Die Standing Up
Just as the coming out narrative in gay and lesbian cinema has become treacherously well-trodden, the transitioning narrative in trans-cinema runs the risk of being beaten into banality, even though societally speaking we still have a long way to go towards comprehension and acceptance.
"Die Standing Up" is a heartening case because, despite the familiarity of some of its content, it contributes something meaningful and fresh to the growing body of trans cinema.
This documentary, shot in Mexico and Cuba, tells the remarkable story of a revolutionary man who fashioned himself after Che Guevara and fought the socialist fight in his younger days. He managed to participate in protests and even travelled from Mexico to Cuba in order to get married on socialist turf though he suffers from a degenerative disease (MS) that confines him to a wheelchair. From beginning to end, this is a story about coping with sickness.
At first it is about a politicized man dealing with co-dependency and incipient blindness, among other things; then it becomes about a trans-woman dealing with the same things. If this sounds awkward or abrupt it’s because Irina Layevska’s trajectory of gender identity is atypical, though some of her subsequent hardships are similar to those of other trans-folk.
In the early days, gender identity was a non-issue for Layevska. When the fiery revolutionary had trouble confronting his illness, his amazingly devoted partner, Nelida Reyes, encouraged him to get in touch with his feminine side, telling him that crying was alright when dealing with the emotions his debilitation stirred. It never occurred to her that this exploration of the feminine that she encouraged would lead to her partner’s decision to join the female contingent completely. She had no idea about transgender identity and initially thought they could no longer be partners.
Though the film could go a bit further in explaining this psychological transition, it is likely difficult for Irina to articulate. By necessity, the film is missing the period of adjustment; thoughtful reflection fills in a bit of the blank, but the strength of the film really lies in the film’s ability to meticulously capture the current day to day business of these true survivors.
We see, for example, Irina typing a manifesto of sorts using a pen she grasps in her mouth because she is unable to use her hands. We hear her friend’s telling surprise that Irina didn’t become more frivolous when she became a woman. Nelida explains with admirable clarity and compassion the "Barbie phase" in which Irina was initially preoccupied with all things feminine, then goes on to opine that a revolutionary is not someone who learns those ideals in school but someone who problematizes his/her own prejudices and progresses with them. As for herself, she learned that love is gender blind- something that is easy for a liberal to spout off in a display of progressiveness but much harder to embody.
These moments compensate for some scene detailing sickness that border on excessive meticulousness. It’s refreshing to encounter subjects who are so acute in their reflectiveness and so perseverant. Just as the individuals at the center of the film are both ordinary and remarkable, the cinematography is not flashy or designed to call attention to itself, yet it is quietly masterful in bringing us into these women’s world.
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