Film Review | Transformazzjoni: Charting an intimate transformation

Showing at Spazju Kreattiv as part of Pride Week, the pioneering documentary offers a sensitive glimpse into the lives of five transgender individuals from different walks of life

Barring instances of complete bigots, even the harshest critic of the current political administration would be forced to admit that the current Labour government’s laws regarding LGBTIQ rights were a necessary, inspiring and even nationally uplifting move. From the Gender Identity, Gender Expression And Sex Characteristics Act (GIGESC) being adopted by the Maltese parliament in April of 2015 to same sex marriage legalisation in September 2017 and other measures, Malta suddenly found itself being able to boast about LGBTIQ rights on a global stage.

This, despite the fact that the gap between on-paper laws and the reality on the ground will always be ever-shifting. However, an institutional push does often help in creating safer spaces of both expression and discussion, and TRANSformazzjoni, directed by Olwyn Jo and produced by MGRM, stands as a clear example of this.

Featuring interviews with five transgender individuals of varying ages and walks of life, Olywn Jo’s film offers a sensitive and eminently watchable exploration of the transgender experience in Malta and Gozo, moving across class, and even generational lines.

Perhaps the added pressure on it shoulders by dint of being first out of the gate doesn’t do the film any favours – like most civil rights wins, it inevitably feels ‘long overdue’ – particularly if viewers are expecting a wide-ranging and historically exhaustive history of the transgender experience on the island. Thankfully for both its director/editor and ourselves, the relatively modest focus is made clear and explicit pretty early on: TRANSformazzjoni is simply an open conversation with five individuals from the trans spectrum who happen to live in Malta and Gozo, and who will be detailing their own subjective experience of the journey, in their own words.

The generational shift between the younger participants and Brenda, the 48-year-old telephone operator who keeps horses as a hobby, is perhaps the most interesting and revealing strand of what ends up emerging as the film’s narrative. While the students among the bunch (specifically Rosario and Lee) speak about how they found solace, inspiration and courage to articulate their own feelings thanks to global pop culture phenomena like the Ellen DeGeneres show and YouTube confessionals, Brenda takes us on a trip down (her) memory lane of drag shows at venues like the Buskett Forest, Dolmen and Dar tal-Mediterran, even going so far as to say that things were livelier and more fun back then.

We naturally have to adjust for any tints of nostalgia, but Brenda’s memories could also very well be expressing a clash between the more raw and raucous popular entertainment of yore and its currently more gentrified counterpart, something the LGBTIQ community is certainly not immune to either, with popular entertainment venues and corporate entities now happy to virtue-signal their way into the community and provide a slick sheen to the proceedings as a result.

TRANSformazzjoni allows a range of experiences to quietly seep through instead, leaving us with a refreshingly humane portrayal of the participants that’s free from hyperbole and melodrama. It’s an approach that also makes for sometimes all-too-comforting viewing, however. Brenda admits to being a tough cookie, so much so that any reactionary attitudes she may have faced in the past, she’s managed to brush off.

But that wasn’t the case for all of her friends: “If you were a bit weak, you’d end up hurting”. Any follow-up documentary would do well to pursue some of those who were more deeply hurt by bigotry in the past, if only to add the necessary weight of historical context to the trans struggle in Malta.

However, it is also true that Olywn Jo’s desire to ride a celebratory wave of newfound rights for trans people on the island is welcome, moving the narrative firmly away from the exploitative, sad-piano pitfalls of misery porn, the kind the likes of Xarabank traditionally love to bask in.

Struggles are acknowledged, but the participants are ultimately depicted as people who are now proud to identify within their chosen strand of the vast trans spectrum. A dedicated activist for Moviment Graffitti, Alex speaks candidly about the ideological (but also deeply visceral) conflict that his gender dysphoria evokes: being a staunch feminist, how should he feel about wanting to have the body of a man? Meanwhile, the non-binary identifying Reb, a native of Gozo, says that more work needs to be done on the sister island too: there, even simply being gay remains somewhat taboo.

The verdict

Ringing a celebratory note as Malta’s legal breakthroughs for LGBTIQ rights actually – finally – allow them to speak openly about their journeys, the five individuals that make up TRANSformazzjoni paint an engaging and hopeful picture for what lies ahead.

TRANSformazzjoni will be screened at Spazju Kreattiv Cinema at St James Cavalier, Valletta on September 6 at 8pm, as part of Pride Week. The screening will be followed by a Q&A session with director Olywn Jo and some of the film’s participants. Entrance is free but booking is required: