Home Interviews Karlovy Vary Proxima Competition: Trans Memoria by Victoria Verseau

Karlovy Vary Proxima Competition: Trans Memoria by Victoria Verseau

Trans Memoria by Victoria Verseau

“I collect. I document. I write down my memories. I’m afraid they will disappear,” director/artist Victoria Verseau says at beginning of her highly person, at times painfully graphic, reappraisal of her transition experience in Thailand, in 2012.

Transition or “gender confirmation therapy” was undertaken at the same time by Verseau’s friend Meril, from France, who died three years later, but whose existence seems to have been expunged from history. Meril’s FaceBook page was taken down by her parents, and there is no record of any burial or cremation. Verseau therefore embarks on an odyssey through her own memories of Meril, as well as a physical search for evidence of the life lived by her friend before and after her transition. 

“Meril’s fragmented story remains a consistent presence, her absence felt throughout. This film is a grieving process, a way to get closer to my memory of [her],” says Verseau.

In the essay documentary selected for Karlovy Vary Proxima Competition, the Swedish director also follows two protagonists who are undertaking their own transition to woman status, Aamina and Athena, the latter playing an increasingly vocal and influential role in how the film subsequently develops, but also acting as critic, counsellor and confidante to Verseau herself.

Punctuating Verseau’s existential analysis is difficult-to-watch post-op footage of her from 2012, exhausted and under anaesthetic, describing the physical and psychological pain of amputation. We see blood and catheters and are given graphic descriptions of how she must protect and maintain the newly created vaginal canal via the daily (and invasive) process of dilation. 

All the time, the spectre of Meril is present, but Verseau is careful not to show or reveal too much about her. After all, a film about transitioning was never a thing she had ever the opportunity to ask Meril about, let alone use her image.

“She’s passed away. Of course I would’ve liked to ask her first, but [there was] also a kind of respect for the parents because this film is not made to provoke. That’s not the intention,” Verseau tells BDE. 

“We actually went to Thailand to try to make it a fiction film about me and Meril with Athena and Aamina, who [were] both in the beginning of their transition, and they were cast to play us,” she further informs. “But then I felt the film sort of lived a life on its own, and Aamina and Athena’s stories really wanted to be told as well, so then it transformed more into this documentary about them. ‘Me and Meril’ is also there, but less than from the first plan.”

At one point in the film, the director is upbraided by Athena, for whom the project seems increasingly devoid of hope. “It’s negative,” says Athena. “We need both darkness and light.”

The struggle for Verseau to become the woman she had always dreamed of being had, as she says in her notes, become an essential part of her identity. But instead of experiencing a sense of resolution after the surgery, “strangely enough I felt a great emptiness after my innermost dream was fulfilled,” she says. “Post-transition I didn’t need to fight the same way as before, I had reached my goal and I started wondering who I was without that struggle.”

“Of course, it’s a sadness that it didn’t turn out as it should have,” Verseau tells BDE. “This is, of course, very individual – different people, different bodies – because now Aamina and Athena have gone through that transition. In the beginning when we started filming, they were at the beginning of it and they had a much, much better result than I did. So it’s a sadness. But also a couple of years ago, I stopped doing this dilation exercise and I felt that my life became so much better. And one very important thing to say, that’s also in the film, is that I really don’t regret the surgery or anything. I’m very, very happy and I think I would’ve died if I didn’t do it.”

Unlike Meril, Verseau’s parents were eventually very supportive of her. “If you don’t have the support, it becomes much, much more difficult. And the suicide rate is very, very high among trans people. But I had the support from my family, which made me be in a totally different situation than Meril. And I think it is sort of crucial to be able to handle this because it’s one of the most difficult things I’ve been through. I think, for anyone, it would be a very, very tough thing to go through.”

Inevitably, audiences are likely to focus on the film’s controversial subject, which is as personal as it is political, particularly within a Sweden that has a “very strong” and reactionary right-wing movement, Verseau says. But she is hopeful that they will also appreciate the film’s artistry. “In the film’s world, realism intersects with this more evocative atmosphere. The glaring sunlight and heat of the day contrast with the deep darkness and neon lights of the night. Meticulously framed cinematic tableaus are juxtaposed with shaky, low-quality digital footage,” she says.

She admits that the process of making the film over the past eight years “saved” her and seemed to provide her sole sense of “meaning.” But on the other hand the business of completing it came close to making her “cave under,” she adds.

“So I have given birth now [to the film] and I’m just breathing and trying to go with that and see where it leads me. I’m a little bit confused, I think, after eight years of hard work. But it was also very necessary to be able to move on in life, I think, to finally finish this film,” she says.

Of course, the film’s subject is “fundamental” to her identity, and therefore one to which she will return within future artistic works. She offers a corrective however. “I think this is not only a film about trans women and the trans experience, but also a very existential journey of things that a lot of people can relate to. The longing for love, who am I and who do I want to become? What happens when your innermost dream is fulfilled and what’s beyond the dream?”