"Transition" review: The portrayal of a trans man involved in the Taliban is compelling but lacks context

“Transition” review: The portrayal of a trans man involved in the Taliban is compelling but lacks context

In the opening moments of Transition, Jordan Bryon, the subject of the documentary and one of its directors, turns his face towards the camera. He comes over and inspects her chin for hair. There are faint growth marks, a short mustache that Bryon strokes as he talks to it.

“My nerves are fucking on edge,” she says, alluding to her current circumstances. “There are too many tangled wires that are getting very messy.” The precarious situation woven by these threads is the subject of Bryon’s film, which premiered at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. Co-directed with journalist Monica Villamizar, Transition chronicles Bryon’s gender transition while embedded in a Taliban unit in Afghanistan. The stakes are high for the documentary maker, who has decided to stay in the country after insurgents seized the city in August 2021.

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The bottom line

A gestural portrait that needs more body.

Place: Tribeca Film Festival (Documentary Competition)
Directors: Jordan Bryon, Monica Villamizar

1 hour and 29 minutes

Even before the takeover, Afghanistan was not a haven for queer people: same-sex relationships were legally banned in 2017, For example. Any sliver of opportunity to live a relatively peaceful life vanished with the presence of the Taliban, which created new obstacles for these individuals. Not only do queer Afghans have fewer job opportunities, they also run the risk of being reported to rebel forces by family and friends. Recent reports show that although the Taliban has denied allegations of harassment of queer Afghans, abuse is widespread. As Bryon says in the beginning Transitionthe queer community in Afghanistan is “very, very underground”.

So it’s understandable that Bryon, who is undergoing his gender transition while filming the Taliban, is nervous. The men he and his colleague Farzad Fetrat (affectionately known as Teddy) spend their days with are unaware of the director’s testosterone injections or impending surgery in Iran. Transition it is built on the tension between Bryon’s secrets and the rigid ideology of these rebels. The more time the documentary filmmaker spends with the Taliban — learning about their daily lives and occasionally questioning their beliefs — the more he worries about possible exposure.

The risk of persecution or death hangs in the air Transition, which begins a year before the fall of Kabul. The document opens with a sense of Bryon’s daily life: roaming the city during the day and night; capture footage for his projects; getting testosterone injections with an Afghan doctor; making video calls with his mother in Australia and conversations with friends about his gender dysphoria. In a short introductory voiceover, Bryon tells us about a life defined by binary thinking. He’s always felt trapped between identities, he says, and “always tried to get away from labels and the shame that comes with them.”

Bryon’s narration joins a small (but growing) number of recent projects on the transmasculine experience, including Nicolò Bassetti’s endearing Berlin documentary In my name and Vuk Lungulov-Klotz’s gripping drama Mutt. In a world determined to strip trans people of basic rights and humanity, these stories offer space to ponder the depths, scope, and differences within this experience.

It is therefore curious that Transition he remains so close to Bryon, stepping away only briefly to consider the questions raised by his own admissions. For the documentary filmmaker, Afghanistan was, ironically, a refuge from the constrictive labels he longed to escape: “When I moved here, those things didn’t follow me,” he says. “Afghanistan has welcomed me.” There’s no doubt that Bryon felt liberated from the anonymity the country afforded him: leaving behind what you know and what knows you is a gift in terms of self-exploration. But it’s not accessible to everyone.

Bryon spends a lot of time with Teddy and photojournalist Kiana Hayeri talking about keeping secrets from the Taliban unit, his obligation to come out as trans with people within a conservative Muslim society, and the rights he was afforded as a man in the Taliban- Occupied Afghanistan. These conversations are interesting and give us the opportunity to understand Bryon’s position in the country. At one point, Hayeri refutes a point made by Bryon by saying that he is not only a man, but also a foreigner. One wonders if Transition could have been better served by paying more attention to this last point. As a white Australian citizen and filmmaker, Bryon is met with both suspicion and curiosity. A scene in which the men of the Taliban unit photograph him confirms his outsider status.

What does Bryon’s position mean in a country whose current regime is looking for international diplomatic approval? This initiative does not mitigate the dangerous stakes faced by the director and his friends and colleagues. But it suggests that his harrowing position is at least marginally aided by the access and freedoms afforded by his passport. Further exploration or acknowledgment of that context might have compelled the doctor to point out—if not necessarily explain in depth—how Bryon is able to get hormone injections in Afghanistan and high-end surgeries in Iran, procedures that would seem , from my limited point of view, out of the realm of possibility for the average queer Afghan. These are the messy, intertwined issues one might want Transition contested in addition to the moral issues faced by its individual subject.

The document offers insights. There’s real tension when Bryon spends time with members of the Taliban, allowing viewers to eavesdrop on interesting conversations among the group that breach their ideology. At one point, a Taliban figure says there is more to being a man than having a beard, which reveals the freedom granted to men but not to women, whom the regime has effectively prevented from existing freely. There’s also some amazing footage Transition, which deepens our understanding of Afghanistan under Taliban rule. Abandoned planes sitting on desolate runways, rows of closed businesses and empty parking lots are no less creepy here than in In his hands (for which Bryon served as cinematographer) e Bread and Rosespremiered last month in Cannes.

These glimpses of Afghanistan are artfully edited into footage from Bryon’s life. During shooting TransitionBryon was on a mission, working on a feature film in the final stages of post-production. Even when the documentary doesn’t meet its ambitions or potential, it previews the exciting work of its director.