Berlinale 2021 review: Genderation (Monika Treut)

In 1999, German film director and cinematic provocateur Monika Treut released Gendernauts: A Journey Through Shifting Identities, a documentary in which she pieced together footage from a recent sojourn to San Francisco where she interviewed a variety of individuals from wildly different backgrounds. All of them possessed distinct personalities but were united in the fact that they didn’t fit into the preconceived categories normally associated with sexuality and gender. The concept of a ‘gendernaut’ is beautifully summarized by theorist and artist Sandy Stone, who states that they are the people who “never give up searching, they never give up adventuring, or questioning“. As one of the many transgender or non-binary individuals who form the subject of Treut’s film, Stone plays an important part in Genderation, the director’s ambitious follow-up to that revolutionary documentary. Set exactly twenty years since the release of the original, Genderation is a compelling journey back into this world, seen through the lens of a filmmaker with a profound interest in telling these stories and showing how, in the words of one of her subjects, “nature can be more inventive than culture” when it comes to forming identities and relationships with others. Not quite a sequel but rather a revisiting of ideas, this film takes places two decades later, reigniting passionate discussions around gender and individuality as well as layering on an exploration of the ways in which thinking has evolved since Treut first captured the beautiful stories of people who had been living in the shadows for far too long.

Beyond academic theories on the role gender plays in society or the philosophical discussions that are debated in every sphere of life, there are people who serve as the foundation for these conversations. These are the individuals that fascinated Treut, the ordinary people whose existences are defined by deviance from what is considered ‘normal’, and who lead lives that don’t quite compute from a strictly binary point of view. Genderation can be considered something of a family reunion, since many of the same subjects from the original film are found scattered throughout this film, the director setting out to update viewers on how far they’ve come in the last twenty years while still giving insights into the broader principles that surround them as the embodiment of non-conventional gender performance. The two films are in constant dialogue – many of the ideas present in this film have their roots in the previous documentary, but in a way that is still accessible, with Treut’s style of reiterating the major points while developing the new concepts making this incredibly approachable for newcomers. These ‘gendernauts’ that serve as the basis of the two films have grown considerably older in both appearance and their way of thinking between the documentaries. Their faces have become weathered by time and experience, showing the growing wisdom they’ve earned over the past decades – particularly in a world that continues to evolve beyond strict adherence to socially mandated standards – but they still possess the fiery passion in expressing themselves and their identities. Furthermore, the film constantly looks at the ways in which language itself has changed between 1999 and the present day. It explores the terminology and definitions relating to gender and sexuality, asking whether something can actually exist if we don’t give it a name, even if it’s something as abstract as a sensation, idea or deviance from what is considered typical.

Gender is something that we can’t ever expect to be fully and conclusively defined, by virtue of the fact that it is always changing, developing as we learn the power of self-expression. This serves as the foundation on which Genderation is built, which functions as an opportunity to give voice to the people who exist on the margins of the status quo, elevating their stories and giving them the chance to make their imprint on modern culture in a social landscape growing increasingly more tolerant to the issues that Treut and her subjects are attempting to extensively explore. Telling the stories of a variety of residents of San Francisco was an appropriate starting point, since the film also functions as a portrait of a city in flux. Returning to the place where one of Treut’s subjects boldly states that “the earth is moving” in relation to the immensely progressive nature of the city’s culture, the director looks into the radically changing face of a city known for its shifting identities, both of its residents and the region itself. Using the city, which is often considered a haven for those who don’t meet the standards of identity, as a backdrop to a tapestry of transgender lives allows the film to grow into a wonderful celebration of individuality in a time when many more of these people are feeling comfortable enough to emerge from the shadows and tell their stories on their own terms. Throughout the film we see a flock of individuals who have aged comfortably into their identity and are now intent on spreading their experiences and giving a voice to those who need it, continuously pushing the boundaries of what gender represents and sharing the most intimate details of their journeys to this particular moment.

Treut has always been someone who not only bends the rules, but also shatters them entirely and rebuilds them again, only from her own perspective and refusing to let them be dictated by any meta-narrative of culture or identity. Throughout Genderation she undertakes the challenge of revisiting a variety of old themes in an effort to repurpose them for an entirely new generation. An intimate and revealing but also frequently funny look into the lives of people who are navigating a world seemingly designed to give them insurmountable obstacles – but as we learn through their individual stories, tenacity is a more powerful tool than any socially constructed hindrances. Genderation is a beautiful exploration of gender identity told entirely through the perspective of the older generation, the pioneers of a movement that continues to grow exponentially today. An absolutely essential work that uses a deft blend of pathos and humor to convey the most deep and meaningful messages of independence from conventions, Treut’s film is a steadfast celebration of extraordinary lives. In terms of structural form there may not be anything immediately complex about this film, but rather through engaging directly with her subjects with an insatiable curiosity and candor that drives most of the discussions, the iconoclastic filmmaker was able to construct an intimate portrayal of shifting identities. She is constantly asking questions and provoking ideas about the ways in which we tell our own stories, through methods that both give insights into the journey of those who are struggling to move past the concept of the binary, and celebrate the fierce individuality of those who are living their most authentic lives.

Genderation (Monika Treut)