To describe queer philosopher-turned-filmmaker Paul B. Preciado's debut film, the documentary Orlando, My Political Biography, as ambitious would be an understatement. Especially when you consider that it's a film he never intended to make.
"Honestly, I never thought I would make a film," Preciado says. "This came to me in a very unusual way. Part of what is funny about that, and something that I identify with as a trans person, is going beyond the place where you have been assigned to be."
The Spanish-born scholar is best known for his work in queer theory, but Orlando, My Political Biography has opened up an entirely new world: The film debuted at the 73rd Berlin International Film Festival, where it won four prizes, including the Teddy Award. It went on to screen in the Wavelengths section at TIFF and the Main Slate at the New York Film Festival, the only documentary this year to play in all three festivals.
Preciado's film draws inspiration from Virginia Woolf's nearly 100-year-old novel, Orlando: A Biography, which follows a 16-year-old nobleman in the Elizabethan era who, after centuries of adventures, winds up transformed into a 36-year-old woman in the year 1928. (Woolf's book was previously adapted by filmmaker Sally Potter into the Oscar-nominated 1992 period drama, Orlando, starring Oscar winner Tilda Swinton.) Orlando, My Political Biography offers a unique look at trans identity and the fight against anti-trans ideology, weaving together Preciado's own experience as a trans man and the experiences of a cast of trans and non-binary individuals who share a connection with Woolf's gender-fluid hero/heroine.
"Even in films that are supposed to be transgressive, they are only transgressive in relation to the binary gaze," Preciado explains. "When I started the project, creating a non-binary gaze was one of the most crucial things to do. My cinematographer, Victor Zébo, and editor, Yotam Ben-David, understood very clearly that it was very important that we do not aim for objectification or identification of the trans body as objects."
A.Frame: There are a number of different mediums through which you could explore this concept, but you chose to do it as a high-concept documentary. Why did you feel that film was the best way to frame this narrative?
Honestly, I never thought I would make a film. What happened was the European television network, ARTE, came to me and said, 'We want to make a film about your life and your philosophy.' Speaking with them, I realized that they already had a script in their mind. It was well-intentioned, but they had this very conventional narrative of someone that has been assigned female gender at birth that transitions, goes through gender dysmorphia, and then arrives at a safe haven, which is now a position of masculinity. And that's it; beautiful and normalized. I realized that that's not how I wanted to tell my story. I didn't believe my story could be told with the language of the medical discourse — as a story of therapeutic normalization, if you want to put it that way — and also, I didn't believe that my story could be told in individual terms, as something that was happening just to me.
I tried to convince them not to make this documentary. I said, 'Make other documentaries about other people — people that are much more important than myself, like Sylvia Rivera!' They really wanted to make the film they wanted to make, so at a certain point, as a joke, I said to them, 'If you want to make a film about my life, it should be a documentary adaptation of Orlando by Virginia Woolf.' I said it as a way of saying, This is the end of the conversation. You will not make the film. Then suddenly, they said, 'Oh, my God, this is an amazing idea!' The head of production said I should make the film. If I had been conscious of my position as someone that has never made a film and didn't know how to make one, I would have said, 'Impossible.'
Did you approach it in the same way that you would approach your other work?
It was totally different. Normally, I have a very clear idea of what I want to do, and the methodology is very clear to me before I start writing. In this case, I had to surrender and say, 'I don't know how to make a film.' Even in my relationship with Orlando, I came back home and I couldn't reread it. I thought it was the most difficult book in the history of humanity to make an adaptation of. It goes from the 1500s to 1928, it's full of adventures and traveling around the world, and I was like, 'What am I going to do?' Also, the producer from ARTE immediately asked me, 'Okay, you said a documentary adaptation, so what is that?' And I said, 'I don't know! I made it up.' I had to return to my first intuition and ask myself, 'What is this obsession that I have with narrating my own biography through this book?' Basically, what I realized is that I really wanted to write a letter to Virginia Woolf, to say, 'Orlando is alive. It's not a fiction character, it's a real character. It's not just me, there are hundreds of thousands of Orlandos.'
