Sidney And Friends

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Sidney And Friends
"Technically impressive given the conditions in which some of it is filmed, Sidney And Friends is a powerful piece of filmmaking exploring the human impact of prejudice and simple ignorance."

After being selected for this year's Cannes Film Festival, Wanuri Kahiu's Friend drew worldwide attention to the experiences of people with same sex attractions in Kenya. But how well does its portrait of homophobic prejudice reflect the reality of life in the East African nation, and what does all this mean for trans and intersex people, who are popularly thought of as the same? Tristan Aitchison's documentary is a timely exploration of these issues. It gives some of the country's most disadvantaged citizens the opportunity to tell their own stories.

Central to this is Sydney, an intersex person whom Aitchison met by accident and who introduced him to others in similar situations. Raised as a girl, Sidney simply failed to develop in the expected way, either psychologically or physically. Discovering an attraction to women led to parental rejection, forcing Sidney to leave home early and try to survive alone, which is all the more difficult in a country that places a heavy emphasis on family and community as systems of social and economic support. Furthermore, the difficulty of having an ID card marked female but looking male made it impossible to get a legitimate job. It wasn't until a doctor shouted out, in public, "We've got a Caster Semenya here!" that Sidney even had a word for that difference.

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Alongside Sidney's story are those of trans people facing similar difficulties. Ben was rejected by parents who saw him as a lesbian after a childhood desire to play with boys ans do boys' work gave way to the desire to wear male-coded clothing full time and change his name - now he, too, is assumed to be using false ID when necessity forces him to try to pass as female. Martina has the opposite problem, with nobody willing to take her male ID seriously. She has a natural, delicate glamour and would probably have an easy life in a Western country but struggles to get by in her homeland. Like many beautiful young women trapped by poverty, she dreams of a man sweeping her off her feet and solving everything, but keeps falling in love with the wrong guys without knowing when or how to discuss her bodily difference.

These and other stories illustrate the profound difficulties that many trans and intersex people face, many of them simply a product of unyielding bureaucracy. Ben dreams of having surgery like trans men in the West do but, when living hand to mouth, it's a difficult dream to realise. They are culturally specific issues here, such as the belief that being trans is caused by demons and can be changed through exorcism (something that does happen elsewhere but in different forms), but many are universal. Sexually abusive pastors are sadly not a rare phenomenon, with desperate young people making easy prey. Childhood memories of confusion when classes were ordered to split into boy and girl groups, with teachers displaying unanticipated hostility, will strike a chord with trans people everywhere.

Technically impressive given the conditions in which some of it is filmed, Sidney And Friends is a powerful piece of filmmaking exploring the human impact of prejudice and simple ignorance. It's also a portrait of a situation on the brink of change, because there is now a significant effort underway to educate on these issues in Kenya, partly thanks to one of this film's subjects. This isn't the story of people in need of rescue so much as it's the story of people working out how to help themselves - people from whom there is a lot to be learned.

Reviewed on: 08 Dec 2018
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Scottish filmmaker Tristan Aitchison visited Kenya in 2013. A chance meeting with an activist revealed an underground network of intersex and trans people that wanted their voices heard.

Director: Tristan Aitchison

Starring: Awuor Onyango, Charles Ouda, Michael Daviot

Year: 2017

Runtime: 75 minutes

Country: UK, Kenya

Festivals:

Flare 2018
Sqiff 2018

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