Antonio Giménez-Rico ‧ 1983 Spain ‧ Documentary/Drama ‧ 1 hr 53 mins
In 1983, Spanish filmmaker Antonio Giménez-Rico made Vestida De Azul, a Spanish documentary about the daily lives of six trans women in Post-Franco Madrid. The film would find critical acclaim at the time, and yet it has somehow slipped through the cracks of the queer archive. The film’s first English translation was completed this year, and much thanks goes to its translators Ailo Ribas and Sara Yaoska who have resuscitated this gem for an English-speaking audience. The translated version had its premier screening in September at Brighton’s Ironworks as part of Brighton Pride. While there is little written about the film, hardly having claim to major cult status, that night there was an unanimous feeling of experiencing something rare and intoxicating, a shared sense of I can’t believe I haven’t seen this before.
It’s impossible to think that Vestida De Azul hasn’t had its impact on Spanish cinema; the opening scene - our heroines looking for work and clients on the streets of Madrid - seems to have left its traces in the Barcelona of Almodovar’s All About My Mother (1999). But really Vestida De Azul is not about cinematic influence. It’s about survival, and the daily tribulations that trans women face to realise their ambitions and dreams in the city. Differing from Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning(1990), Giménez-Rico’s film is less intrusive, it feels like the women of Vestida De Azul are collaborators in the film’s content; they are talented storytellers in their own right, and the film is really their film: they confess, accost, recollect, perform, gossip, determining how they wish to be seen and what they wish to tell. There are moments where the film even feels like an extension of their self-creating will power.
Discussions range from being queer in Spain, trying to make a living, trying to maintain devoutness with defiance, and critiquing the misogyny that stifles queerness. After all, one woman notes that a fag is treated better than a travesti, a term of trans-femininity in Latin American culture. While initially being regarded as a transphobic slur, non-binary people living in Spain have come to identify as travestis, seeing it as a place outside of male/female categorisation. As Argentine travesti activist Lohana Berkins explains, ‘This is the term in which we recognize ourselves and that we choose to construct ourselves as subjects of rights […] We decided to give new meanings to the word travesti and link it with struggle, resistance, dignity and happiness.’
In a number of scenes, the women get ready in their bedrooms, bathrooms, doing make up one minute and then mundane kitchen chores in the next. In domestic spaces, embodiment seems most accessible, most comfortable. The other alternative seems to be the club, where some women are allowed to flourish as artists. Many other queer documentaries focus on a similar dichotomy of spaces (private/public), but it’s especially clever how the director punctuates this film with scenes set in the empty Palacio de Cristal. Here, the women debate issues of queerness, regale stories from the night, chit-chat, bicker, throw shade, fall apart, come together. These scenes have something of George Cukor’s The Women (1939) about them, the way we get lost in the fluidity of conversation. The Palacio de Cristal is nothing short of camp, with its high ceilings, dainty furniture, and large glass windows. It’s almost surreal, like a dream sequence; these women having the entire place to themselves as it becomes both private and public space, an empty palace with total transparency - literally, every wall is a window.
Perhaps cinema is the dream? The way film acts as a private/public-shattering space. Earlier, I said that Vestida De Azul is not about cinema, but it’s not oblivious to its own medium either. The face of Marilyn Monroe haunts many rooms in the film like some wish fulfilment of womanhood, a self-created woman (Marilyn was born Norma Jean Baker), a dream becoming reality. ‘Love is nice for a good woman’ we’re told, but for travestis it’s increasingly difficult. Marilyn’s face appears like an icon of hope, of cinematic transformation amid the face of reality’s hardships. And Vestida De Azul is, if anything, a film full of hope, aspirations for social renewal and transformation.
The film maintains a low-key cinéma-vérité style, blending documentary with dramatised elements; but its strength really resides in the potency of its interviews, which adds a melodramatic gravity that no amount of fiction could compete with. Perhaps melodrama seems a little too stylised for a documentary, but the genre has thrived under Spanish art and Vestida De Azul embraces melodrama, it brings it into its mode of expression. When characters finally try to reconcile with family and old friends, then scores swell and sad strings peak as emotion becomes something of an environment, as is the case in most melodrama. Perhaps what’s so striking about the film is the way its style shifts between fly-on-the-wall docudrama and Spanish soap. Rather than feeling like an imposition on behalf of the director, this comes across like a tribute to the emotional strength of trans perseverance; it doesn’t derail the real in favour of the cinematic, it locates the cinematic power within real life.
I am also astounded that Vestida De Azul has only just been made accessible to an English speaking audience. Having now found it, the film seems like an invaluable piece of history, a generous artefact. It makes one realise how precarious queer history really is, how much more there is to rescue. On the 12th February, earlier this year, Antonio Giménez-Rico passed away. There is some consolation knowing that seven months after he died, Vestida De Azul has been brought back to life.
Written by Alex Matraxia
Writer and Filmmaker