Paul Preciado is an aphorism machine, the David Bowie of contemporary philosophy. Like other contemporary thinkers (what used to be called “public intellectuals” – Andrea Long Chu, Hito Steyerl), he writes in everyday language (since 2013 he has been trotting out columns for the website of French newspaper Libération). He studied with Derrida, his PhD unwrapped the Playboy Mansion. His first book in English was called Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era (first published in Spanish 2008; an English-language version released in 2013) and it changed my life. He wove a story about race and power into the development of the birth control pill, and threaded it together with a sex memoir that recounted her (he went by Beatrice then) illegal experiments with testosterone, as if philosophy had to be written with the body. Earlier this year, he won three prizes at the Berlinale, including a Teddy Award for his first film Orlando, My Political Biography (2023). For me, it was a dream come true, my hero had made a movie.

The following interview took place on September 8, 2023 at the 48th Toronto International Film Festival. 

– MH

Orlando, My Political Biography

Mike: In the forward to your book An Apartment on Uranus (2020), Virginie Despentes noted about you: “You write for a time that has not yet arrived. You write to children who have not yet been born.” In Orlando, My Political Biography, as kids take over a TV studio, your voice-over states that you are making this film for the unborn Orlandos. Does your film begin with a science fiction that makes documentary possible?

Paul: I see it as radical realism. That’s the way reality is. Even though I have a huge archive of images that are important to me, and it was important to think about cinema as a technology of gender, I never thought I would make a film. But one reason to create a film is to make visible a hidden reality. 

Viriginia Woolf wrote Orlando: A Biography (1928) not far from the time when Frankenstein (Mary Shelley, 1818) was written, and these two books are commonly commented on together as science fiction tales. But Orlando is not science fiction, the gender transition it describes was already a social and political reality when she was writing. Orlando is retro-fiction. The transition it describes has existed at least from the beginning of the 20th century. 

Mike: You speak in the film about how we’re born before we’re born, and live after we die. You present us with an alphabet of trans people forced to invent futures that aren’t simply laid out for them. 

Paul: Maybe I could say: it’s political speculation. I’m resistant to the science fiction dimension even though I know it’s been important thinking about gender and race politics. I can relate to that genre, I have no problem with it. But saying science fiction denies what already exists. We are here, our struggles that the film speaks about is for us ordinary life. It’s even in the past, already history, it’s the history of the 20th century more than anything else. Many of us are living a non-binary life in a hyper-binary world. Of course there’s theatricality, but this is mostly coming from Virginia Woolf. 

It was so beautiful including children into the process of making the film. Along with their families they had many conversations with the rest of the cast. You don’t see that in the film, but it was very important. I imagined the movie as a very academic, sophisticated historical account. But the process made me wonder if this wasn’t a movie for children. Even the aesthetics of the film are punk DIY. The teenagers in the film understood what I wanted much better than anyone else. Others protested, “It’s impossible for me to speak like Virginia Woolf!” “How am I going to tell my story?” The 15-year-old said, “Of course, I’m Orlando.” They would learn the sentences right away and say them beautifully. 

Orlando, My Political Biography

We made a collective ritual. As soon as you wear the collar you are in character. They might arrive in an agitated state and their families would assure me: it’s impossible, they had a breakdown, they won’t perform today. But then they would put the collar on and they were Orlando immediately. (laughs) I would have loved to see a film like this when I was a lonely teenager, with no visual reference around me to think about who I wanted to become. 

The more I worked on the film the producers worried, “This isn’t a documentary anymore, everything is written.” For me this political fiction deepened when I did interviews with everyone, and then rewrote those interviews.

Mike: These personal accounts are such an important part of the movie. Was that always part of the mix?

Paul: No. I knew I was going to rewrite parts of Orlando, and this would take the form of a letter to Virginia Woolf. I had four narratives. One was Orlando by Virginia Woolf. Secondly my own narrative. Then the political genealogy of trans people using archival material. And finally the multiple stories of Orlandos. The question was how to move from one to another.

My take after rereading all of her work is that Virginia Woolf is a non-binary author. She struggles with the condition of being a woman and doesn’t know how to relate to her own body. Much of her suffering was because she couldn’t adapt to expected roles, there was no way she could express herself besides her own way of writing. She speaks like the water, and then a character, and then the wind. This became a methodology for the film, a fluid way of going from the words of Orlando to the words of the characters, to my own voice. 

