In I Am a Woman Now, five transsexual women talk about the most important event in their lives: the decision to undergo a sex change. Michiel van Erp, one of Europe’s most promising documentary filmmakers (Angst; Beatrix, Queen), met with them. They talk about their stories and their initial anxieties. The subject has already been explored hundreds of times, in many countries and sometimes for the worst; but in this case, appearances can be deceiving. I Am a Woman Now has a different quality, another kind of energy that makes it stand out somewhat from the rest.
The women who were interviewed are all over 60 and agreed, after much effort on the part of the filmmaker, to look back at their lives. Together, these testimonials are a sampling of the story of the very first generation of transsexuals. In the middle of their twenties, they were the first to achieve their greatest desire when they used all their savings to take the plane and go to Casablanca. There, the eccentric French Dr. Georges Burou — called the “miracle doctor” — took them under his wing and, illegally, offered them a new birth. He was a pioneer in this field at the beginning of the 1960s, and these women are profoundly grateful to him. But although the film contains some archival images, the famous surgeon is not the subject of the film. I Am a Woman is in fact about age: What does it mean to grow old today as a transsexual? One of them reflects: “Ageing was never part of my original fantasy…”
The viewer is sometimes amused, as for example by a British transsexual who is ever so fond of champagne and whose aristocratic air is almost a caricature. A long-time friend, with whom she has had a “good life”, chirps away incessantly at her side against the backdrop of a Cannes villa. But little by little, he grows quiet and with admiration drinks in the confessions of his friend as she recounts her youth. Michiel van Erp’s film is all the more apt because he does not spare those in these women’s close circles; despite the fact that these women are isolated to a certain extent, their friends mean a lot to them. Another transsexual reveals to her closest confidante that she was not always a woman. In spite of their close bond, for a long time she could not find the strength and courage to make such a revelation. The viewer-cum-voyeur is gripped by the scene.
I Am a Woman Now pays homage to those who regret nothing, but also the others, bitter and confused, such as a transsexual who confides that she had doubts immediately after the operation. This uncertainty is registered by the filmmaker in the lines on her face and in her shifting, almost troubled, gaze. But while she is in a lesbian relationship, her doubts do not prevent her from remaining honest with herself, a delicate paradox that the film treats with familiarity. In the end, Michiel van Erp approaches the subject objectively yet romantically, with courage and a profound communicative respect. Twilight on the beach, hotel terraces on the Côte d’Azur, restaurants… It is as if the director asked each subject to choose, according to her personality, the staging that would suit her best, an approach that far surpasses the anticipated effect. And that is the most beautiful thing about I Am a Woman Now.
© FIPRESCI 2012