Karlovy Vary 2024 review: Trans Memoria (Victoria Verseau)

“A deeply personal document that sets out to offer a more thorough view of the trans experience, without ever promoting itself as definitive in any way.”

There is a moment in Trans Memoria where one of the subjects discusses their imminent gender transition, and simply states that the effort it takes to undergo such a major change will make their biggest dream come true. I’d suspect that this is a common sentiment shared by many transgender individuals, who yearn for the sensation of euphoria that comes with gender-affirming treatment, which includes surgery in many cases. Victoria Verseau has been exploring gender as a performance artist and filmmaker for over a decade, and she chose this film (her feature-length debut) to turn the camera on herself and explore her own journey transitioning into a woman. This first started with a voyage to Thailand to undergo a series of surgical procedures, which she painstakingly documented at the time. In Trans Memoria, she returns to this unnamed city, accompanied by two trans women who now are in the position she was in over a decade ago, taking up residence in an ersatz hotel where they patiently wait for the procedure that will hopefully be a major step forward on their continued gender-based journey.  A deeply personal document that sets out to offer a more thorough view of the trans experience, without ever promoting itself as definitive in any way, Trans Memoria is a powerful and challenging film that peers behind the curtain of contemporary queer discourse in an effort to unearth some truths that may be uncomfortable but are nonetheless important to understand the journey these women take in order to live as authentically as possible.

Verseau is clearly fascinated by the concept of journeys, both physical and metaphorical, as they form the foundation for Trans Memoria and inform many of its underlying conversations. Her simple but profound thesis statement is that gender transition is a journey, one that is filled with challenges and discomfort, and that not everyone ultimately reaches their destination. There is a tendency to view the trans experience (if we can ever refer to it in the singular, homogeneity being something that this film attempts to combat) as a linear path that leads to immediate happiness, when in reality it can be far more unwieldy and sinuous. Throughout the film the director constantly poses the same question, to both her subjects and herself: is the sense of belonging and comfort at the end of the journey worth all the pain and fear? The film doesn’t provide an answer, since it ultimately doesn’t have one to offer. These three women are all at different stages in their transition and it is made clear that they have yet to fully reach the point where the euphoria overtakes the insecurity and anxiety. The film attempts to cover insights into the social and psychological aspects of undergoing transition, as well as the medical aspect, which is something we don’t often find in similar works, and which shows the lengthy and painful journey these women have elected to undergo in order to feel more comfortable in bodies that are reconfigured to be reflective of their inner identities.

Trans Memoria is certainly not the first documentary to approach the journey of the transgender community, but it is one that does have its own unique style. Verseau is a very gifted artist, and her approach to these ideas is quite remarkable, with the film taking the form of a series of meditations from the present day, interwoven with a combination of home movies from the director’s childhood, as well as footage she shot during her first trip to Thailand to undergo her surgery. The film is best described as a set of personal video essays in which the director and her two companions ruminate on their metaphysical journeys to this point. It gives the documentary a sense of intimacy as we witness this very private voyage of self-discovery as seen through the protagonists’ eyes.  The subject matter is broached in a manner that is simple but decidedly unconventional, questioning the nature of documentary filmmaking as a whole, particularly the extent to which what is reflected on screen is actually truthful rather than carefully constructed by the director, who reworks reality to fit into a particular narrative mould. Yet, we find that these elements are useful in understanding the direction in which the film moves, particularly in how it makes use of voice-over narration (in which the director reflects on certain concepts, whether reminiscing on the past or simply discussing the world that surrounds her) as a complement to the images, which are both shocking and genuinely moving. Trans Memoria uses the human body as a discursive tool, showing it as something that is dynamic and changing and can be reformed to fit a particular intention. Some of the footage can be visceral and quite harrowing, but the honesty with which the director speaks about these ideas, as well as the willingness of her subjects to show their physical journey, lends this documentary a sense of genuine complexity and authenticity.

A documentary composed of numerous narrative threads masterfully condensed into a film that runs a little over an hour, Trans Memoria is both a deeply personal statement by the director as she looks back on the past decade since her journey started, as well as a compelling exploration of gender as seen through a few different perspectives. Her path to this point has not been easy, as seen through the film’s oscillation between the past and present, and it continues to pose obstacles to her, many of which she realizes she will never be able to entirely overcome. Yet, we find that this is where some of the most compelling ideas reside, since it only amplifies the importance of having these stories told. Explored in detail and told with the most sincere candor imaginable, Verseau’s examination of a trio of trans women and their experiences is an incredible achievement, particularly in how it focuses on the importance of not only evoking the specter of the past, but actively communicating with it in order to understand the way forward. Ultimately, the film may not offer much in terms of a definitive answer, but it does encourage those who are exploring their identity and perhaps on a journey of self-discovery to continue moving forward, since there is always hope beyond the suffering and confusion that comes with being born in the wrong body. Honest and heartfelt, and never afraid to push boundaries, Trans Memoria is an exceptionally daring and insightful film and one of the year’s great discoveries.