Orlando, My Political Biography

Mike: I heard a duet, trio and quartet structure. With the introduction of each new character, another would arrive almost immediately. Each speaks in short passages, so we’re never landing on one or the other, but always in a place between. As if we were made out of each other. It’s an embodied demonstration of what Thích Nhất Hạnh called interbeing or interdependence, and shows how the self might be decolonised.

Paul: Woolf’s writing is very cinematic; you have the impression sometimes that she narrates scenes from different perspectives. The movie turns between the words of Viriginia Woolf, their words, my words, going back to history… Never lingering too long on one side. It inspired a similarly mobile camera. 

At the beginning my producers thought I was going to make a documentary about Orlando. They imagined an academic thinking through ways Orlando related to the story of being trans. But when I showed them parts of the script they said, “What is this? Someone who is not an actor reciting a text by Virginia Woolf dressed up ridiculously because you don’t have enough money? This is going to be ridiculous, no one will believe them.” I didn’t know if it would work but I had to try. I wanted to have this interdependency that you speak about, to mix their stories with Woolf’s Orlando. My producer said: “We’ll give you the weekend, take the kids and the camera and let’s see if it works.” I spent the weekend shooting and came back to Paris with my editor. I showed the producers a clip because I needed to explain and cinema is not my language. 

Lacking traditional training in cinema, I used the same methodology as my books. On one side is research and on the other is political activism. What I learned from my years as a feminist is that it’s very different filming the process of oppression than the process of emancipation. Most films about trans people are about the process of oppression. They use the language of psychology and medical discourse to encapsulate the experience of transition and it cannot be reduced to that. 

Transition is one of the most beautiful political, human and beyond-human experiences. We are trying to invent freedoms beyond the framework that has been given to us. This amazing experience is reduced, in the language of psychology, to pathology and dysphoria, both pointing to pharmacology which offers “the therapy you want.” After that you will be fine and everything will be solved. Or else medical discourse offers surgery. In legal discourse you present yourself as evidence in order to be granted papers. Woolf provided me with a language to be able to block all these other languages that come when you’re trying to speak about transitioning.

Orlando, My Political Biography

Mike: Woolf is your fifth column.

Paul: Yes. At the beginning I was not very comfortable because I didn’t know where I was going. But once I felt the collective energy, we found a way. The beginning of the film is really the first scene I shot. The end of the film is really the last shot.

Mike: Bringing everyone together at the end is a traditional literary device. Here it feels that you’ve all been through something together. It’s a release and celebration.

Paul: I needed the Orlandos to go through that process of emancipation. We filmed a scene in a psychiatric waiting room, where we have all been made to wait in the past, presenting as mentally ill people seeking therapy in order to get the hormones we need. We turned it into a party scene where hormones are freely exchanged and we could dance with each other. In place of anxiety and solitary, there is celebration and community.

After that shoot, the film completely changed. It’s not just that we were Orlando, the whole world is Orlando. We’re going through an Orlando moment in history! (laughs) Some of the scenes became political rituals that were very meaningful for all of us. For instance, the surgery scene. We have been on that operating table, it was so different to be on the other side as doctors, operating on this book. 

The reason why I will keep making films is that these experiences have been so important. This relationship between fiction and… apparently we say “documentary.” It’s not just that my film is non-binary. Life is non-binary. The political regime in which we live in is a normative binary system. But life is non-binary. That’s why it’s not science fiction, it’s the power of life. Life is radically non-binary in its multiplicity.

Mike: At your Toronto book launch for An Apartment on Uranus you said that we are living in a moment of radical transformation not seen since the printing press. Is that because the way life is lived and imposed is so different?

Paul: Yes. 

Mike: Do you feel that gender is the red thread that will lead us out of the labyrinth of capitalism?

Paul: It’s not only gender. What is at stake is the transformation of the technologies of production and reproduction of life. Of course, gender and sexuality are at the core of the reproduction of life. But not only. Questions of ecology, of how we relate to other living beings, are crucial. Questions of racial taxonomy: how until now we have distributed wealth, power and energy – this has to change. 

