Reel Affirmations 2004
Review by Nancy Legato
Rating: (5 out of 5)
Saturday, 10/16/2004, 5:30 PM
Shorts presentation, $9 at Goethe Institut Inter Nationes
THIS PROGRAM DOVETAILS two brilliant documentaries with appropriately different approaches about two very different human beings and artists. And together, they take filmmaking about transgender folk to a whole new level.
Of the two, Colonel Jin Xing () tells the more linear narrative about the life of China’s star modern dancer, who started out as a nine-year-old dance student in the People’s Republic, rose to stardom as a male dancer, and then became China’s first “official transgender person,” afterward continuing to earn applause as both a dancer in her own right and as a teacher of others in Shanghai. It’s fascinating to watch Jin Xing’s story play out against the backdrop of an extremely conservative, gender-split society.
Prior to Jin Xing’s sex reassignment surgery, the only related operations performed in China were to remediate damage done by people who had mutilated themselves in a desperate attempt to change their bodies in a country where sex changes were verboten. Since Jin Xin’s surgery, more than 100 people have followed in her footsteps. Against this background, it’s amazing to watch interviews with Jin Xing’s former teachers and colleagues in the PLA grin with excitement as they proudly discuss her past and present achievements, and how they remembered her from their days together in the BeiJing military academy.
Such footage seems to indicate that Jin Xing herself was correct in surmising, even as a young child, that becoming a brilliant artist could divert attention from the fact that she was “different.” What she could not have predicted was that her artistry — and, in some sense, the fact that she was so clearly not a typical male, right from the beginning — would actually pave her way to having her metamorphosis accepted by the people who loved her, as well as by those who control her destiny in the highly controlled society of China.
With much more artistic license than that demonstrated in Colonel Jin Xing, 7th Heaven () explores the life, cosmology, and artistry of Norway’s Lars Kristian Gulbrandsen/Tatyjana, a painter and writer now in her seventies with paintings on exhibit throughout Europe. 7th Heaven shows Tatyjana in her element as trickster and fool on her home island of Hidra, shocking local residents and tourists alike not simply by openly being a male-to-female transgender person, by roaming the streets in full regalia of her own making. Each morning, it seems, Tatyjana re-creates herself in yellow and green make-up outlining her eyes and cheeks, and pink, yellow, and green swatches of hair climbing every which way, coupled with a black butt-warmer skirt and pink top that bares her midriff. She also has a habit of wearing a raggedy doll on her back as if it were a backpack.
She talks about herself as both a 70-year old man and a 20-year old girl. The best part of 7th Heaven, however, isn’t the spectacle of Tatyjana’s looks or comportment, but the observations she makes about life, about God, and about creating art. She is able to explain the art in an arrangement of coffee cans on her countertop in a way that few art professors would probably be able to relate. She quite literally brings sound to her own paintings in a way that helped this viewer, at least, understand abstract art for the very first time.
It would be so easy to look away from Tatyjana on a street, but her words and insights make it so clear that we all need to be challenged to be like her in some way, refusing to be simply copies of one another. Somehow, director Steffan Strandberg manages to render Tatyjana most sympathetically when he blurs the lines between documentary and fictionalization, between purely narrative shots of his subject chatting up tourists on Hidra’s streets and purely symbolic shots of the sun through leaves and Tatyjana’s own hands.