‘Transition’ Review: Gender and Politics Collide in Brave Documentary

It’s no secret that war reporters are often adrenaline junkies with an astronomically high risk tolerance, but Jordan Bryon takes the cake. A documentarian based in Afghanistan, Bryon was embedded with a Taliban unit after the fall of Kabul while working on a film for the New York Times. A chilling prospect for anyone, much less a white Australian “infidel,” as one source calls him.

But there’s one other little detail that puts Bryon at particular risk: He’s trans. During the risky assignment the 39-year-old journalist also filmed himself, capturing his unique situation in “Transition,” an astonishing documentary that merges the geopolitical with the personal.

As Bryon takes steps to medically transition while living in the Middle East, his relationship to gender evolves against the backdrop of a strictly gendered society. The pressure to pass becomes a life or death situation (as it is for many trans people), a struggle made starkly visible by the extreme circumstances. Amazingly, the film never sags under the weight of its dire surroundings. That seems almost entirely thanks to Bryon’s good-natured humor (he is Australian, after all) and lucid self-reflection. Unsentimental and sharply restrained, “Transition” throws focus on its unbelievable central premise, letting the remarkable story speak for itself.

The film was shot by Bryon and produced by Monica Villamizar. Both share director credit, a collaboration that seems to have maintained some neutrality while preserving the personal edge. Scenes of Bryon navigating various Taliban checkpoints and firefights are interspersed with more intimate settings, like when he gets his first testosterone injection from an underground doctor while lying prone on a conference table. He speaks not exactly to the camera but often to an invisible audience, narrating his shifting state of mind from his apartment in Kabul.

He explains his basic experience of gender dysphoria, without belaboring the point. He always felt deeply uncomfortable in his body, which he soldiered through for 39 years before finally deciding to medically transition. His high-stakes career in the Middle East seems to have distracted from his personal distress, it also provided a surprising cover of relief.

“Those things don’t follow me here. Afghanistan took me in,” he says. With his short hair and men’s apparel, Afghanis take him at face value, accepting him as a man.

Conversations with his partner Kiana Hayeri, an Iranian photojournalist, reveal Bryon is being a bit cavalier about the risks. She is deeply concerned about the Taliban placement, reminding him of the danger in anyone finding out he’s trans. “I am absolutely playing with fire going to these villages,” he admits. “It’s possible that they would kill me.”

The scenes in the village are the film’s most intense, and the respite of life in Kabul between visits comes as a relief. Accompanied by his partner and translator Teddy, the duo engage in surprisingly frank and engaging conversations. The most fascinating revelations come from one young soldier, or Talib, named Mirwais. Mirwais has a peculiar fascination with Byron, even at one point calling him “kind of beautiful.”

At certain moments, it almost seems Mirwais knows something is different about Bryon, even if he can’t quite place it. Though he sees him as an infidel, Mirwais surprises himself by how much he likes the jocular Aussie. Bryon is “open-minded” and “non-judgmental,” qualities that could just as easily be used to describe Mirwais. When one Talib teased Bryon for his paltry beard, he recalls Mirwais saying: “There’s more to being a man than having a beard. Manhood comes from within.”

Later, Bryon will travel to Tehran to get top surgery, and then home to Australia to see his mother, who is jovial and supportive. He is happy to receive a phone call from Mirwais, and teaches his mother to say “Salaam.” After they hang up, he explains that it was huge for Mirwais to even speak to his mother, as it is forbidden in Sharia law to even hear a woman’s voice. A consummate professional with a deep respect for Muslim religious beliefs and cultural mores, he worries the film will “betray them so publicly.”

“Transition” doesn’t dwell too deeply in its ambiguities. The film was executive produced by Mathew Heineman, the Oscar-nominated director of “Cartel Land.” Not only is access is paramount, but human stories are more nuanced than mainstream media can fathom. When Bryon’s sympathy for the Taliban fighters begins to borders on naive, Kiana is there to remind him that she can no longer walk down the street due to harassment. The deeply gendered society that provides liberating cover for Bryon still terrorizes women and girls. The film makes plain the experience of being caught between a rock and a hard place, a boldly incisive metaphor for the trans experience.

Grade: A-

“Transition” premiered at the 2023 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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