Ahead of the 5th Annual Ramsgate International Film and Television Festival, Spanish filmmaker Jonas Benarroch is in conversation with Olwen Collins to promote his documentary feature Transition and Happiness. The film will preview on the 4th June at 16:00 UTC on the Ramsgate Digital Cinema.
OC: For someone who hasn’t seen Transition and Happiness, what is the film about?
JB: It´s about an older women who, before coming out, had behaved as a typical macho for many decades. And after coming out, despite having undergone genital reassignment surgery, she makes little effort to appear feminine, which is quite unusual in the female transsexual community, who normally strive to have “passing”, to be invisible as transsexual women. It’s also about her endeavour to be recognised as a full woman in all social and political spheres.
OC: You start off the documentary by explaining that you knew Rosa María from school, when she was known as Ramón. How did the pair of you reconnect and what led you to embark on the project?
JB: It was at a reunion dinner of former students of that school. Rosa María appeared with long hair and painted nails as the only recognisable feminine features; her physical appearance and her voice were strongly masculine and she did not hide them at all; on the contrary, she seemed to delight in this conflict of appearances, claiming that appearances means nothing. That’s what appealed to me the most: she defied any preconceived gender convention.
By the the time we reconnected, Rosa María was about to go to Thailand to have surgery, which for her was a true rite of passage. At that time I didn’t have much knowledge of gender theory (I had only read Judith Butler’s “Gender Trouble”), and I was also involved in other projects, but in my mind I decided that I wanted to do something with Rosa María, a documentary, yes. However I had to find a way to get into it. I started reading about the subject and, most of all, I started asking myself some questions. Meanwhile I realised that Rosa María’s personality and personal experience were much more powerful and inspiring than Queer theories going around. So I decided to put aside any theoretical work.
OC: I found the piece refreshingly humorous, from the music and narration at the very beginning to the often crass humour and dirty jokes shared between Rosa and her friend Fina. In many ways, the tone seems quite different from what we’ve come to expect when LGBTQI+ and specifically Trans people are portrayed in the mainstream media. Was this a conscious decision? And how does this enlighten the work?
JB: Thanks for highlighting it. It was an absolutely conscious decision, not just while I was searching for the tone and focus of the documentary, but throughout the whole production process. From the preliminary questions I asked myself to the moment of composing the original musical themes (a kind of blue grass by Nick Haughton and Susie Jones), I have strived to achieve something different from what is expected of a gender-themed film. Choosing Rosa María’s life as the centre of the documentary is undoubtedly the first decision in this sense, not only because of her appearance, but because she is not a marginalised person and has an absolutely normal job and family. But I also struggled to find a more personal aesthetic and narrative – personal and “raw” at the same time. Maybe I was led in this direction because there is a saturation of movies about transsexuality. I ran into this problem early on: producers and distributors refused to participate in my documentary for this reason. I had no choice but to make a film different from what was expected.
My goal was not to make a film about transsexuality, but to enter the intimate psychological space, and also explore the social space, of a big character who is also a specific case of transsexuality. In short, put personality, not transsexuality, to the fore. Humour necessarily had to be throughout the film, because Rosa María has a very provocative sense of humour and this is one of the things I like the most about her. If she hadn’t had this sense of humour, I’m not sure I would have been so motivated to make this documentary and invest more than two years of my productive life.
OC: During the filming, you seem to be there every step in the way. For example, when we see Fina in the hospital after her gender reassignment surgery. You capture many special moments. How was the filming process for you?
JB: When I realised that it would be difficult to find a production company to get involved in my project, for the reasons I explained before, I decided to make the documentary as freely as possible. That means, on the one hand, not being tied to a production schedule and working organically without a script, without a narrative structure, only from the themes and questions that I wanted to investigate and some visual notes and possible scenes that came to mind, and build the film little by little, while editing; and on the other hand, self-produce my film with my own financial resources so as not to have to apply to public funds. Fortunately, I have very generous friends who have helped me when I have needed it.
In short, I have tried to create production conditions that have allowed me to follow the process guided mainly by intuition. I also believe that reducing the script and technical equipment to a minimum has allowed my protagonists to relax and have a more confident attitude with me, particularly when it came to talking about intimate things.. For example, I would say: “Rosa, let me go along with you to see Fina at the hospital” or “ Rosa, invite your trans friends and make them a delicious meal” or “Hey Rosa, hey Fina, when are we going to the beach?” . And on the agreed day, I would come with my camera, my digital sound recorder, and a few questions I wanted to ask. The rest was utter improvisation. Of course, this also carries a lot of uncertainty.
OC: Nearer the culmination of the film, we enter a somewhat more explicitly political narrative at a meeting of Trans * Baix Power, the Sant Feliu association that Rosa and Fina are President and Secretary of respectively. The hugely successful event is attended by the Councilor for Women’s and Equality Policy, Lídia Muñoz as well as a representative of the Generalitat (the system of Catalan autonomous government). It feels as if your film is right at the edge of this changing tide in Spain regarding attitudes towards LGBTQI+ people. What are your hopes for Spain in the future?
JB: The explicitly political question is not exactly what it seems; it is like a setting, a social atmosphere. My main interest was to make a psychological portrait. When I started filming, Rosa María and Fina were struggling for their recognition as women, but they were not doing political activism in the strict sense. If institutional political scenes appear in Transition and Happiness, it is because they are materializations of Rosa María´s and Fina’s determination to achieve full social and political recognition after having founded Trans * Baix Power association. It is only because that endeavour makes my protagonists undertake an institutional path that my documentary seems to drift towards a more explicitly political narrative.
It is true that I was interested in showing the political context of absolute acceptance. Without that, I think Rosa and Fina would not have been able to get that far. But in my film there is no political debate as such, only statements and applause. It is not that I wanted to frame only applause and acceptance, it is that in all the institutional events in which I shot there was a situation of full acceptance; even by right-wing parties, such as PP, which is not in favour of free abortion, at least for women under 18. But all this take place in the municipal political sphere of a small city on the outskirts of Barcelona. I don’t know what it would have been like in a large Spanish municipality. The main debate in Spain, as in many countries, does not come from the right but from feminism, and also from lesbian feminism, which argues that behind the confusion between gender and sex there is an attack on the feminist struggle for the rights of women based on sex.
OC: Do you have any further plans for distribution of the film? Maybe in an educational context?
JB: I’ve already had a “kind” rejection coming from this context, I´m afraid that my protagonists are too “binary” for Transition and Happiness to be easily accepted in an educational context in which the idea of the non-binary is quite hegemonic. For the moment, some municipalities are interested in programming the film. I am a bit lost. Ive not faced serious setbacks from having worked outside the film industry so far. It may be here where intuition collides with reality.
OC: What’s next for you, Jonas?
I am already working on another film. It is about a woman who has an incurable disease and faces death with great courage. This documentary will not be funny.