Since the 15th century we have been living in this regime of power and its production of subjectivity. That’s why Orlando was such a good temporal framework. Now we are in a shifting moment, going from analogue to digital culture, whatever this means, we don’t know yet. Ideally we’re going into a non-binary, post-patriarchal, post-racial regime. An Orlando regime where we accept change and mutation instead of always attaching bodies to a certain position. 

Orlando, My Political Biography

Politically, we don’t have the means of understanding it, because we have not lived politically in such a regime. We think that we live in democracy but this is not the case. We don’t know what democracy is. It’s something that can only be grasped at the level of poetics. Poetically there is a moment in which we feel the irreducible multiplicity and mutation of life. That’s what I like about the cinematic form. Film can demonstrate this transformation in time. I loved editing, I thought: this is made for me! Editing is such a trans technology. (laughs) 

Mike: Your work has so much hope in it. Is that because you lived through the end of the Franco regime?

Paul: Hope for me is a political methodology, it’s not psychological. The problem with this neo-liberal regime we live in is that affects are reduced to psychology. How do you feel? Are you for this or that? This cannot be resolved at the level of affect. 

You speak of the end of the Franco regime, and it’s true, I felt it as a child, some kind of falling apart and a new openness. But I was living in a very small town in the north of Spain, extremely Catholic, full of army people. Maybe that’s why Orlando is so important and why I wound up making this film. Because at some point in my life, fiction became more important than reality. I would look around and wonder: how am I going to survive? 

When I encountered this book at 14, no one told me it was a trans book. We read it as part of a history of British literature. No one else liked it, they found it difficult to read and set it aside. But I thought if this is real, and what is more real than fiction, then my life is possible. Even if I have to wait 300 years. When I was a child I thought that life was too short for what I had in mind, I knew already there would be struggle. If I have to do all this in 50 years, it’s not going to work. But then I read Orlando and thought that over 300 years, there is hope, I might be able to do it. 

The title is Orlando: A Biography. This is a biography, so this life is possible. It’s so beautiful and important that from the beginning Woolf insisted: this is a biography. What is a biography? It means: a life. A story of a life. And also: being alive to be able to tell that story, which for some of us is not so easy or taken for granted. 

Woolf wrote three biographies. The last book she wrote was about her painter friend Robert Fry. The biography of a dog named Flush. And Orlando. An artist, a dog and Orlando. I think those are positions from which there is something to learn about what it means to be alive. What is a life? And what is life for? 

Mike: I feel you touch this question in two related scenes. The first arrives early on, where the frame is filled with an immense tree crown, and the wind encourages hundreds of leaves to touch. It’s both grand and intimate. Later a drop of water turns into a sensual deluge. It’s not a biblical flood that washes the world away, but an immersion in unexpected pleasures. In both scenes you turn background into foreground. I think an entire body of post-humanist cinema could be made out of these scenes.

Paul: To come back to your question about hope. Sometimes people tell me I’m pathologically optimistic. They’re in the worst situation when I remark, “Well, maybe this is a good beginning.” (laughs) 

Mike: It’s great to have that resilience. 

Paul: The thing with resilience is that we have the impression that you have it or you don’t. 

Mike: After seeing friends die it’s harder to take the next step.

Paul: Of course. But I think that hope as political methodology can be cultivated and grown collectively. Take for instance the film’s backstage. One of the kids tried to commit suicide during the shooting. Not during the shooting but at her home. One of the women is homeless. Two others are doing sex work and are in complicated situations. Kids are kept out of school because of bullying and violence. Many have no passports, so it would be impossible for them to come with me to a festival. Those are the background situations that continue. The film has not changed that. 

Mike: Did you think it would change their lives?

Paul: I hoped so. That’s why I called it “My Political Biography.” I’m convinced that there are basic material conditions that allow for the life of someone or not. Giving papers to people or granting access to hormones to those who want them is vital. Letting teenagers decide about their bodies. When I hear conservative feminists talk about trans people: “How can these 15-year-old children have access to hormones?” This is exactly what men used to say about women in the early 20th century when they wanted to have an abortion. They don’t have brains; how can they decide for themselves? For me there is a connection between historical fights and allowing people to invent their own ways of being free. If the film could help make that possible…

About The Author

Mike Hoolboom is a Toronto-based artist who writes and make films. His many books about movie artists can be downloaded for free at https://mikehoolboom.com/?cat=401.

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