July 13, 2024

IIn the opening seconds of Orlando: My Political Biography, a shadowy figure on a quiet city street says, “Someone once asked me, ‘Why don’t you write your autobiography?’ And I replied, ‘Because Virginia Woolf fokken wrote it for me in 1928.’” The scene takes place in the dead of night, with the silence broken only by the swing of a paintbrush as this speaker affixes a large gold poster. “Orlando,” it read, “où es tu?”

Moments later, this fly poster Woolf apologizes for his profanity: “I say this with tenderness and admiration, because your writing seems impossible to surpass. But I also say this with anger, because you represented us – trans people – as aristocrats in colonial England who one day wake up in a woman’s body.”

There is nothing accidental about the shift from plural to singular in that last sentence, which – like most of the film – is spoken in French. The fly poster with neatly cropped hair is 53-year-old screenwriter and director Paul B Preciado, a writer, curator and activist who was mentored in philosophy by Jacques Derrida, and is only now making his first venture into film. In Orlando: My Political Biography, Preciado spends 90 minutes recounting Woolf’s centuries-spanning story of gender transformation through 25 different Orlandos. They are white, brown and black; male, female and non-binary; and they range in age from eight to over 70. The film, shot on a shoestring budget, is an unlikely undertaking, one that could easily have been pretentiously academic, but it turns out to be funny and engagingly human.

It took several months to pin down Preciado for an interview, with several cancellations. When we finally settle on a video call, I expect him to be uncooperative, but I’m wrong. He answers each question candidly and essay-length, beginning with his childhood in the “strongly Catholic, militaristic” city of Burgos in northern Spain.

From the age of four, he says, everyone knew he was different. “Even the teachers would refer to boys, girls and you. But at that time – especially to from Spain at the end of Francoism and the beginning of democracy – it was very difficult to find words to describe my condition, other than just being moody.” Preciado found his way to the US via a Fulbright scholarship for an MA in philosophy, later returning for a PhD at Princeton, where he wrote a dissertation, Pornotopía: Architecture and Sexuality in Playboy During the Cold War, in 2010. It later has an award-winning book in France.

In early adulthood, he says, he embraced the gay and lesbian community and published his early work under his birth name Beatriz Preciado. “But I always thought my way of seeing gender was different from most people in that community. So when I was 35, being surrounded by other people who were using hormones, I thought, ‘OK, I’m going to try and see what happens.’ And then, little by little, my body changed until I found myself with a passport that had nothing to do with it. Then I started to basically change my legal identity in Spain, within a binary regime that does not allow anything else.” Just last year was Spanish law changes to allow people over 16 to change their gender.

Paul B Preciado: ‘I’m a pathological optimist’ Photo: Pierre and Gilles

In the book Testo Junkie, originally published in Spanish in 2008, Preciado recounted this experience, as part of a history of reproductive technologies that traced a “pharmacopornographic” line from the pill to Viagra and sex-change hormones. Did I know, he asks, “that the pill was initially invented as a technique to regulate the expansion of what was then called black races in the US? Then, through feminist emancipation, women began to use the pill differently. Well, it’s similar for trans and non-binary people, who reassign technology – like surgeries and hormones, invented to normalize the bodies of intersex babies at birth – to liberate themselves and construct all their genders. The body is not an anatomical object. It is a historical archive.”

In the film, Preciado translates the abstract language of cultural theory into a series of witty scenes that provide access to all areas – onstage and backstage – allowing the biographical musings of his Orlandos to merge with Woolf’s own words. They dash through woods in Elizabethan crabs and modern leisure wear. One walks into a gun shop in half a suit of poorly knitted chain mail and asks for something that will make them a man, rejecting a sword in favor of a big gun. Another recounts an encounter with a sexist sea captain on Orlando’s voyage home from Constantinople, while an assistant pins a model sailing ship atop their oceanic wig.

Preciado’s critique of the medicalization of trans identity extends to psychiatry via a grimly amusing episode in which a waiting room full of Orlandos exchange black market hormones while waiting to be called in for pointless consultations with a box-ticking psychiatrist who has no understanding that all what they really need is to be recognized as a legitimate case for changing gender.

Ruff treatment… another Orlando by a tree Photo: Les Films du Poisson

In 2019, Preciado had his own crushing encounter with the psychiatric institution in France, where he is now based, when he was invited to explain his thinking on gender to the École de la Cause Freudienne (School of the Freudian Cause), only to to be heckled and shaken off the stage by 3,500 Lacanian psychoanalysts. Eighteen months later he published the text of his lecture as a book, Can the monster talk?

The most potentially incendiary aspect of the film is the fleeting inclusion of a trio of sweet pre-pubescent Orlandos. But so far there has been no backlash in either the US or Europe – much to his surprise, “given the way the extreme right and the conservative religious groups are using the idea of ​​our childhood to implement basically right-wing policies”.

Away from the limelight and academia, Preciado does a lot of work with the families of trans children, some of whom have been “extremely harassed by the media, or their school, or other institutions. So for me the film was not only valuable for the children, but for the people around them.”

One encounter that didn’t make it to the screen – “because it was emotional and the kids are fragile” – was between the film’s eldest Orlando, Jenny Bel’Air, who is a well-known trans actor in France now in her 70s. , and her younger self. “Jenny told her story, so the kids learned in the moment about a time that was completely different from their own, and it was so funny because she explained to them, ‘You know, I’m just an Orlando like you.'”

‘I’m just an Orlando’: Kori Ceballos in the film Photo: Picturehouse Entertainment

Far from being too radical, says Preciado: “I always think I’m not radical enough. Because, when I think about the future and what is needed for there to even be one, I think we have to go further: we have to stop this madness of destruction of the planet; we must stop gender violence; we must stop considering the nuclear family as the only system of possible reproduction of life; we must stop viewing the male European body as the only sovereign body that should embody power. All these are basically models that we have inherited from the patriarchal colonial history. And it has to stop.”

But he wasn’t going to let that get him down. “I’m basically a pathological optimist. Maybe that’s my only pathology – if I had to accept one,” he jokes, then turns serious, pointing out that it’s not like he wakes up optimistic every morning. It is a political decision. “My optimism comes from this feeling of need for the renewal of a collective system of thought. I don’t have the luxury of doing anything else, because as long as I live on this planet, I feel responsible for it and the people who live with me.”

The reception of his film, provocative and essay-like as it is, is one serious reason to be cheerful. “In France,” he says, “there are people against transition, against everything I work for. But some of these people came to see the film. At the end they said, ‘I still hate your work, but the film is OK.’

Orlando, My Political Biography is released in UK cinemas on July 5

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