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Documentary Features Live Action Movies

Donna

Director – Jay Bedwani – 2022 – UK – Cert. 15 – 75m

***1/2

A look at the everyday life of Donna Personna, a trans activist from a Baptist background living in San Francisco – released in cinemas and on Bohemia Euphoria on Friday, July 15th

This threw me at first because it appears to be partly Welsh funded yet it’s about someone living in San Francisco. No matter. The seventysomething Donna Personna is first seen powdering her face and telling a story from her youth about getting her sister’s boyfriend to kiss him when she wasn’t around. She seems a genial person, who I would imagine is a lot of fun to be around in real life and a perfect subject for the camera who lights up the screen whenever she’s on it (which is most of the time).

What’s great about this film, for a non-trans viewer, is that it gives an idea of what it‘s like to be trans, both in terms of day to day living and upbringing. It doesn’t seem to have an axe to grind, rather it just wants to show how life is for someone like Donna. Her father was a Christian minister and her mother (not surprisingly) a minister’s wife who between them had a total of 15 kids! Since coming out – something Donna has only done in recent years – her relations with his male siblings appear far more strained than with her female ones.

She was born Gus, but was never happy with the name, changing it within the family to Gustavo. Her mother was more protective of her than the family’s other kids, perhaps sensing that she was a little bit different. “1950s suburbia was no place for someone like me,” she tells us. Her brother Paul suggested she go to beauty college and then work in Paul’s hair salon, which seemed a good choice. Yet, curiously, in later years once the former Gustavo adopted the Donna identity and started going out in drag and, indeed, performing in clubs, she was unable to persuade Paul to watch a video of her appearing in public in drag. Her brother knew about it, but didn’t want to actually see it.

Her sister Gloria seems much more accepting. Gloria enacted her own rebellion against her parents, getting herself pregnant at 17. Gustavo took her in vacation. They went to the seaside where they walked into the sea “as if to be baptised – our sins dissolved in the cold water.”

When the present day Gloria talks to Donna about Gloria’s dog who just died – about which Gloria is understandably distraught – she talks in terms of “Gold from God” in that she was able to be with their pet until the end, something for which she’s clearly grateful. Gloria uses lots of God-words and seems to operate within a Christian frame of reference. It’s not clear how or even if she reconciles her faith with views on sexuality. She and Donna get on well today, though, and Gloria seems to have no problem with Donna’s self-proclaimed gender identity.

As for Donna, she doesn’t really talk that much about religion apart from, a fairly narrow Christian view is where she came from. Is it simply something she now views as incompatible with the way she lives that she’s turned her back on? Does she have a Christian belief that embraces her trans identity? Infuriatingly, the film doesn’t go there.

She talks a lot about her experience as a trans, though, and director Bedwani has the foresight or good fortune to watch her working with theatre director Mark Nasser as they co-write a play based on Donna’s life and experiences. Nasser isn’t trans, but is interested enough to attempt to understand the trans experience and communicate it to a wider audience. The pair of them appear to have a strong creative process: the stories seem to tumble out of Donna one after the other, the play and for that matter this documentary almost writing themselves. When they finally put the production on, it goes down a storm.

Gustavo experienced a feeling of coming home when she encountered the Compton Café, a San Francisco hangout for trans people “who used to be boys.” The infamous Compton Café Riot was sparked by an incident in which a customer threw coffee in the face of a male cop who was harassing them. Donna was impressed by the way the clientele appeared to have one another’s back: they appeared to her far braver than she herself was.

Underpinning the whole documentary is Donna’s spirit of optimism. She looks forward to a day when to be trans is not a thing at all, a day which she believes will come.

Donna is released in cinemas and on Bohemia Euphoria on Friday, July 15th.

Trailer:

Social Media:

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