Orlando, My Political Biography


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Orlando, My Political Biography
"Capturing the experience of living in a world where one’s gender doesn’t fit better than almost any other film to date, Preciado’s work is all about claiming space and present day narrative."

Filmmaker Paul B Preciado doesn’t need to write down his story, he tells us at the start of this experimental docudrama, because Virginia Woolf has already done that. The claiming of Woolf’s text by numerous trans, non-binary and genderqueer people reflects the power of a narrative which the author herself explored in spite of social restraints and linguistic limitations, but it also reflects something else that is perhaps not obvious to cis people watching the film, and that’s the fact that many trans lives past and present have been expressed only through fiction because it is so difficult to exist in the real world.

Capturing the experience of living in a world where one’s gender doesn’t fit better than almost any other film to date, Preciado’s work is all about claiming space and present day narrative. It makes no apologies and no effort to cater to cis viewers; rather, it simply tells it like it is, in a way that others with similar experiences will immediately relate to. Without the familiar lipstick application shots and the myth of being in the wrong body, many outsiders will find themselves lost, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. A good documentary should draw you in regardless. Preciado invites these viewers into another world, giving them intimate access to insiders’ views, and for those who make the effort, his film will resolve many mysteries previously muddled in translation.

Copy picture

That focus on views, rather than just one person’s opinion, is important. There is more than one way to be gender incongruent: there are many Orlandos, both in the world at large and in this film. The Orlando story gives identity to a malleable body and that body might be inhabited by anyone who shares some fragment of this experience. Through it, a variety of people tell their stories, and topics familiar to many are addressed in short fictional segments: the use of puberty blockers and hormones; going in for surgery; facing discrimination; enduring, again and again, other people’s prurient interest. Having to live with a body which, like that of a fictional icon, is perceived as public property.

Interwoven with this are readings and reenactments from key sections of Woolf’s book, creating opportunities for dressing in fabulous clothes, yet often intersecting with a present day context. Key moments in trans history find their way into the tapestry, a timely reminder that none of this is new. Preciado blends documentary with comedy, drama, polemicism and musical numbers, creating a film with a very queer sensibility but doing so with unusual confidence, with a majority-style sense of entitlement which has enabled it to move beyond the margins and, ultimately, win a cinema release.

Like most experimental works, it doesn’t get everything right. Some scenes are too aggressively artsy to work; sometimes the tone of adjacent segments jars. Nevertheless, it’s a bravura piece of filmmaking which really pays off. in a world which continually medicalises, sexualises and exoticises trans people, this is a view from the other side, and an illustration of how a single work of literature can have a profoundly liberatory effect.

Orlando, My Political Biography is in UK and Irish cinemas from 5 July

Reviewed on: 19 Apr 2024
Share this with others on...
Orlando, My Political Biography packshot
Docufiction interpretation of Virginia Woolf's novel.

Director: Paul B Preciado

Writer: Paul B Preciado

Starring: Paul B Preciado

Year: 2023

Runtime: 98 minutes

Country: France

Search database:

If you like this, try:

The Hours