“Someone once asked me, ‘Why don’t you write your biography?’ I replied, ‘Because fucking Virginia Woolf wrote my biography in 1928.’”
So muses director Paul B. Preciado at the start of his documentary “Orlando, My Political Biography.” Apologizing for his profanity, Preciado quickly elaborates that he actually admires Woolf. But the miraculous ease at which the titular character in Woolf’s novel “Orlando: A Biography” transitions from a man to a woman is frustrating, Orlando’s riches and background are frustrating — the whole narrative, when compared to the modern reality of being transgender or non-binary, is frustrating.
Using Woolf’s character as a springboard, Preciado’s film meditates on the modern landscape of the transgender and non-binary community while casting more than 20 transgender and non-binary actors to take on the role of Orlando. But unlike Orlando, a British aristocrat who wakes up one day and lives across subsequent centuries as a woman, the reality is much more difficult to navigate.
Between surgeries, hormone replacements and much more, many transgender and non-binary people do not have access to the financial resources necessary to facilitate a seamless transition. Transitioning is almost always hard-fought and hard-won.
Even to obtain a hormone prescription, transgender and non-binary individuals must submit themselves to often highly invasive and regressive psychiatric investigations. Considering how many tools and operations are gatekept by those in psychiatry, transgender and non-binary people are frequently subjected to a certain degree of medical cruelty and humiliation in doctors’ offices, as they’re forced to play into stereotypes and preconceived notions — or face rejection at the hands of those who do not understand, or simply refuse to. By bringing these challenges to center stage, Orlando’s miraculous transformation becomes much more remarkable and perhaps more troubling when examining the current barriers to transitioning.
“Orlando, My Political Biography” is simultaneously a recreation of scenes from Woolf’s novel, a reflection on the meaning of gender within a disadvantaged community and a response to Woolf herself, as well as the continued relevance of her novel. Though Woolf perhaps intended to challenge how society defines gender roles through Orlando’s transition from man to woman, ”Orlando: A Biography” has long been perceived through a very rigid binary.
But Preciado’s documentary challenges this understanding through crucial questions: What if Woolf’s iconic novel can mean more? Can society progress beyond the binary interpretation of Woolf’s novel, and even the binary interpretation of sex and gender itself?
“Orlando, My Political Biography” explores these subject matters by blending interviews, skits and even vibrant music numbers as it muses over art, sexuality and gender. Throughout its 98-minute runtime, the documentary revels in pushing its boundaries and switching between various storytelling mediums. However, these rapid switches in scenery and pace can be utterly disorienting. Whether it’s a stylistic pivot or a narrative one, the film relentlessly presses onward, even occasionally at the expense of its audience.
The documentary doesn’t focus solely on the struggles that come with trying to transition under transphobic conditions with transphobic institutions blocking the way. “Orlando, My Political Biography” also tracks the euphoria many of its own Orlandos have experienced during their own transitions. Whether it’s top surgery granting an unparalleled sense of freedom or finally going on testosterone after waiting for years, the film is just as much about the highs of the journey to liberation as it is about the lows.
Through Preciado and a diverse cast of more than 20 trans and non-binary individuals, “Orlando, My Political Biography” provides not only a revelatory examination of modern society but also a reevaluation of the influential novel from which it takes its name.