“I am one of your Orlandos,” boldly proclaims Paul B. Preciado in a letter he’s writing to the long-dead 20th century writer Virginia Woolf. If you slept through high school English class, Woolf may not be immediately familiar, but titles like A Room of One’s Own and Mrs. Dalloway should jog a few memories. Woolf’s sprawling, thinly-veiled love letter to her lover, Vita Sackville-West, Orlando is often regarded as her crowning achievement. Oddly, Orlando is not a popular choice among high school English teachers (at not least in the United States). Perhaps that’s because teachers don’t want to handle the transgender identity that’s fundamentally baked into the book’s narrative. Orlando lives half his life as a man and then, while he’s sleeping, he transitions to being a woman. Unsurprisingly, the book has been claimed as a trans narrative, and it provides the backbone of Preciado’s Orlando, My Political Biography, a selection of the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.
Preciado is a writer, philosopher, and trans activist, but Orlando, My Political Biography marks his first foray into the world of filmmaking. He has been asked why he’s never written a memoir or autobiography, and his answer is because Virginia Woolf already wrote the story of his life almost one hundred years ago. Orlando both is and isn’t Preciado’s story. The same goes for all of the trans people featured in the film. They’re modern-day Orlandos, vastly more different than Woolf could have fathomed when she wrote the novel.
Orlando is the jumping-off point for the documentary. The stars of the film (if you will) wear old, aristocrat-type collars around their necks and blend direct quotes from the book with honest reflections on their own trans journeys. Some of them have fully medically transitioned, some are just beginning, and some have medically transitioned to the point that feels right for them. The Orlandos of the film look nothing alike, they come from every type of background and life experience, all with different definitions about how they identify and what the trans identity means to them. One Orlando, a fifteen-year-old who had a puberty blocker as an eleven-year-old, is proud to identify as a transboy. He says that without the inclusion of “trans” in his identity, it feels like he’s not being truthful to his own experience.
Orlando, My Political Biography is not a traditional documentary. While there are moments with the Orlandos talking directly to camera about their lives, there are also completely staged moments from the book rewritten to be about the modern trans experience. Orlando from the book meeting with Queen Elizabeth is shifted to Contemporary Orlando meeting with a psychiatrist for gender-affirming care. Not even forward-thinking Woolf could imagine that her writing would inspire a psychiatrist waiting room EDM dance party to a song about being prescribed hormones.
As powerful and striking as some of the sequences of Orlando, My Political Biography are, the film can feel a little lost in the weeds. It’s not completely sold on retelling the entire story of Orlando and it’s also not entirely cemented in documenting the modern trans experience. There are poignant ruminations on masculinity that take place in a gun shop and touching reflections on falling in love, but the thread that ties all the sequences together feels more and more loose as the movie continues. Alone, the moments are compelling, but when they’re put together it becomes difficult to find the true cohesion over Woolf’s narrative. That being said, these are the critiques of someone who isn’t always captured by non-traditional, experimental works.
“Did you ever think I could live like this?” asks Preciado in his letter to Woolf. It’s a question that crosses the mind of many contemporary individuals who belong to a minority of some kind, not just the trans audience. Reality for many people isn’t perfect, but it’s better than the way it used to be. The knowledge that times are a-changing allows us to wonder if our ancestors, the people who helped us get where we are today, could have fathomed the seeds they were planting. If they knew what the world would become. Above any critique of Orlando, My Political Biography is a sense of awe for its existence—for the joy, anger, love, and pain it stands for.