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TIFF 2023: “Orlando, My Political Biography” Casts Trans People in the Virginia Woolf Classic

Drew Burnett Gregory is back at the Toronto International Film Festival for Autostraddle! Follow along with her coverage of all the LGBTQ+ films at the prestigious festival.

A year and a half before I came out as a trans woman, I started a new relationship. We thought of ourselves as straight.

I’d never felt like a man, and my girlfriend at the time had been in a five year adolescent relationship with another girl. No matter. Our binary world told us we were straight, and we listened. One month into our relationship I bought her a collection of Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West letters for Christmas. At the time, I didn’t know enough dykes to realize this gift gave me away.

Like me, writer, theorist, and filmmaker, Paul B. Preciado was drawn to Virginia Woolf before he understood why. Specifically, he was drawn to Orlando, her gender-bending classic about a nobleman who turns into a woman after a long slumber. Part trans documentary, part autobiography, and part adaptation, Orlando, My Political Biography, finds Preciado grappling with the possibilities and limits of this novel he loves.

Throughout the film, Orlando is played by a variety of trans people who span gender, race, and age. Each of them breaks the fourth wall to introduce themselves and explain they are playing Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. Rather than compete with Sally Potter’s Tilda Swinton-starring adaptation, Preciado uses the source material as an entry point. The film is less about Orlando than it is the many Orlandos who have existed throughout history and exist today.

The film is at its best when it turns back to the text. During several moments, one of the actors is telling a personal story about being trans in the present when suddenly Woolf’s narrative starts to seep in. These moments are playful and often quite emotional. The lines between past and present, fiction and reality, blur, and Preciado’s charismatic trans cast is able to demonstrate the power of moving beyond subtext.

The film is more frustrating when it aims to educate. Preciado makes the deft decision of addressing the film to Woolf herself, adding a touch of whimsy to its trans 101 sections. Still, as a trans viewer, this device wasn’t enough to make these sections interesting. I wanted more trans people making out with trees and less explanations of medical gatekeeping.

Audience is a challenge for every trans artist. Are we making work for each other or are we making work for cis people? I don’t begrudge the decision to welcome a less knowledgeable viewer. After all, the film is named a “political biography” and part of politics is education. It’s just as a trans viewer, I yearned for a version that honored the subtlety and challenge of the book. Maybe subtlety and challenge were only granted to Woolf because she remained closeted. Maybe being out limits our ability to leave certain things unsaid.

But if the film compromises in explicitness, it at least doesn’t compromise in perspective. Preciado is bold in his assertion that Woolf herself might consider herself nonbinary if she had that language. He’s assertive about transness as more than a change from one gender to another. He may include trans basics. He also calls for a total destruction of the gender binary and a more emotional and spiritual view of transition. I may have been frustrated with his desire to educate, but I appreciated the education he bestowed.

And, for me, these moments of education didn’t distract from the more artful scenes of Brechtian trans adaptation. There is enough of the latter to still make this a worthwhile experience for a trans viewer.

Virginia Woolf is one of the few queer women to be widely accepted in the cis straight canon. Maybe any attempt to claim her as our own has to acknowledge that. Maybe for Preciado these divisions are just another binary that needs to be destroyed.

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Drew Burnett Gregory

Drew is a Brooklyn-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. She is a Senior Editor at Autostraddle with a focus in film and television, sex and dating, and politics. Her writing can also be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Refinery29, Into, them, and Knock LA. She was a 2022 Outfest Screenwriting Lab Notable Writer and a 2023 Lambda Literary Screenwriting Fellow. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about queer trans women. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Drew Burnett has written 538 articles for us.

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