"I wanted to make a non-binary film," explains philosopher-turned-filmmaker Paul B. Preciado. By that, he means a film that skates the conventions of the binary gaze altogether. "In film criticism, there has been a lot of discourse about the female gaze and the critique of the male gaze, which is fine, but it's not enough."
That film is Orlando, My Political Biography, an essayistic documentary inspired by Virginia Woolf's 1928 novel, Orlando: A Biography. (The book was previously adapted by Sally Potter into the Oscar-nominated 1992 period drama, Orlando, starring Oscar winner Tilda Swinton.) Preciado's film weaves together the stories of contemporary trans and non-binary individuals, who perform interpretations of the literary classic while discussing their personal journeys with identity.
"When you are trans, you are confronted by a history of cinema that is terribly violent for us," says the writer and director. "Historically, we've been represented in cinema as victims or perpetrators of crime. It's also represented with a binary gaze that often makes the trans body into an object, either exotic object, or an object of pornography, or an object of a medical gaze."
When it came to finding inspiration for his directorial debut, Preciado had to look no further than his own film collection. "When I started to work on the film, I thought, 'How am I going to make this film? I have never made a film in my life. What am I going to be doing?'" he recalls. "I realized that I had the films that had been super important to me, so I looked back into them for answers."
Below, Preciado shares five of those films with A.frame, and shares how their impact helped him find his own voice, so that he could give voice to others.
Written and Directed by: Pedro Almodóvar
I grew up with Almodóvar's films. My mother is truly like an Almodóvar character. She has never starred in an Almodóvar film, but she could. I always felt that I grew up inside of one of his films. I could pick any of his early works, because they are exquisite, but I love Law of Desire. Almodóvar did something amazing in that film because Carmen Maura, a cis woman, plays the trans woman character, and the cis woman character is played by a trans woman, Bibi Andersen. I love that, because by the end of the film, Almodóvar has managed almost to make us not think about the distinction between who is the real woman and who is the trans woman, because he's switched these positions. I love that strategy to speak about realness or transness from a different position.
Directed by: Vittorio De Sica | Written by: Cesare Zavattini
Italian films are super important to me, because I grew up watching them on television in Spain. When I came to New York as a student, I was following the retrospectives of Italian cinema. And I could speak about any of the films in this collection, called Boccaccio '70, but the one I have chosen is The Raffle.
It stars Sophia Loren as a working-class woman who is going to make a raffle to sell tickets for men to win the possibility of spending a night with her. It's a little bit about prostitution, and a lot about how heterosexuality, masculinity, and femininity have been constructed in the 20th century. It's also interesting how Vittorio De Sica constructs the story visually; most of it happens inside a caravan, so the caravan is the frame. At some points, it feels like it could be an underground film. That inspired me, for instance, when I was making the scenes in Orlando with the ship and the operating table. From Italian neorealism, I learned how to maximize the use of the ordinary, of almost nothing, that becomes real through cinematic techniques.
Written and Directed by: Jean-Luc Godard
Godard is super influential to me, and at the same time, it's impossible for me to watch a Godard film without being really pissed off. All his questions were also my questions when I was making my film. For me, one of the most influential Godard films is La Chinoise. When making my film, I paid a lot of attention to adaptations. Sally Potter's adaptation of Orlando is fantastic, but it's not the kind of adaptation I had in mind.
What I wanted to do is closer to Godard's adaptation of Demons by Dostoevsky in La Chinoise. It's this collective of people working on using language to discuss the possibility of a revolution and whether they should use violence. The way they play with the text is very playful and almost sometimes childish. I thought, 'If that adaptation of Dostoevsky was possible, maybe my adaptation of Virginia Woolf would also be possible.'
Directed by: Joshua Oppenheimer and Christine Cynn
I love Oppenheimer's way of playing with fiction and reality, and unveiling the various strategies of performing a political history within the film. In this case, it's this horrifying history of violence, torture, and mass killings in Indonesia. I'm not comparing that with the history of trans people, but it's true that what we share is a history of violence. The big question is, how can you represent violence without reproducing the violence that you're trying to represent?
What sometimes happens when you see traditional films of trans people is that, at the end of the film, not only has the violence been represented, but you have to repeat the violence throughout the film. In the films of Oppenheimer, you become conscious of the performative dimension of violence at a certain point. You see the perpetrators and the victims performing these characters in makeup, and I used some of those strategies to show how gender is constructed. Similarly, Oppenheimer also lets us know how narratives of political history are constructed.
Written and Directed by: A. Hans Scheirl
Dandy Dust was super influential to me and gave me the courage to make my film. Hans Scheirl was Angela, then became Hans, and has become Ashley, so he has transitioned many times. In the '90s, he made this cyberpunk, super low-budget film, made out of garbage; it was this construction of a completely different world out of nothing. It's a non-binary film, because from the beginning, you don't know if the character is male, female, or whatever, and it doesn't matter. Because you are in the future, and that's not even a question.
Many times when making Orlando, I thought, 'I'm not going to be able to finish this film. I have no money. This is impossible.' And then Dandy Dust was there for me to say, 'You can make a film with nothing, because a film is made out of desire.' I hold on to that film as a reminder that, especially when you're coming from a minority perspective and from the outside of the world of cinema, it's super important to stick to your ideas, and you should continue with them.