Film review: Sediments

I’m not even sure how I made it through the trailer to be honest.

A group of Spanish trans women go on a road trip and share openly about their life experiences in this warm and honest documentary.

Magdalena has decided that she wants to return to her hometown of León to celebrate her birthday and invites some members of the Barcelona collective I-Vaginarium to join her. As they traverse the Spanish countryside, the group – including group leader Tina, brutally honest former sex-worker Yolanda and the more conservative and quiet Cristina – begin to open up to one another, sharing their stories. In Sediments, director Adrián Silvestre allows his subjects to be their authentic selves onscreen. There are dance parties, drugs, arguments, flirtatious brunches and birthday celebrations. But at the heart of this film lies an honest portrayal of the varied lived experiences of trans women that, sadly, still feels so rare in cinema.

Blurb from BFI – shown as part of the London Film Festival

Interview with the director

No London Film Festival is complete these days without a documentary about the most oppressed minority in the world, and the year of 2021 is no different. In the short interview with the director of the film, Adrián Silvestre, whose other documentaries all concern the lives of immigrant women, we were told how the project developed.

After Silvestre moved to Barcelona to live he contacted a group which provides vaginoplasty advice to interested men – it is call I-Vaginarium (its symbol a suggestive V, while little butterflies mob the I) – and asked if he could do a film with them. He wanted to set the film far away from the city, and put his subjects in a ‘natural symbolic environment’.

The woman from the BFI commented that we are using to seeing trans-identified men in the city. She wanted to know was it on purpose that there was such a diverse range of ages and experiences in the group of six? Originally Silvestre had started with a group of over 30 men, all attached to I-Vaginarium, but over time this was whittled down. He wanted them to forget the camera was there. He deliberately did not include a soundtrack. He told us he’d used lots of tricks to make it seem as if the conversations all happened in the same timeline. He’d had to remind the men that they looked good on screen (indeed the shots are very complimentary, except for Cristina’s who is shown constantly struggling with wigs). The relationship between subjects and director was easy. Magdalena’s family was contacted in advance and agreed to the documentary – just watch the trailer to see how painfully staged it all is.

The BFI woman told Silvestre, and by extension the audience of the film, that in Britain there was ‘horrific transphobia which has been normalised, particularly in our media,’ without a shred of irony, and wanted to know if he had a message for UK audiences? Silvestre clearly isn’t aware that Britain is Terf Island 🦕 🦖 and mumbled in response that it was a film about empowerment and that this was his political contribution.

The arrival

The first scene is the group on the motorway making their way to Magdalena’s village. They stop at a service station for a comfort break – allowing for a scene in the ladies naturally – and arrive in the dark. Shots of them in the car, looking mournfully out of rain-beaten windows, perfectly conjure up the tedium of car journeys with strangers.

We are introduced to the ‘characters’ – Tina, the ‘trans mum’ and founder and director of the trans activist group I-Vaginarium. Cristina, the outlier and shortest trans-identified man we have ever seen. Alicia is young and beautiful and got bullied at school and university, Madgalena, another 20-something and in a relationship with Alicia (or perhaps pretend to be) was a biology student and transitioned in the 3rd year of his degree. Saya, who is in constant preen mode and an aspiring medium. And Yolanda, the ex-prostitute, who very much dominates the group dynamic. Basically it’s the Breakfast Club, but with oestrogen patches.

Egoism is keeping your penis and balls

Silvestre has a script credit and it is difficult to know how much of what we see is a set-up. The first moment of tension comes when Cristina, the small one and the only one of the men who has apparently not yet had a vaginoplasty, describes his arrival at understanding himself to be trans. He explains that from the age of 11 he used to wear his mother clothes and masturbate. Yolanda walks out during the telling of his story in disgust. He is then berated by the others for being an ‘egomaniac’ and told his story is not unique.

Cristina’s egoism is a running theme but I have no doubt that his confusion and hurt in response to the bullying he is subjected to is real. Constant pressure is put on him to explain his reluctance to proceed with full castration and have a vaginoplasty. The 54 year old explains that he is prone to depression and if the surgery had a bad result he intuitively knows that it will be very bad for him. Such logic clearly antagonises the others.

In another scene Tina confronts Cristina about his lack of interest in feminism. Cristina maintains that he doesn’t like feminism because he feels that all men are deemed sexist. When Tina tells him he has to consider vaginoplasty from a ‘gender equality perspective,’ Cristina wavers and assures him that he is seriously considering it.

The nastiest bit comes when Yolanda tips a drink into Cristina’s face. Tina turns up to play ‘mummy’, but is really there to pour fat on the fire. Poor Cristina has been humiliated yet again on camera, not only in front the group this time, but Magdalena’s extended family.

Candid camera

The other tacky element of the film is the candid camera, where unsuspecting men are chatted up (though it’s questionable how unsuspecting they really are, given the other obvious confections). A bread delivery man, who has to face Tina’s wily charms, explains that he is due to be married so can’t really. (A few seconds earlier we are treated to a flash of Tina’s fanny, so the man gets off lightly in comparison.)

Yolanda is the only one we learn anything about

Yolanda, who lost his parents in early in life, sounds like he had been forced into prostitution and ended up anaesthetising himself with hard drugs and drink, as so many do. He jokes about his time on streets and regales how he beat a man over the head with a stiletto shoe which stuck into the john’s head. He also notes that buyers wanted to sleep with men who had fake breasts and penises, not men with vaginoplasties. He has had throat cancer and is left with a visible tube in his thorax, his voice just a croak. Now he regards other men like himself as ‘family’ and they need to stick together.

In a revealing moment Yolanda taunts an angry dog, perhaps ignorant of the fact he is causing the animal distress, as is the director, who I am assuming did not include it to cast Yolanda in a bad light, but rather believes it to be a cute moment. It kind of sums up how slim Silvestre’s grasp is on his subjects, the issues surrounding forced sterilisation and his overall understanding of human behaviour.

Discussing SRS surgery over lunch

Purely for the benefit of the audience, since everyone around the table would be aware, a graphic description of vaginoplasty surgery is given. The general consensus is that Thailand is the best place for surgery due to cost and because it is ‘safe’, but Magdalena tells us he chose to have it done privately in Spain so that he had the support of his family. Tina tells us that I-Vaginarium is fighting to have vaginoplasty surgery funded by public money in Spain and also wants gynaecologists to provide post-op care.

Simone De Beauvoir is misquoted

In another clearly set up scene, the group have a philosophical discussion and it turns out there is no consensus on what ‘being trans’ means, not that they articulate their thoughts anywhere near as clearly as that.

Another group discussion which debased my intellect was listening to them reveal the things they’ve ‘never done’ (i.e. the things that they have done or want you to think they’ve done). These were mainly sexual and things which hadn’t crossed my mind until they mentioned them, so thanks for the images.

Not warm and honest

From a technical point of view of filmmaking it is quite good. Well framed shots of landscape and people looking wistfully away can elevate anything. There is also a funny moment after they have had a drunken evening together when it cuts to them the following morning in the van, hungover, sunglasses on. But as for portrayal of real people, it is sadly lacking any truth but more importantly any insights, and we really learn very little about any of the men.

The viciousness towards Cristina, the man reluctant to have the snip, underpins the film and it was more nasty and cultish, than ‘warm and honest,’ as the blurb promises. I suspect that the final participants were chosen because they passed the best, and that Cristina, who didn’t pass at all and who wouldn’t submit, usefully fulfilled the role of caterpillar refusing metamorphosis.

Perhaps Dregs would be a more appropriate name for the film?

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