Even though there is the commonality of how the individuals in the documentary relate to Orlando, you have to consider the visual representation of that story and the element of Virginia Woolf's book that they relate to most along this extensive timeline. The film is something of an anthology, but in every single story, you have three major favorites to consider. How did you get all of that to be cohesive?
I'm so happy that you saw those three elements, because some people don't see them. When I was working, I made myself a cartography of all the scenes that I wanted to play with the Orlandos, and I always had these three or four lines: One is Orlando by Virginia Woolf, which is the easiest to portray. But you have to decide, how are you going to adapt it? Then there is the longer history of trans people from the 1500s to now. I would look for archival material, because it's very difficult to represent in other ways, and I realized that you really only have archival material from the 1950s, but you have photographs going back to the beginning of the invention of photography. From 1868, you start having photographs of non-binary, or what we today call, trans people, but there are still only very few. From the 1950s, you start having more TV and film material that I could work with. Then I had my own story — the story of Paul — and that was more or less written basically as another line. And finally, there is the story of each of the Orlandos, because I conducted these interviews with them.
What was your interview process like?
One of the most difficult things to do was to actually appropriate the language of Virginia Woolf, that is quite literary, that is a little bit baroque and is strange, and mix it up with the ordinary way of speaking of someone that is in her or his teens or 20s. I started shooting and would keep going into the editing room to see if it would come together. In the beginning, I didn't know in if my own methodology and this idea would work. My producers would say to me, 'We don't understand what you're doing. This is too messy. It's too complicated. You have too many Orlandos.' We had so many Orlandos, and every time we had to start the whole process again, teaching someone new how to speak the language of Virginia Woolf. That took a long time. The whole thing took more than three years. Some of the teenagers grew up through the process of making the film. I knew that the film was for them, but it completely changed the nature of the film. As an academic, I had certain ideas that I really wanted to be delivered through the film, and at some point, I let it go. I removed the academic pretensions for the film, and realized the most important thing was to touch the senses.
There are visual motifs in the film that are transformative and become almost mystical. One of them is the ceremonial putting on of the frilled Orlando collar. What was the idea behind that?
What was most important to me was removing the normative way of telling the story of transitioning, which is the medical and the legal way. In order for me to remove that [language], I used the poetic language of Virginia Woolf — almost like a safe space for us to install a completely different cinematic language. Some of the elements come directly from the book. The book starts when Orlando is a teenager and wearing this collar that is pretty big for a child to wear. My producers said to me, 'Paul, this is going to be ridiculous seeing adults and teenagers from today wearing this collar. They're going to look funny, and this will not work.' What happened was precisely the opposite.
Some of the Orlandos would come to the working sessions from situations of harassment in school, or not being allowed to have their hormones, and all the other problems you're confronted with when you are a young trans person. They would come really exhausted and feeling bad, and they would take the collar and there would be a transformation. It was this wonderful, magical moment where I knew I could make this film. Each of them would say, 'I am Orlando,' and that was super important to me. It's not just the idea that I identify with Orlando, but I needed to know that the Orlandos of today identified themselves with this figure. It was amazing when they started to say, 'I am Orlando, and I get to tell you why I am Orlando.'
There is precision to the language that everybody in this film uses. Towards the end of the documentary, Amir, one of your Orlandos, said of their transition, 'This was not a break with the person I was, but a continuation.' Why was it important for the film to address the incorrect assumption that transition is the end of something and the start of something else?
Everything that is said in the film is written down. There is nothing that is just coming out of the blue. I worked with the Orlandos a lot, deciding together how they were going to tell their story. We would perform it until it was totally fluid, because then you don't realize what is the break between Virginia Woolf and when they are speaking. But there are some narratives about being trans that are extremely violent and painful for us. Some people saying that when we transition, it would be like the previous person that we were had died and we are a new one. We are like, 'Why are you talking about death here? No one is dying or anything. This is our life, and it's a continuation of our life.' This is precisely a story of survival and liberation, it's not a story of dying, and that was crucial for me.