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In the opening moments of Transition, Jordan Bryon, the documentary’s subject and one of its directors, angles his face toward the camera. He moves in close and inspects his chin for hair. There are faint signs of growth, short whiskers that Bryon caresses as he speaks to us.
“My nerves are fucking shot,” he says, alluding to his current circumstances. “There are too many interwoven threads that are becoming very messy.” The precarious situation plaited 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 with a Taliban unit in Afghanistan. The stakes are high for the documentarian, who decided to stay in the country after the insurgents seized the city in August 2021.
The Bottom Line
A gestural portrait in need of fuller fleshing out.
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Documentary Competition)
Directors: Jordan Bryon, Monica Villamizar
1 hour 29 minutes
Even before the takeover, Afghanistan was no haven for queer people: Same-sex relations were legally banned in 2017, for example. Any slivers of opportunity to live a relatively quiet life vanished with the Taliban presence, which has created new obstacles for these individuals. Not only do queer Afghans have fewer employment opportunities, but they are also at risk of being reported to the insurgent 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 early in Transition, the 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 with whom he and his colleague Farzad Fetrat (affectionately known as Teddy) spend their days do not know about the filmmaker’s testosterone shots or upcoming top surgery in Iran. Transition is built on the tension between Bryon’s secrets and the rigid ideology of these insurgents. The more time the documentary filmmaker spends with the Taliban — learning about their daily lives and occasionally interrogating their beliefs — the more worried he becomes about possible exposure.
The risk of persecution or death hangs in the air of Transition, which begins a year before Kabul’s fall. The doc opens with a sense of Bryon’s daily life: roaming the city during the day and night; capturing footage for his projects; getting testosterone shots with an Afghan doctor; having video calls with his mother back in Australia and conversations with friends about his gender dysphoria. In a brief introductory voiceover, Bryon tells us about a life defined by binary thinking. He always felt caught between identities, he says, and “was always trying to get away from labels and the shame that comes with them.”
Bryon’s narrative joins a small (but growing) number of recent projects about the transmasculine experience, which include Nicolò Bassetti’s tender Berlin documentary Into My Name and Vuk Lungulov-Klotz’s riveting drama Mutt. In a world determined to strip trans people of basic rights and humanity, these stories offer space to meditate on the depths, range and differences within this experience.
It’s curious, then, that Transition stays so close to Bryon, moving only briefly away to consider questions raised by his own admissions. For the documentarian, Afghanistan was, ironically, a refuge from the constricting labels he longed to escape: “When I moved here those things did not follow me,” he says. “Afghanistan took me in.” There’s no doubt that Bryon felt liberated by the anonymity the country afforded him: Leaving what you know and what knows you is a gift in terms of self-exploration. But it’s not one accessible to everyone.
Bryon spends a lot of time with Teddy and the photojournalist Kiana Hayeri talking about withholding secrets from the Taliban unit, his obligation to come out as trans to people within a conservative, Muslim society, and the rights granted to him as a man in Taliban-occupied Afghanistan. These conversations are interesting and give us a chance to understand Bryon’s position in the country. At one point, Hayeri refutes a point Bryon makes by saying that not only is he a man, but also a foreigner. One wonders if Transition might have been better served by paying more attention to that last point. As a white Australian national and a filmmaker, Bryon is met with both suspicion and curiosity. A scene in which the men of the Taliban unit take photographs of him confirms his status as an outsider.
What does Bryon’s position mean in a country whose current regime is seeking international diplomatic approval? That initiative does not temper the dangerous stakes faced by the filmmaker and his friends and colleagues. But it does suggest how his harrowing position is at least marginally helped by the access and freedoms granted by his passport. Further exploration or acknowledgement of that context might have forced the doc to gesture at — if not necessarily explain in depth — how Bryon is able to get hormone shots in Afghanistan and top surgery in Iran, procedures that would seem, from my limited vantage point, out of the realm of possibility for the average queer Afghan. These are the messy, interwoven matters one may wish Transition contended with in addition to the moral questions faced by its individual subject.
The doc does offer insights. There’s a real tension when Bryon spends time with members of the Taliban, allowing viewers to eavesdrop on interesting conversations among the group that poke holes in their ideology. At one point, a Taliban figure says that there’s more to being a man than having a beard, which reveals the latitude granted to men but not women, whom the regime has effectively barred from existing freely. There is also some extraordinary footage in Transition, which deepens our understanding of Afghanistan under Taliban rule. Abandoned aircrafts sitting on desolate tarmacs, rows of shuttered businesses and empty parking lots are no less haunting here than in In Her Hands (for which Bryon served as a cinematographer) and Bread and Roses, which premiered last month at Cannes.
These glimpses of Afghanistan are deftly edited into footage of Bryon’s own life. While filming Transition, Bryon was on assignment, working on a feature film in the final stages of post-production. Even when the documentary doesn’t fulfill its ambitions or potential, it does preview the exciting work coming from its director.
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