New Welsh Review

Donna

Jay Bedwani (director), Dewi Gregory (producer)

Jemma L King is impressed by this irrepressible picture starring an older Trans heroine, witness to an original milestone in LGBTQ history, the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot, predating the 1969 NYC Stonewall riots

PUBLISHED ON: 28/07/22

CATEGORY: Reviews

TAGS: LGBTQ, San Francisco, Trans, USA, Wales, activism, ageing, conflict, diverse, film, historical, identity, international, political

PUBLISHER: Truth Department (production), Bohemia Media (distribution)

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It’s been a while since Wales has had an international hit, film-wise, but hopefully, all that is set to change over the next few months with two brand new projects supported by Made in Wales and Film Hub Wales.

Both agencies have taken deliberate strides into international territories to find original narratives to get us back on the global stage. Both also focus on transgender-led narratives, signalling a firm ambition to centre Wales as doyen and cultural influencer.

Donna (directed by Jay Bedwani) and Being Hijira (directed by Ila Mehrotra) are debut features from directors with roots in Wales that tell international Trans-led stories, at a pivotal time for transgender communities.

Explaining the decision to tell two Trans stories, Radha Patel, Made in Wales Officer at Film Hub Wales, writes, ‘These documentaries mark an important cultural milestone. Filmmakers are often told that there is only room for “one marginalised story” at a time. By breaking this trend, Welsh cinema sends an important message to Trans people, particularly young Trans people, affirming their identities and their right to self-determination.’

The first of these films to be released takes us to coastal California where my travel-starved (of late) eyes enjoy the old-ye trams and staircased housing stacking up the sharp hillsides, over which clouds roll down the hills right to San Francisco Bay. And just as the clouds are inevitably drawn to that great bight, so once was our heroine Donna Personna.

‘1950s suburbia but was no place for a sissy like me,’ Donna Personna tells us of her decision to bust out of the straightjacket of her Mexican, Christian upbringing in Dullsville, Nowhereland. Starting life as ‘Gustavo’, her parents knew that there was something different about their boy. ‘We had chickens in the backyard,’ she tells us, ‘and from time to time, we’d kill them and even my sisters could chop the head off but not me… that’s how my mother knew.’

Cue the first greyhound bus available to Frisco!

The nightlife is everything you’d expect, and Bedwani’s camera trains itself on the obligatory glitz and glamour backstage at the drag club. Eccentric Ziggy Stardusty makeup, budgie smugglers festooned with Christmas lights, it’s all here. And amongst the multicolour chaos emerges contemporary Donna, a latino Shirley Bassey in floor-length gold sequins, lip-synching to the empty calories of some emotionally wrought pop ballad.

But it ain’t all handbags and glad rags. Once we’ve come down from the sugar high of the club, the morning after (in perpetuity) sets in. Donna is in her seventies and still figuring out what she’s all about.

We follow her as she undertakes mundane activities such as getting her hearing aid fitted, visiting the food bank and confronting her loneliness. Her siblings have had families, and their families have had families, and in her twilight years, this weighs heavily on Donna’s mind.

There is a material poverty scribed into every frame (the breeze-block furniture of Donna’s apartment for example) but the pay-off for this, the bargain, is that Donna gets to live every night as a Vaudeville queen, surrounded by strong men and colourful Transwomen.

And as difficult as Donna’s life clearly is on a fiscal level, it’s much more liberated than it used to be – not just for Donna but for the wider Trans community – and she played a huge part in making that happen.

The Compton’s Cafeteria riot, an important footnote in LGBTQ history, marked the first act of organised violence against Trans oppression. The riot was a response to the violent and constant police harassment of drag queens and Trans women. The incident was one of the first LGBT-related riots in United States history, preceding the more famous 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City.

Not only was Donna there, one of the stilettoed change-makers, but she has also recently played a pivotal role in bringing the event to life again in an incredibly immersive theatrical event filmed by Bedwani.

Donna worked with playwright Mark Nassar to capture the moment the relationship with the police boiled over with a cup of molten coffee to the face and an immediate explosion of violence from both sides. This now plays out over and over to theatre goers who sit in the cafe itself (a mock-up of a 1950s diner) as customers and horrified spectators. Truly brilliant.

Donna tells us that even when she’s ‘pushing up daisies’ that she hopes people will still be watching, and I’m sure they will. Not only can they book tickets to become first-hand witnesses to the riot, but audiences will also be finding Donna for decades via the intimacy of Bedwani’s cinematography.

Donna is currently showing at cinemas up and down the country and will shortly be followed by Being Hijra, from west Wales based director, Ila Mehrotra (Spring Films). Being Hijira is described as ‘a deeply personal, emotionally charged journey filmed over six years, which chronicles the pain and pride of Rudrani Chettri and the transgender community of New Delhi as they set about creating India’s first transgender model agency.’

And if all this is right up your street, you can also look forward to the ‘TLC’ for Trans-led/Trans-loved Cinema series of special events later in the year.

Donna is first out of the gates as an irrepressible story of a life that needed to be lived, framed by the famous scarlet arches of the Golden Gate Bridge. An apt symbol, such an egress and invitation to the big blue beyond. Appropriate for Donna herself but also for Welsh cinema’s bold and daring vision.

Watch out world, we’re coming!

 

Jemma L King’s latest poetry collection is The Undressed from Parthian.

Where To Watch Donna 

Chapter Arts Centre: From 15July onwards
Torch Theatre, Milford Haven: Saturday 23July
Kinokulture Supernova, Oswestry: Wednesday 17 August (part of their Summer of Queer Cinema programme)
Aberystwyth Arts Centre: Monday 1 August and Wednesday 3August

Made in Wales’ film catalogue of shorts and features includes over 600 items with Welsh connections. Donna is directed by Jay Bedwani, produced by Dewi Gregory for Truth Department productions, supported by Made in Wales and funded by Ffilm Cymru Wales and Wales Arts International, as well as Creative Wales (on behalf of the Welsh Government).