Donna - celebrating the magic of the everyday and the many facets of trans women's lives
From the moment we are introduced to Donna, her humour and warmth are evident. As the film gently unfolds over five years of her life, it invites us to take a pause from the sensationalised discourse surrounding trans people in the UK right now. Instead of sweeping generalisations and fatalistic narratives, the film shows us the realities of one life, with all its subtleties and tender moments.
That’s not to say that Donna’s life hasn’t been full of rich and fabulous stories. In fact, one of the most successful elements of the film is its treatment of the life of a performer.
While many of us will have experienced the raucous fun of a drag show, Donna frequently provides a peek behind the curtain, where different kinds of joy can be found. We see the camaraderie of getting ready together, the vulnerability of rehearsals, and the precarity of making a living from performing.
As Donna takes on an important role with a local play based on the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot of 1966, the backdrop of trans resistance comes into clearer focus.
She knew many of the trans women involved in the riot, and uses this knowledge to help form the play into an accurate and moving portrayal of this historic moment. Yet the insights into this process are still offered to us with a delicate touch, never pulling focus from the relationships that Donna has formed across many generational and social divides.
In following these relationships, we also have the opportunity to consider the contrast between the families we grow up with and the found families many queer people adopt.
Donna’s journey to present and express herself as she truly wishes began later in life, and the film takes us with her through the negotiations with family that have never seen this side of her. We also see the inter-generational friendships and networks of support that she’s a part of, a persistent feature of queer communities that exist everywhere from the dizzy heights of San Francisco to the sleepier towns of Wales.
Donna is a testament to the power of documentary film making to show real stories, celebrating the magic of the everyday and the many facets of trans women's lives that are sorely missed in mainstream media depictions. The love and attention that has gone into the film is evident from the first shot, and speaking with director Jay Bedwani provided a deeper insight into how this process blossomed along with Donna’s life.
How do you feel that the European premiere of Donna at Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff went?
Hometown screenings are always more nerve-wracking, especially with everyone you know attending, but the comments showed that people got what we were going for and responded to Donna in the way that I really hoped they would.
Your connection to and love for San Francisco was clear throughout the film and answers afterwards. Do you, and Donna, feel that she is connected to Wales now?
While her life is very focused in Northern California, she’s been listening to many of the interviews, talking to people about Wales and loves finding more about it as my home country. It would be great if she could come over for a screening some time.
Do you feel like filming Donna has had an impact on your relationship to the trans community in Wales?
There are certainly similarities in the people of San Francisco and Wales. Through spending a lot of time learning the stories and shooting material of individual trans lives in San Francisco, I definitely felt like I understood the community here more, I’ve been more tuned into it. I hope that now the film’s come out, it does bring more discourse to Wales that I could be involved with.
We’ve got nice screenings going across Wales in smaller towns too, so I really hope people come out to them and respond.
At the screening you mentioned the desire to allow space for political undertones, but without pulling the focus from the more detailed portrait of Donna. Had you identified this gap in close depictions of trans people's lives from the start, or did this develop with the filming?
It developed while filming, especially during the edit over lockdown with the backdrop of things like JK Rowling’s tweets and debates around transgender athletes. Everything felt so politicised, and the trans people I know don’t necessarily feel that way about it. Like coming out, there’s all this discourse around it but many people feel like “it’s just me, it’s just my story!”.
Just by getting the film out there and showing Donna for who she was, it was definitely the root I wanted to take. Hopefully it does spark conversations, which may turn into outcomes and policy, but I think it’s a really nice starting point to see a human story without the political noise.
What do you think the value is of these more mindful portraits compared to more sensational expressions of trans people's lives? Was there any resistance in the filming process to not relying on traditionally dramatic events?
Early on I decided I didn’t want it to be about doors slamming. Donna’s not an angry person, she’s come to terms with, and loves, who she is, which was something really beautiful that I responded to. Going after some kind of forced drama would have been a disservice to not only her story, but many peoples stories.
I like the way that she approaches her family, and the quiet way they respond to her. It reflected my experience of coming out as gay, where my family were great and supportive, but it took some time. It’s not always big arguments and not speaking, but more of a slow reveal for some people. For me, there’s a lot of drama in that, which is one of the reasons I like documentary films. You can show feelings and the gentler moments.
We were shown a lot of those small and mindful insights into Donna’s story.
That’s real life isn’t it? Those moments may seem tiny in the grand scheme of things, but when you’re going through it they feel massive. They can also be really beautiful and tender. Documentary film making can take those moments and show them with the importance felt by the person at the time.
With the themes of aging and inter-generational relationships throughout the film, it feels like a timely interjection into the current climate, where a wedge is being driven between the young people who are trans, and everyone else who supposedly isn’t. The film shows that trans women have always existed, they’re still living and going, and doing all the work of supporting young people too.
Inter-generational relationships and support are really important in our community. It’s really a wonderful mutual support that both sides can get, it’s really nice to show those things on film.
The Compton’s Cafeteria riot is such a wonderful story to have included. It helps you realise “Oh, hey, I owe a debt to that too - we all do”. Especially in standing up to police brutality, which is happening now, for lots of different groups. They were one of the first, and it’s important to acknowledge that perhaps we all owe a bit of that debt, and consider what we can do to work with it.
A lot of the notes I made during the film were about the tensions and juxtapositions that appeared throughout. For example, we saw a lot of backstage, rehearsing, the aftermath of shows, as well as the performances themselves. Things many people may not be familiar with.
I felt so lucky to be able to just go backstage and observe and be part of it. It’s amazing and fun, but it’s also work that they have to take seriously. Donna has to do it even when she doesn’t want to feel like it, so she’s frequently rehearsing on her phone, learning songs at short notice and dealing with stage mishaps. It’s quite nerve-wracking and not something I could ever do, I’m not a performer, so I’m always quite in awe. Especially of Donna, who doesn’t feel like she’s very good at certain things and still gets up with conviction.
Donna faces some intolerance throughout the film, and rather than casting them aside she says well I’ll see what happens and just be myself, which feels like it could be a lesson for the anti-trans camp, in showing that things don’t actually have to be so aggressive.
A line from Donna that I really like is “Knowing comes from revealing yourself”. That’s not an aggressive approach, but it is powerful. I think we can all do that, we’re constantly coming out in some way, that may not require big statements and can just involve being who you are. It can be a form of activism in a way, which Donna has been really good at in the spaces and time she has been able to reveal herself.
At a later stage you can really change your life too. Donna is having the best time in the world, and why not?
What might you hope that a Welsh audience will take from Donna?
Wherever I go with the film I feel there are universal themes I hope people respond to, but coming from Wales I do have a connection to it. I feel positive and proud that maybe we’re going in the right direction. It can take a while, but it feels to me like things could be really good here. Ffilm Cymru are really supportive of different voices, and there are some great projects being worked on by trans directors, so I’m really hopeful that Donna’s story will be one of many to come.