Documentary, film essay, biography and performance piece meld together in Paul B. Preciado’s avant-garde, ruffed reclamation of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. This award-winning exploration of trans lives re-imagines the past and asks who are in the present.
Screened as part of NZIFF 2023
In Virginia Woolf's novel Orlando, the titular protagonist changes gender midway through the story of their life, waking up in a woman's body. In his new documentary-film-essay response, Paul B. Preciado (Testo Junkie) expands this trans allegory, from Orlando’s singular gender journey to a collective constellation of modern trans experiences. It is from this point that the film takes its thesis: what if Woolf’s Orlando can be re-imagined as a modern-day biography of collective trans lives? Orlando, My Political Biography features a cast of twenty-six contemporary trans and non-binary people, aged 8 to 70, who all play Orlando.
Supporting characters include players missing from the reality of the politicised trans experience—from psychiatrists and their receptionists, to doctors and judges. Spoken lines from the novel meld with personal stories of trans actors in a surprisingly seamless manner, Orlando’s white ruff serving as an accompaniment to modern queer fashion. Sets are reconstructed while interviews take place, a bizarre disco-dance scene choreographs a “pharmacoliberation”, and the documentary is as much a film about the making of art as it is a compelling re-imagining of history. Superbly experimental and deconstructionist, Preciado reclaims non-binary gender identities within the trans spectrum, and explores what happens when people don’t fit within society’s strict confines. Coming at a time that is crucial for global trans rights, the film feels deeply and joyously made by trans people, for trans people: “Look, Virginia, what we have become. Do you want to come with us?”, although wider audiences will be rewarded with numerous treasures nestled within this intelligent piece of art. — Emlou Lattimore
“‘During the post-screening discussion, Preciado said that trans, queer, and migrant folks come from dispossessed places. Orlando then is a film that repossesses, in its affirmation, insistence and celebration of “every Orlando,” the trans and non-binary people who are not only forced into categories through institutional violence (discursive and embodied) from psychiatry to pharmacology to citizenship (some of the cast were unable to travel to Berlin due to the refusal of states to change names on passports), but who defiantly reject and resist such harmful boundary policing. The result is a perfect merging of political theory, rebellious collective will and radical imagination. The prolonged and buoyant standing ovation at Berlinale was well-deserved for Orlando: My Political Biography. It was, like the film, a life-affirming display of admiration and celebration that nearly erupted into a dance party, the infectious possibility of which reminds me of this Woolf quote: “There is nothing staid, nothing settled, in this universe. All is rippling, all is dancing; all is quickness and triumph.’”—Ezra Winton, POV Magazine