Wednesday 20 July 2022

On the record: "Donna"

In a week that saw Tory Prime Ministerial candidates taking turns to hem and haw over all things trans, some reminder that trans people have long been among us - and that if we can collectively reassure those with disproportionate doubts and stave off those leaning into fascism, trans people will surely always be among us. For the documentary
Donna, the Welsh filmmaker Jay Bedwani has travelled to San Francisco to profile a figure who presents as a living legend in her community (and an evident blast to be around): Donna Personna, lipsynching cabaret star and veteran trans activist, as she closes in on her 75th birthday. As she informs us early on, Donna was once Jesse, the son of a preacher man, sneaking off to SF on weekends in search of teenage kicks; then Gus; then - upon discovery of some Latin roots - Gustavo; and finally Donna, dragged-up queen of the Castro scene. Bedwani's here to record who she is and what she does now, but is also keen to note what happened along the way - namely that, as Donna blazed a trail, she scattered those (including close members of her own family) who didn't have the empathy, patience or sheer stamina to keep up with her. There's an especially poignant interaction at a Christmas ice rink, where a group of strangers approach Donna and ask her to snap a family photograph; moments later, we watch the film's subject dropping by a food bank to pick up a Christmas dinner for one. It can be a lonely life when you have to go your own way.

It has been a life, though, and part of Bedwani's project here is to get that life down, perhaps before Donna passes on to her next life. This is a film specifically geared to the collection of testimony, keen to put something noteworthy on the record. So we get Donna's childhood memories, yes; but we also hear her in conversation with Mark Nassar, a playwright researching a dramatised account of the 1966 riot at Compton's Cafeteria, an incident that predated Stonewall; and we see Donna passing on what she's learnt to representatives of a younger generation who - though they might not always feel it - enjoy far greater freedoms than any trans person growing up in the 1950s and 60s. There's a touch of the Zeligs about her, and also something of a West Coast Fran Lebowitz - someone who, more by accident than design, has inherited the mantle of historian of post-War American nightlife. (Although Personna presents as a Lebowitz without the privilege, having forever existed at street level, close to the margins. Her rather cramped living quarters tell their own story of this life.)

Like a lot of non-fiction character studies, Donna can feel a bit of a swirl, bearing only the loosest, lightest-fitting narrative structure. Its subject apparently has to try and fit in a reunion with her suburban sister - and resolve the issue of what immediately becomes the Western world's most fraught Facebook friend request - while fulfilling a dozen other daily appointments. (She's clearly not getting paid anything like enough for it, but Donna may be more in demand now than she's ever been.) Still, that's life, and - as a film with some especially evocative photography of the San Francisco Bay makes clear - there are advantages to going along with the flow of it. There's an evident closeness between filmmaker and subject, carrying us from mere observation to genuine understanding, yet Bedwani also carves out room for rich, moving slabs of first-person experience. This may, I think, be the most effective way of combating scepticism and prejudice: by keeping it simple, and finding material that is essentially unarguable - that states that for all the different strands, impulses and pathways of a life, this finally is who I am. To give Donna herself the last word, as Bedwani himself is wise enough to do: "When you're free to be, you can be magnificent."

Donna is showing in selected cinemas, and available to rent via Bohemia Euphoria until August 14.

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