Director: Jay Bedwani
Trans activist, writer and performer Donna Personna is the subject of this documentary, in the first feature film from Welsh director Jay Bedwani, returning to the subject of his 2013 Iris Prize-winning short.
Here we meet Donna living in San Francisco as she is offered the opportunity to co-write a play about an overlooked moment in Queer History: the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot. Recalling the events of that night, when a trans woman Donna knew stood up to the police and started an insurrection that would lead to significant change for their community, she pieces together an oral history of that period alongside vignettes and anecdotes from her own life.
An observational documentary, the film is at its strongest as when we hear Donna speaking in voiceover, reciting the words she has composed for the play. However, with this historical incident the hook for the film, its inclusion is minimal in comparison to its exploration of her life. And unfortunately the focus is on the least interesting of the two. The film absolutely recognises the historical wealth of Donna’s past, but it doesn’t quite manage to give it the vivid life it deserves on screen.
Donna is a warm, loving and compelling person, but the story of her personal journey falls somewhat flat, exhibiting a nostalgic reticence of someone who has accepted this history without anger at its injustice. Separated from most of her family, having grown up the child of a preacher and one of multitudinous siblings, the film follows her as she reconnects with Gloria, a younger sister with whom she has been estranged. But this reunion is lacklustre, with the filmmaker not succeeding in capturing the gravity of this moment in Donna’s life.
The film needed a much stronger direction, with some kind of vision of where it should go. In its final form, it takes a step back and allows Donna to shape the narrative with seemingly little guidance from its director. As a result, this is a slow, rudderless documentary drifting through the life of a subject whose potential remains untapped.
UK Release: 15th July 2022 in cinemas and VOD on Bohemia Euphoria