Antonio Giménez-Rico ‧ 1983 Spain ‧ Documentary/Drama ‧ 1 hr 53 mins
Otherness Archive has subtitled Vestida de Azul (1983) in English, making it available to the English-speaking audience for the first time. The premiere screening took place at the newly built headquarters of Brighton Pride Festival, one of the largest LGBT+ festivals in Europe and a community interest company in Brighton, UK.
Vestida de Azul (1983) is a documentary melodrama full of sensationalism and domesticity, nudity and trauma, boldness and burlesque. The film's title, a play on a controversial term vestidas, suggests protagonists as dramatic heroines, referring to a children’s nursery rhyme that tells a story of a doll dressed in blue who caught a cold after going for a walk.
The six travestis – Loren (44), René (21), Nacha (20), Eva (23), Tamara, and Josétte (30) [although Josétte later commented her experience was closer to that of transformista] – narrate their lives through interviews, allow filmmakers into their places of work, their homes, and even into the operating room as Eva is getting a breast augmentation surgery in a graphic sequence of rapturous abject. For the purpose of the film, they also reenacted scenes and episodes that made up the reality of their lives, and I wonder to what extent they were co-authors of this tale.
Although almost seamlessly blending into the documentary, the reenactments take us beyond what is possible within classic observational documentary filmmaking and into excessive realism. We see police busting poorly-lit street corners (four of the protagonists are sex workers), we go inside (fake) clients' cars and expensive houses, visit (real) family gatherings and are allowed to glimpse on intimate lovemaking scenes.
A prison, a town hall, a doctor’s office, a church, a bar, a hotel, a family, a stage – travesti clash with all kinds of institutions in Vestida de Azul, yet these encounters are never contextualised within the collective struggle for liberation. We mostly hear about individual struggles, and are let in on intense preoccupations with one's social and economic status – quests for beauty, possessions, value and self-realisation that exist alongside (and as a part of) survival.
As I step outside of the cinematic reality of Vestida de Azul into the physical reality of the neon-lit reception area in the headquarters of Brighton Pride, I momentarily lose sight of the value and meaning of the film; the space deceives me. I am in the middle of a newly built room adorned in rainbow patterns, sparkly fringe curtains, campy furniture, neon signs that say “PRIDE”, and a photography exhibition about out-and-proud identity. This is what living in Brighton often feels like: symbols and tropes of progress and liberal attitudes conceal the history of fights against oppressive institutions and the poor material conditions that remain unchanged. So what does the film do to the narrative constructed by this space? I feel some tension.
At the beginning of the event, one of the English translators, Ailo, warned the audience that the film seems very binary and over-emphasises normative nuclear family structures. Perhaps that disclosure was needed because the educational discourse of Vestida, that served its purpose in the 80s Spain, doesn’t advance viewers’ understanding at the level we expect to be “educated” now and in spaces like this. Yet this film is a sentimental and precious document of trans lives almost 40 years ago – a gift that many queer and trans people around the world wish they could have had in their respective countries, cultures and languages.
How can a film full of gender-queer transfeminine youth, sex workers, and artists, be conventional anyway? If you look closely there is evidence of a multitude of relationships to one’s gender, femininity, body, and the kinships made along the way – even if those are limited by its historical landscape and explored against the normative societal structures. I see the nuclear family conventions in Vestida as nothing but a backdrop, in my mind perfectly fitting with the grand tradition of the melodramatic genre. Here play out the existing disputes on the significance of the term travesti, as some affirm its total submission to gender binary while others argue for its radical deconstruction of gender expectations.
In this case, our active viewership is the most important. Our active and queering viewership can always find the documents of otherness and transgression on our own terms – looking past the film’s melodramatic and documentary structures, the careful balancing of abject with the presence of children (the filmmakers were keen to capture travestis interacting with their younger siblings), the director and cameramen’s invasive gazes.
There are moments of deeper intimacy as we follow seemingly conventional pursuits of love, family, materiality and normality.
Through these, we can move towards thinking of safety, dignity and belonging as human needs and the needs of our heroines, and how they negotiated trading one for another. The tropes and symbols of progress aside, if we have to continuously sacrifice dignity for safety, or safety for belonging, we are still far from where we need to be.
Written by Violeta Marchenkova
V is a filmmaker and an organiser with Devil’s Dyke Network