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Who I Am Not still 3 .jpg

SXSW Review: ‘Who I Am Not’ Presents a Deeply Personal Story of the Little-Discussed World of Intersexuality

By Seth Freilich | Film | March 13, 2023 |

By Seth Freilich | Film | March 13, 2023 |

Who I Am Not still 3 .jpg

Something we see a lot in response to movies and shows these days (and books and comics and video games…) is the issue of what the viewer wanted or expected to see versus what the makers wanted or intended to do. This often leads to disappointment or negative reviews through no fault of the filmmakers*, and yet the backlash can often be harsh and fierce. I bring this up because I spent the first half of my viewing of the documentary Who I Am Not sitting in that kind of viewer disappointment. All I knew going in was that this was a film about intersex individuals, a broad category that can be loosely described as folks born with physical, genetic, sexual, or hormonal characteristics that don’t neatly fall into the male/female binary. What I wanted and expected, because this is how I typically come into a documentary like this, was a thorough exploration of what all this means, the medical, historical, and cultural implications, etc.

*To be fair, they and/or the marketing teams sometimes carry some fault if they built up expectations that lead to what the viewers wanted or expected. But that’s an interesting conversation for another day.

But that wasn’t the film I was watching, and it wasn’t remotely the film director Tünde Skovrán was interested in with her first doc. Once I accepted that and let myself simply be taken on the journey that Skovrán was offering, I found myself equal parts delighted and heartbroken and eager after the fact to learn more. As I would learn after my viewing, her “intention with this film is to invite the audience to become both witness and participant to what it is like to live inside the skin of an intersex person.” Viewed through that lens, she hit her mark.

The two main subjects of the documentary are Sharon-Rose Khumalo, a South African beauty pageant winner, and Dimakatso Sebidi, an intersex activist. The two connect to help each other on their journeys to understand what it means to be intersex while living in a world that still tries to put everyone into rigid male/female boxes. Khumalo presents as female and mostly understands herself and who she is, but is struggling with trying to fit in with the world. She explains, for example, that she entered the pageant world because she thought “being the most beautiful woman in South Africa would validate me as a woman,” but after winning a pageant title, “the show is over [and] it felt like a lie. I don’t feel like a woman, the way the world defines it, but I want to fit in.”

Sebidi, meanwhile, presents as male, and while they* also struggle with fitting in, their real struggle is with being able to even understand themself. So their journey, as we see it in the film, is focused on family discussions and meetings with doctors. This leads to a fascinating scene late in the film, when Sebidi, with Khumalo by their side, is given the results of their chromosome test. The results are not what they expected, and it leads to both a touching and amusing exchange between Sebidi and Khumalo as well as an endearing moment by the doctor who knows exactly the right thing to say to help Sebidi begin to come to grips with the initially disappointing (to them) results.

*Here, I’ll note that it’s important to understand that intersexuality is not the same thing as gender identity, and most intersex people identify as male or female. So Khumalo presents and identifies as a woman, while Sebidi presents more masculine and identifies with they/them pronouns.

The second half of the film is filled with a number of strong personal moments like this. Some are heartbreaking, like when Khumalo is rejected mid-date because she reveals she cannot have children and the man she is with almost literally crawls out of his skin. Or when Sebidi is rejected from a job interview because the person interviewing them can’t come to grips with even having to use they/them pronouns. But there are also moments of joy and enlightenment, like when a tribal elder offers some wisdom or when Sebidi turns religious dogma on its head, asking, “[i]f we are all made out of His image, males and females, what does that make Him?”

To be sure, Who I Am Not is not a perfect documentary. At times it feels a little unpolished or unstructured, and while the lack of talking heads works well in the second half, it does make the first half harder to get into both in terms of getting to know Khumalo and Sebidi and especially in understanding some of the basics about intersexuality. In fact, there is so much basic information that isn’t addressed that some could argue the film is a failure by not really informing the viewer. But that also goes back to my original point that that is simply not the type of film Skovrán wanted to make. Some, like me, will be interested enough to learn more on their own after the fact, and that’s great. Some will not, and that’s OK too.

Because anyone who watches the film will leave with what feels like a very personal understanding of just how hard intersexuality is for those dealing with it and how ill-equipped the world is to comfort and accommodate them. As with so many aspects of sexuality and gender that we are dealing with these days, it seems like it shouldn’t be that hard to accept everyone. But as Sebidi notes late in the film, “[t]he only thing we can really be defined by is ourselves,” and if that’s the message everyone can take away from this film, and remember, and respect others with, then Skovrán will have succeeded.

Who I Am Not had its North American Premiere at the 2023 SXSW Film & TV Festival.