Always Amber


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Always Amber
"Conversations about internal and external experiences of gender provide structure, but there's much more to Amber as a person." | Photo: Courtesy of Newfest

When filming on this documentary began, Amber Mastracci thought it was going to be about them and their best friend Sebastian. The two had been inseparable, growing up and going through school together, sharing everything. Amber thought of him as a brother. But when they finally found something that they couldn't bear to share, the relationship fell apart; so when we first meet Amber they are rudderless, acutely lonely despite the presence of other friends, facing difficult decisions without that important source of support.

The documentary is framed by Amber's visits to the psychiatrist who will decide whether or not they have gender dysphoria and qualify for a mastectomy. Conversations about internal and external experiences of gender provide structure, but there's much more to Amber as a person. At the same time as working out how best to express their identity as a non-binary person, they're dealing with the social whirlpool of teenage life and looking for love. The simplicity of high school, when everybody is going in the same direction, is giving way to a world full of competing concerns in which it's no longer always possible to put friendship first.

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As we are told at the start, over footage of feet and pavement, Amber has been given a camera on which to record their own footage for the film.Whilst this means that some of the material is of dubious quality, it means we travel with them into all kinds of intimate spaces, from teenage parties to the family home in which they talk about the past, growing up, the loss of their much-loved dad to illness. The use of old family snapshots makes it clear that Amber is somebody with a consistent sense of self, helping to dispel the myth that all trans people are trying to adopt new identities and escape old ones. The parties present a collection of young people completely at ease with variations of gender, sexuality and self-expression which routinely led to torment and self-hatred in the previous generation.

Is surgery right for Amber? That's a more open question than you might expect. There's no sense of peer pressure in either direction and all their mother wants is for them to be happy and safe. What matters most to Amber is to be respected for who they are, and to have options. There's some discussion of how such surgery works; not mentioned is the fact that Amber is lucky to have a body shape that simplifies it considerably. We learn a little about how the referral process works in Sweden, and trans viewers elsewhere may well be envious of how simple it all seems.

In such an accepting space it's easy to be very open, and Amber gives the impression of holding little back. With coming of age stories usually framed by older adults, this is a rare opportunity for viewers to immerse themselves in the hidden landscapes of youth. If some of this - such as the idea of teenagers using Tinder - might provoke worry, overall the effect is to remind us of how competent and capable they can be.

Screening as part of Newfest 2020, this film makes a valuable contribution to intergenerational conversations about identity and the boundaries if the self.

Reviewed on: 26 Oct 2020
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Always Amber packshot
Documentary about youngsters with fluid identities.

Director: Hannah Reinikainen Bergeman, Lia Hietala

Writer: Lia Hietala

Year: 2020

Runtime: 74 minutes

Country: Sweden


BIFF 2020
Newfest 2020

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