of the film doesn't quite match up to this sublime scene.
Antony Hegarty sings about a dead boy.
Sexy, but no shemale
Trans woman Stéphanie Michelini plays the main character also named Stephanie. She supports herself doing sex work in the Bois de Boulogne park just on the outskirts of Paris, notorious for it's rough trade of trans prostitutes. She hears her mother is sick and returns to the run down village where she grew up—which brings back sad memories of life before transition. While there, she's involved menage á trois with her gay/bi boyfriend and a young Russian man named Mikhail. It becomes a kind of queer version of Truffaut's Jules and Jim with some rather racy, highly erotic bathtub and sex scenes. The scenes are graphic, but totally not genitally fixed the way many US film are with sex... it's about two (or more) bodies relating to one another with openness and vulnerability. While the film doesn't totally hang together, it is one of the better representations of a trans person's sexuality.
Michelini is a somber but beautiful presence in the lead role crowned with a headful of long voluminous, curly locks. She gives the character a mask of sorrow and regret for a complex life in transit which is quite memorable, but she doesn't quite have the range Ingrid De Souza has. Still, the film won major awards at the Berlin International Film Festival (the world's largest) including Best Feature Film.
The poster for Queen Raquela's US release...
typical US sense of maturity—she's
in a men's restroom with urinals.
The Amazing Truth About Queen Raquela is by Icelandic director Olaf de Fleur Johannesson. This 2008 movie has a lot in common with aspects of Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier and the Dogme 95 group of artists, who strip film down to its bare essentials and favor a kind of "fictional documentary" approach which blurs the lines between performance and non-fiction. It has much in common with Princessa in terms of being about a third world trans sex worker who moves from Cebu City in the Philippines to Iceland and then Paris (and is actually referred to as "a cinderella story" in its advertising). As in Wild Side, the main character, Raquela, is played by trans woman Raquela Rios. She gets sexually involved with an American man (played by the film's actual producer) from New York who meets her from her work on the Internet webcam porn site he owns. As the director Johannesson states, it's about globalization and commodification of the world's peoples.
It gives a mostly upbeat, plucky view of how our dreams of love and self-realization can come true—albeit with an ultimately somber, fatalistic ending. Of the four films, Queen Raquela comes closest to having a kind of fetishistic objectification towards trans women and, especially, the idea of a western guy with an Asian "ladyboy." (and, of course, the ladyboy is honorable and the westerner is an exploitive jerk). Yes, the character of Raquela is mostly treated with respect by the filmmaker, but I also had a feeling that he had no real problem with her narrow options in Philippine or European society, it's just how it is. He has pretty much stated their lives are hopeless and they're in some way deluded just even trying to be women. They're a metaphor for an unattainable status rather than human beings.
Fact or fiction?
Ms. Rios is an engaging, funny actress (again, totally amateur). She gives a wry commentary and narration throughout the film. Rather curiously, it was originally intended as a documentary about pinay trans sex workers but eventually morphed into a fiction film and it's either intriguing or maddening to figure out what is documentary and what is scripted. The character of Valerie, an Icelandic pinay transsexual Raquela befriends seems altogether concocted, while the scenes in the Philippines with her two "ladyboy" friends have an immediate reality about them. Curiously, in spite of winning awards at many mainstream and LGBT film festivals (including, yes, a Berlin "Teddy" award for best feature), and having a successful release in Europe, this film was barely seen in the US with just very quick engagements in NYC and LA and a small scattering of other indy theaters.
Strella (Internationally released as A Woman's Way) is a 2009 Greek film directed by Panos Koutras which, yes, debuted at last years Berlin Film Festival (just remember the huge Berlin Film Festival literally shows virtually every film of note released in Europe that year). I've only seen sections of this film, and it hasn't been distributed for any US release and won't be on DVD for another several months. It differs from the other films in tone, having perhaps a somewhat comic oddball twist to its story about an ex-con named Giorgos who's just out of prison, searching for his lost son and gets shacked up with a trans woman (who is, yes, a prostitute). The title character, played by trans woman Mina Orfanou—not a sex worker, but a performer who in real life (as her character does on the side) specializes in impersonating the late opera diva Maria Callas. Orfanou's passionate performance has been compared with Melina Mercouri and Anna Magnani—so, NOT a low-key performance but very charismatic and full blooded. Again, this film has had a full release in Europe, been seen at nearly 50 film festivals but isn't on track for a US release.
Director as sociologist or creepy dude?
While it's true all these films were all made by men, some gay and some straight, it's hard to not be suspicious about their interest in trans women sex workers. There is an aspect of exploiting the "exotic" and "outsider" status of these women to create edgy films (something directors have always done with trans people). However, it's true western Europe is currently flooded with trans sex workers from Colombia, Brazil, the Philippines, and Eastern Europe, so perhaps it's not a big surprise they would become central characters in European film. Europe seems to have a clearer understanding how theses women are part of the global sex trade and subject to the social vulnerabilities of that "industry" and not some bizarre and comic offshoot as is often portrayed in U.S. media.
Different kinds of trans films
While there are elements of cliche in all these films (they are, after all, about trans sex workers and their boyfriends) they also provide refreshing changes from US films about trans women. They all feature actual trans women. While media in the U.S. like to make a big deal how a film like Ticked Off Trannies with Knives features some transgender women (and uses the presence of those women to justify the legitimacy of the film's message and presentation), international cinema has long since gotten over that hurdle. None of these films are about plot#2 (trans panic). None of them are really about transition, even though some of the characters wish to go further in transition when they have enough money. They are very much presented as women and in no way camp. Perhaps they are women with challenges stuck in a dangerous way of living, but there is never any reference to them being gay men in a skirt, somehow fake, nor even theatrical in the way Pedro Almodovar films about trans women can be. There are no jokes about the women's personhood, former status as "men" and identities, even if there are acts of transphobic violence from some of their johns.
Strella hits the streets
While plot is important to a film's deapth in presenting trans issues, presentation is equally important. None of these plots are especially revolutionary when it comes to expanding understanding of trans lives, but the way the films are crafted, written and performed is very much a change from U.S. drag-based, comedic and highly objectified portrayals of trans women.
No freedom of distribution
What's especially disturbing is how none of these quite successful films have been received a real release in the US. While we like to pride ourselves on our freedom from censorship, these have, essentially, been censored from the wider US market by virtue of their inability to receive distribution (the preferred US form of censorship... pretend it's an open market, but control what gets shown). The US only gets access to a tiny fragment of world films and most of our foreign films shown here are heavily weighted toward middlebrow French films and Asian action/horror flicks. Compared to most of the film festivals in the United States, The Berlin film festival literally gets hundreds of films from all over the world many of which end up being shown on European tv channels like Arte in France and Germany.
Once one looks at the wider range of world films, you start to come across many depictions of trans people which are vastly different and, perhaps, more mature and more fleshed out than what we see in this country. In all these roles, the main characters are women first, trans second. They all have sexual relationships as something other than objects of sexual curiosity. They may not be the women they totally want to be, but they move through the world as women and, for the most part, receive some level of respect as such. They are all in relationships which are not about objectification or a man being on the down low. What a marked difference it is from what we see and expect in this country.