The Big Issue : Edition 555
THEBIGISSUE.ORG.AU 9–22 FEB 2018 31 THE STUNNING NEW Chilean film A Fantastic Woman accomplished something unprecedented in cinema history. Officially shortlisted for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, it is the first Oscar- nominated film to star a trans performer. Marina Vidal – brilliantly inhabited by Chilean actress and singer Daniela Vega – is a twenty-something waitress by day, club-land chanteuse by night. A transgender woman, she is in love with an older man, Orlando (Francisco Reyes), with whom she is making plans for a life together. She has moved into his Santiago apartment when Orlando suddenly dies of a heart attack. A grieving Marina finds herself scorned and ostracised by his family, and harassed by hospital staff and officers of the law. Nevertheless, Marina is determined to farewell her beloved in the manner she deems fit – a quest that demands the viewer’s empathy by privileging her point of view. This is a rare experience in commercial cinema; mainstream audiences are seldom, if ever, asked to identify with the lot in life of a transgender protagonist. “The director contacted me, in order to be his cultural consultant,” Vega explains, when I ask her how she came to be involved in the film. “After a year, he realised that he wanted to do a movie with a trans topic. So he invited me to participate in the project and it was something therefore very natural, very organic.” The director was Sebastián Lelio, a filmmaker in the vanguard of South American cinema – his festival favourite Gloria (2013) is currently being reimagined with an English-language cast headed by Julianne Moore. So, of course, Vega had no hesitation in accepting the role: “Being able to work with Sebastián Lelio already meant a sign of quality.” But it’s Vega’s charismatic contribution that is the heart of the film’s success – she gives A Fantastic Woman an immediacy and authenticity that has eluded past Hollywood films with cisgender actors in transgender roles, such as Eddie Redmayne (The Danish Girl, 2015) and Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club, 2013). Marina undergoes many trials, encountering bewilderment and hostility – a common experience for trans folk not just in Chile, but “everywhere in the world”, affirms Vega. This confrontation is most hurtful when coming from Orlando’s family who, barring a sympathetic brother, can only conceive of his love for her as perversion. His ex-wife is not the only one to tell Marina that she doesn’t know what she’s looking at when she looks at her – that she’s “a chimera” even. Vega understands where this anxiety comes from, saying that people “feel so scared of the unknown situation, and aren’t open to the fact that diversity is a human treasure”. Her Marina is similarly wise and empathetic, and never wilts in the face of these very personal attacks. Lelio has a gift for surreal visuals, enlivening A Fantastic Woman with periodic flights of fancy. One remarkable scene has her suddenly airborne; then, as if grasping either side of the frame, she stares directly at the audience, returning the gaze trans people so commonly feel upon them. In another extraordinary shot, a mirror lying in Marina’s lap obscures what lies beneath, presenting a reflection of her serenely lovely face instead. “That’s a very beautiful scene,” Vega says, “about how Marina sees herself and how the world should perceive her.” There’s a clear message there, to all who think themselves somehow entitled to know a trans person’s most intimate bodily particulars, that gender identity and selfhood transcend corporeal matters. (The transfeminine writer of this article can wearily assert that such people are everywhere.) While her role in A Fantastic Woman called for enacting scenes of aggressive transphobic violence, which can only have resonated with upsetting episodes from her own life, Vega acknowledges her good fortune: “There are very few of us trans [people] who have the ability or the opportunity to work in what we love, around the world.” When I ask about other films made in Chile with transgender themes, she replies, “I’ve been the lead in all these movies.” A protean talent, Vega is very busy. “I’m working on a couple of new movies; I’m also writing a book. And I’m preparing a couple of concerts in Chile.” (Marina’s beautiful singing that we hear throughout A Fantastic Woman is all Vega, a classically trained opera singer in her own right.) This writer’s hope is that a future role will lead Vega to a further cinematic milestone: the first nomination of a trans performer for an Oscar in an acting category. But what of the division of acting awards along binary gender lines? “What’s important is the recognition,” Vega says. “If a job is well done, it really doesn’t matter how you define yourself. What matters is the work you did.” by Cerise Howard (@cerisehoward) » A Fantastic Woman is in cinemas 22 Feb. IN A FANTASTIC WOMAN, TRANS ACTOR DANIELA VEGA MAKES CINEMA HISTORY, AND A BEAUTIFUL FILM. PHOTOBYGETTY TOP DANIELA VEGA WITH FRANCISCO REYES. LEFT VEGA IN CHANTEUSE MODE.