‘Transition’ Review: A Trans Man Risks Discovery While Covering the Taliban in Afghanistan

How people perceive gender and react to it lies at the heart of “Transition,” Monica Villamizar and Jordan Bryon’s documentary premiering in competition at the Tribeca Film Festival. The film follows Bryon, an Australian journalist, transitioning at the same time that he’s reporting from within Afghanistan as the country falls back under Taliban rule in 2021. His dilemma intensifies as he’s ensconced with a group of hardline Taliban fighters. They only know him as a man, so he’s able to have the access and security he needs to perform his job even as others in the country are losing their rights because of their gender. With that framework, the film feels like a documentation of a timebomb situation. At any moment things might change drastically for Bryon.

By the time Kabul falls, Jordan has been living in Afghanistan for more than five years. He’s there documenting the Taliban in a series of films for The New York Times. As he explains in voiceover, gender labels didn’t follow him there and he was able to forge a new identity in this country that feels truer to himself. Bryon’s story is one of dichotomy: how he’s accepted wholeheartedly by people who in different circumstances would not accept transgender people. Bryon has to question his identity every time he’s around people. The film creates tension from situations that others wouldn’t give a moment’s thought to, like deciding which airport security line to go through: the men’s or the women’s.

Bryon’s always questioning how he feels about gender — in conversations with colleagues and friends, on the phone with his supporting mother and in interactions with his Taliban sources. The danger manifests when the Taliban discuss how they feel about queer people. Yet they also fawn over Bryon, always wanting his attention and approval. He’s accepted as one of them. When they jokingly jostle him around, the audience feels Bryon’s utmost unease and fear. The camerawork has a truly journalistic feel. It’s no surprise that Bryon himself is part of the camera crew. It’s equally intimate, loose and at a remove — questioning, chronicling but never prodding.

Eerie are the scenes documenting the Taliban taking control of the country. The camera becomes probing, inquisitive as chaos breaks out in the city. Bullets fly across as people are fleeing for their lives. The pandemonium is rendered through images of destroyed planes, low hovering helicopters, tanks roaming busy roads, flipped-over cars and belongings left behind. Blink and you’ll miss a Taliban member striking someone in the street, which instantly makes this personal story feel bigger as the ramifications become quickly apparent.

The film immediately and astutely moves to document the effect this political change has on the people of Afghanistan, particularly women. Two important figures in Bryon’s life take center stage. Kiana Hayeri, an Iranian photojournalist on her own mission within Afghanistan, punctures Bryon’s growing trust of his Taliban sources — he even uses the word “lovely” to describe them — by pointedly stating that his safety comes from being a foreigner first and a man second. She’s harassed when they think she’s local. Also suddenly in grave danger is Bryon’s colleague and friend Farzad Fetrat, who’s called Teddy. He’s from Afghanistan and more importantly has worked with the previous “infidel” government and associates with foreigners. At any moment he could lose his life for that. Both Hayeri and Fetrat contemplate leaving. On the other hand, there’s Bryon’s doctor who states that he will stay. As with Teddy and Kiana, he acts like an oasis for Bryon, someone he can be himself around without fear or danger. His strategies for adapting to the new normal mirror Bryon’s own.

“Transition” is most effective when it follows Bryon as he navigates the world as a man, whether those are scenes with the Taliban or seeing his doctor and getting his surgery. There’s also a gentleness when showing him trying to look for male identity signposts, in closeups of his face as he’s checking for facial hair and in a visit to a barber shop. Audiences are able to recognize his feelings simply from observation, especially when juxtaposed with an earlier time when Bryon presented as a woman and is shown trying on women’s clothing in a market. Less successful are moments when he directly addresses the camera, introducing a note of falseness. Documentaries are never entirely nonfiction. Sometimes they need to create an atmosphere in order to coax a true moment. It’s just that here those moments never feel as real as the rest of the film.

Although this is a personal narrative, when framed within a global seismic historical event — the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban — it inadvertently becomes smaller. More context is needed; stories about other people affected by this event might have helped. There’s nary a local queer or trans person beyond a brief glimpse of a fellow patient at Bryon’s hospital in Iran. As a story of one man’s navigation of his identity, however, “Transition” is a strong narrative. Watching this steadfast person survive in such close quarters with those most unaccepting of his situation offers remarkable insight into issues of gender expression and acceptance, which might well translate to the social strictures back home.

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