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Orlando My Political Biography TIFF.jpg

TIFF 2023 ‘Orlando, My Political Biography’ Review: Trans People Have Always Been Here

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Film | September 12, 2023 |

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Film | September 12, 2023 |

Orlando My Political Biography TIFF.jpg

Orlando: A Biography is a novel by Virginia Woolf. First published in 1928, the book was inspired by the life and family of writer Vita Sackville-West, a society darling with whom Woolf had an affair. The Orlando of the title starts the story as a young male nobleman who is ordered by Queen Elizabeth I to never grow old. The centuries pass, he falls in love, becomes ambassador to Constantinople, then wakes up one morning having turned into a woman. Then, she gets on with her life, living to the then-modern day. It’s one of the great queer novels of the 20th century, a ground-breaking piece of satire and modernist fiction that dared to delve into the subject of the gender binary at a time when it was seen as strictly taboo. Some have called it the first real transgender novel. For writer and philosopher Paul B. Preciado, it’s his way of delving into his own history as a trans person.

Orlando, My Political Biography blurs documentary, fiction, and polemic, bringing together a cast of 26 trans and non-binary people of varying ages to tell Orlando’s story as well as their own. Preciado has written extensively on gender theory but largely avoids academic speak for this film, which is about a historical lineage for the trans community. This is still highly intellectual, using a 100+-year-old novel to explore many issues surrounding gender, but its humanity is the real priority. Trans people have always been here, even when their stories weren’t being told. Orlando is an imperfect and unintentional work of trans power, written by a closeted queer woman who was plagued by mental health issues, but through all forms of art we find ourselves.

Preciado’s film is structured around a letter he writes to Woolf, explaining not only his life in relation to hers but the things that Orlando got right and wrong. His cast play Orlando in various forms (but almost always with a fabulous ruff around their necks) to weave their tales amidst Woolf’s protagonist. Orlando losing her hereditary titles and land once she is a woman rings true to many trans people whose lives were rendered null and void post-transition. Woolf’s own gender and sexuality are given grace here too. She is one of the family.

‘Every Orlando’, Preciado says, ‘“is a transgender person who is risking his, her or their life on a daily basis as they find themselves forced to confront government laws, history and psychiatry, as well as traditional notions of the family and the power of multinational pharmaceutical companies.’ It is an inherently political act, to deny the supposed infallibility of the binary. There is no right way to be, and the barriers we all face, but especially trans and non-binary people, in confronting that are smothering. Alas, transphobia and the consistent demonizing of queerness has never been more profitable in the mainstream than it is right now. We’ve talked a lot on this site about the many ways that the press, politicians, and divorced former comedians have managed to mine a lot of uncritical attention and business opportunities from reimagining trans people into a plague that must be stomped out. If Orlando, My Political Biography is about filling in the gaps of history, it’s also about paving the way for a better future.

Preciado pays tribute via archive film to trans pioneers like Christine Jorgensen, reminding us that this is no trend. One surreal scene in a doctor’s office sees the various Orlandos discuss how to beat the system to receive the healthcare they are owed, even if it means pandering to an archaic notion of transness being a psychiatric ailment that is inherently miserable. The scene evolves into a disco number, with lyrics like ‘you are not your doctor’s bitch’ and ‘their categories are pathetic, you are much more poetic.’ Preciado and company emphasize that, even with societal advancements on trans acceptance (as incremental as they are), there is still a rush to reassert a neatness to gender. A truly liberated future should allow all of us to reject it, and the lack of legal protections on this front reverberates through generations of trauma and pain.

Preciado is ferocious in his manifesto but also playful, whether it’s the two musical numbers, the melding of documentary and fiction, or a moment with a very cute dog. To be trans is to be happy in spite of everything. How can you feel anything but joy at these people, especially the young ones, talking so proudly about their journeys? This is pure gender euphoria and it is sublime. It happens to young and old, to people across France (including immigrants), and all walks of life.

There are challenging aspects to Orlando, My Political Biography, but overall it is a remarkably accessible film that welcomes all who come to the screen with open arms. Its meticulous approach to the lineage and philosophy of trans lives is both moving and fascinating. Your local transphobes will hate it, partly because they won’t be able to refute a single part of it.

Orlando, My Political Biography had its Canadian premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. It currently does not have a U.S. distribution date.