THE STORY – In 1928, Virginia Woolf wrote Orlando, the first novel in which the main character changes sex in the middle of the story. A century later, trans writer and activist Paul B. Preciado decides to send a film letter to Virginia Woolf: her Orlando has come out of her fiction and is living a life she could have never imagined. Preciado organizes a casting and gathers 26 contemporary trans and non-binary people, from 8 to 70 years old, who embody Orlando.
THE CAST – Oscar (Rosza) S. Miller, Janis Sahraoui, Liz Christin, Elios Levy & Victor Marzouk
THE TEAM – Paul B. Preciado (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 98 Minutes
When asked why he hasn’t written his biography, theorist, critic, and curator Paul B. Preciado said it’s because Virginia Woolf already wrote it in 1928. The novel in question, “Orlando: A Biography,” is one of Woolf’s most famous and one of the few at that time that discussed the subject of gender specifically. The work describes the life of a young Elizabethan nobleman who changes sex and lives for centuries. Recontextualizing Woolf’s acclaimed novel, Preciado’s documentary, “Orlando: My Political Biography,” is both a letter to Woolf and a collection of personal stories from trans people. Claiming the work as representative of themselves, the struggles of trans and non-binary people are explored through Woolf’s narrative and imagery. The film boldly interrogates its relevance in a modern-day plagued with anti-trans ideology while creating a joyful celebration of queerness.
Preciado admits early in the film that he admires Woolf’s novel but is also enraged by it. How could this author, who, to our knowledge, isn’t a trans person, write as though transitioning from one sex to another is as easy as waking up? That’s what happens: Orlando one day goes to bed as a man and wakes up as a woman. If only the transition were that easy. The reality is more difficult and puts lives at risk. By speaking to dozens of trans and non-binary intergenerational performers who blend their stories with passages from Woolf’s novel, the documentary seeks to create a modern shift in the perspective of Orlando, the character. Sporting an Elizabethan frilled collar and interviewed in natural forest environments, in front of a wintery backdrop, or the Paris catacombs under candlelight, the scenes are set poetically, playing on Woolf’s satirization of Britain’s view of lesbianism as fantasy. By filling the gaps in Orlando’s story, Preciado and the performers emphasize that fantasy is the antiquated depiction of sexual binarism in the novel. It bounces off of the text to portray the true trans experience.
Orlando lives the life of a gender poet amid a binary and normative society. The film poses the question, but how would Orlando really live as trans? Beyond making connections to the work through reciting passages, acting out scenes, and sharing personal stories, the documentary emphasizes that the Orlandos of today must confront laws, psychiatry, pharma, and the traditional notions of society. Expressed at one point through the original song, explaining all the hoops that trans people have to go through is important to recontextualize the novel and examine its cultural impact, but it also can create a viewing experience that feels scattered and results in a loss of Preciado’s voice in his letter to Woolf.
Despite an uneven experience, “Orlando: My Political Biography” is an intelligent, playful dissection of one of queer literature’s seminal works and might also be the gayest documentary ever. Claiming Woolf’s novel as their own is a powerful act that honors the faceless and those who came before, those who were unable to live in what Preciado describes as a transgender revolution. It’s a collective experience of those who are now seen and, therefore, must be heard. Many Orlandos have come from Woolf’s fiction, but they’re now writing history in their own hand.