Venice 2022 review: Casa Susanna (Sébastien Lifshitz)

“As the world starts turning indifferent to trans people’s sufferings once again, a documentary like this is not simply a film. It’s fundamentally important, because it’s part of a survival struggle.”

The early moments of Casa Susanna are accompanied by an instrumental version of George & Ira Gershwin’s “But Not for Me”. “They’re writing songs of love, but not for me…” This prepares us for the romantic tone which will follow throughout the film. The recipient of this year’s Queer Lion Lifetime Achievement Award, Sébastien Lifshitz, welcomes us to a world of trans women once again, after Wild Side, Bambi and Petite fille. It’s a time when many civil rights, either of cis women or trans ones, are facing serious setbacks with a new conservative wave rising throughout the world. That’s why it’s as important as ever to tell the real-life challenges trans women had to endure at any point in history.

Those challenges always gave way to a strong sense of solidarity. Casa Susanna introduces us to a house in the Catskills in New York State which hosted many crossdressers and trans women during the ‘50s and ‘60s. Of course the world is more familiar now with this concept of houses within the LGBTQ+ community, since TV shows like Pose described how strong and relatively well-situated trans figures always had their doors open to others in need and became mother figures for so many in their communities. The fact that the trans experience is more or less similar anywhere in the world points to an almost instinctive muscle of survival.

When we’re introduced to Diane and Kate, who met at Casa Susanna sixty years ago, and listen to their journey about how they first realized they weren’t alone in this world, it rings so true. Let me open a parenthesis here and tell you a bit about a documented trans experience in Turkey, during the late ‘70s and ‘80s. Many trans women were fleeing their family homes and homelands to make it in Istanbul back then, possibly the only city where they could find some shelter and friends. They talk about how, while growing up, they all had the feeling of being alone in the world, one of their kind, until they first heard about Bülent Ersoy, the most famous singer who had had her sex reassignment surgery very publicly, followed daily by newspapers in every step of the process. Once you hear about someone like yourself in the media, like Christine Jorgensen in the case of Diane and Kate’s generation, as shown in the film, everything changes. You know you’re not the only one, you know it’s OK to be who you are. And that gives you hope.

So, that’s how important Casa Susanna is in a nutshell. How vital telling the stories of all the Dianes, Kates and Susannas is. ‘Cause as they express openly here, there comes a time for many trans people when you have to make a tough choice. That choice is whether you can adapt to the world, act ‘normal’ by their standards, or just commit suicide. That may be the only choice you’re given. And it’s so easy for others who’ve never even had to consider that choice in life. As the world starts turning indifferent to trans people’s sufferings once again, a documentary like this is not simply a film. It’s fundamentally important, because it’s part of a survival struggle.

It’s clear that Lifshitz got to work with just a few of these survivors here, probably the only witnesses of Casa Susanna who are still alive. On the surface, them not being so edgy characters, may make it seem like the film tries to portray an acceptable trans image, easily likeable. The romantic tone may also reinforce that feeling. Casa Susanna doesn’t deal with strong-by-their-nature conflicts or ‘important’ discussions as Petite fille did, to be honest. But Lifshitz, in both of his recent films, acts only as a storyteller of the human condition, or even a mere witness like us, and doesn’t really try to force feed anyone with big words or slogans. He just wants us to get to know these people. They’re people. Vulnerable, yet strong-willed to be who they truly are. To witness how they held on to each other in the hardest of times, how they still do because it’s definitely an ongoing struggle, a film which makes us a part of that can go a long way. Personally, as not only a critic but also a filmmaker who’s trying to tell a slice of my country’s trans history in the near future (if political climate allows), this gets my deepest respect.