An intimate conversation about sex change

0 Posted by - February 17, 2011 - Blog, Editorial, Reviews, Screen
Marcus Lindeen directing Orlando and Mikael in 'Regretters'

Marcus Lindeen directing Orlando and Mikael in 'Regretters'

Regretters is a sensitive and compelling documentary about two Danish men who became women through sex reassignment surgery who later changed back (through more surgery) to being men. It is a controversial study — in its subject matter, in its unorthodox production techniques, and in its refusal to speak in easy political terms.

But the surgeries and their difficult details are not the central story in this film. Regretters is about two people who have lived lives of remarkable difficulty and courage to be who they needed to be in the face of bigotry and social hostility. It allows the world to listen in on (and to watch) an intimate and fascinating conversation from within the culturally persecuted community of people who have surgically changed their sex.

The project has an unusual lineage. It was first mounted as a stage play based on a meeting between the subjects of the documentary, Orlando and Mikael, years earlier that director Marcus Lindeen had arranged and recorded. It went the route of stage play first because Mikael initially did not want to reveal his past publicly. The play was well received, and Mikael agreed to do the film.

Mikael and Orlando each has a story to tell, and it is told through a conversation structured as a mutual interview.  The conversation is carefully and beautifully crafted and paced. Lindeen made the decision to hire the protagonists to play themselves in order to have the flexibility to direct them. It was a controversial choice, but one he says that made it easier for him to render his subjects truthfully. “Instead of getting surprised when seeing the finished film,” he told the Documentary Blog, “they knew already on the set what I tried to achieve, and could protest right away, or try to understand the task and deliver their best.”

But Lindeen’s choice to direct his subjects isn’t the only controversy generated by Regretters. Some critics are accusing it of adding fuel to the fires of intolerance and prejudice. These men “regret” their decision to change sex, and activists have claimed that the film’s lack of political will allows it to be used by reactionary zealots to condemn reassignment surgery and stigmatize transsexuals.

The voices in the film — the only voices in the film — are from within the trans community. More selectively, they are the voices of men who regret their decision to have reassignment surgery. It is a choice reinforced and emphasized by the film’s sparse staging on an empty black set with only two chairs. It is a vast narrowing of the discursive field, and we might well wonder why this narrowing and whose interests are served by it.

The voices excluded, of course, include those who do not regret their decision to change their sex, and those who had reassignment surgery for reasons other than those stated by Orlando and Mikael. Also absent are medical professionals, psychiatrists, political advocates and activists, and the voices of family and friends that might help explain some of the enigmas generated through their intimate conversation and to help contextualize trans experiences within wider social settings. Even the general public is largely ignored, other than as an oblique but vague backdrop of hostility, unwelcome and rejection — the unloving context from which these men have made the decisions of their lives.

In other words, it seems there are some missing pieces in the puzzle of ascertaining which direction the film’s moral compass would have us go.

‘Good’ and ‘bad’ may be an unhelpful analytic paradigm, but it remains highly relevant to our collective sensibilities concerning justice. We like our political structures to reward the good and punish the bad. The protagonists are clearly ‘good’ in the filmmakers eyes — they are portrayed with what can only be described as loving affection. On the ‘bad’ side, we must turn to the conversation itself which is not particularly accusatory at all, but which does offer a villain or two. We have a surgeon who failed to follow the law on the day of Mikael’s surgery (by failing to ensure his commitment to the procedure), we have a violent father, and we have a society that rejects people because they are shy, seen as unattractive or because they are attracted to the same sex (which was in fact illegal at the time Orlando had his surgery in 1967).

Another possible villain is Orlando’s former husband who, upon being confronted with the truth of Orlando’s surgery after 11 years marriage, attacks her (at the time) and slashes her throat with scissors. It is a violent assault, possibly attempted murder, and certainly a criminal act that is quietly and quickly forgiven by both men.

It isn’t a question of which behaviors are acceptable and which to be condemned: clearly being who you are and living the life you want to live is portrayed as ‘right’ and hurting people for being different is portrayed as a grievous ‘wrong’. But there is an ambiguity at work in some of the larger questions. For those who might find sex change surgery shocking – and I am assuming that audiences for this film are mostly from the non-trans community — does the film encourage understanding of this “transgression” of albeit oppressive norms? or are these men enduring the pain of their own unjustified choices?

It’s an awful question, and yet there are no clear explanations. Even the nature of the problem is unclear: is it social hatred? is it the choice to have surgery? is it shyness? is it being born in the wrong body? There is a distinct and no doubt intentional absence of social analysis other than what emerges from the experiences shared in the conversation between Orlando and Mikael. There are only two voices in this film, and they make no pretense to speak on behalf of anybody else but themselves.

As someone from outside the trans community, I’m left with two overriding enigmas to sort out for myself. On the one hand, no one was punished in this film. Politics prefers accountability, and these men have been wronged deeply by an unaccepting society that apparently pays no retribution. On the other, there are no solutions proposed. Politics also expects answers to the problems that define its ruptures. It seems I’m left alone to right whatever these wrongs might be, rather than encouraged within a more collective framework.

But I am not cut adrift empty handed. I will search for my own political answers with a greatly deepened sense of the humanity of Orlando and Mikael. They are intelligent, articulate, charming and inspiring, and I must seriously consider their playful speculation that they are thousands of years ahead of their time stuck in a dichotomous and hurtful gender regime. Orlando makes a clear case against gender dichotomy, against gender altogether in a way, and for a third place of understanding. I am implicated, perhaps, in the ways I am not ahead of my time.

Orlando and Mikael quickly forgave the violence by Orlando’s former husband. It is a difficult moment in the film. There is violence acted out against the trans community in Canada and around the world with little police or social censure. Being trans is dangerous, and our communities are tragically and wrongly complacent.

It may not be our place to criticize Orlando’s forgiveness, but it might be to question how a film fits in a time and place, and how well a filmmaker has considered the political context and consequences of their work. An astute observer wondered aloud after the film if Regretters was a political film. Perhaps this is what makes a film political — a mature attempt to grapple with the political context and consequences of a text’s presence in a time and place within the film itself. And in that sense, it might be that Regretters has missed a beat or two.

But as a loving portrait of two people who have lived remarkable lives of courage in order to be who they needed to be, and who may very well be pioneers in the difficult and at times violent realm of gender identity, the film is also an endearing and welcome addition to the conversation.

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