Directed by Jay Bedwani and written by Collette Legrande, Mark Nasser and Donna Personna, portrait of the inspiring trans activist, artist and performer Donna Personna. It follows her journey to live authentically as herself and to reconnect with her family.
It’s likely when you’re thinking performer and activist, that you’re expecting this documentary to be bursting with energy and drama but it’s much more intimate. It takes an everyday view of Donna’s life while dipping into her past, comparing the experience of Trans people today versus when she was young. Donna holds an unusual tone, it’s honest and down to earth which at the same time comes with a tinge of sadness, you can feel that reflective nature that always takes hold when people enter the twilight of life. It doesn’t take over the film, it works in the background but mixed with the directorial style it does prevent a build of momentum or larger personality, despite Donna clearly having plenty of charisma. Visually it’s not capitalizing on the story and injecting it with more drive and enthusiasm, it feels as though it’s holding back.
However, the key to Donna is its message about preserving Trans history, there’s still a lot of progress to be made but that doesn’t mean we should ignore the importance of that which has already been achieved. Trans people have been openly fighting for their rights and dealing with oppression, prejudice and hate long before social media came onto the scene. Especially shown here by Donna’s experience as a consultant for an immersive theatre experience following the Compton’s Cafeteria riot of 1966. It’s a fascinating idea to conserve these key moments of queer history through theatre, it’s the perfect format to capture not only the importance but also make it charismatic, entertaining and colourful. It’s very clear that Donna has entered a stage of life where she’s contemplating what mark she’s left on the world, and what mark she wants to leave, and she’s doing something about it. It’s hugely admirable, and a generous act to try and pass on her experience and advice to the new generations of Trans people.
Overall, it moves with a good pace, it mixes Donna’s daily life, with her activism and her performances. It’s an interesting story but it feels as though it could have benefited from a few more outsider perspectives, to give a more rounded view of Donna and who she is. It dips into her family life, and the difficulty in trying to be her authentic self with her conservative family and how that has severely strained their relationship. It sends another great message about trying to keep the connection to your family without sacrificing yourself, attempting to lead them to acceptance rather than compromise who you are. With how hard she’s fought to be herself, it’s unreasonable to expect her to go an inch backwards to please anyone else, and she’s very open about that discussion.
Donna demonstrates the importance of preserving queer history, of documenting the struggle of the past as it continues into the future, to show how far we’ve come and how far there is left to go. There’s a very everyday, honest feel to the style and while that does work in a thematic and emotional sense, the style lacks energy. It wanders through this story with a hint of sadness, it does try to embrace the performance side to Donna but it can’t quite elevate the tone. There’s a great and meaningful message, it just needed a bit more of an enthusiastic drive to balance out that reflective nature.