Coby: The long road to self
by Stefan Dobroiu
- CANNES 2017: Christian Sonderegger wins hearts with his documentary about a girl who becomes a man
LGBT cinema has a new, touching and powerful story about the fight to be true to oneself in Christian Sonderegger’s documentary Coby [+see also:
film profile], shown in the ACID selection at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. A French production, the documentary follows Coby, a transgender man from a small American town fighting difficult decisions and prejudice, and changing the mindset of his entire family in the process.
What is extremely efficient in Sonderegger’s movie is that, from the very beginning, we see the two versions of the hero. First as Suzanna, a 23-year-old woman from the American Midwest announcing to her YouTube followers that she has started testosterone treatment, the first step on her journey to manhood. Minutes later, we meet Coby, a manly, calm, competent paramedic waiting for the next emergency call. Wait, is this the same person? Yes, indeed it is. The documentary doesn’t necessarily discuss the issue of being a woman or a man, but rather, taking a more general approach, it discusses how effort, perseverance and time can shape a person, no matter his or her gender. It is a film about change, and not necessarily about changing your gender. It’s about choices, and not necessarily the choice of becoming transgender.
Sonderegger mixes two journeys undertaken by Coby. Through YouTube posts, we watch Suzanna becoming Coby, over the long months of waiting and analysing each minute change in aspect, behaviour and mood. But the journey doesn’t end when Coby finally receives confirmation from his doctor that he is now a man. There are new choices to be made, new steps to climb, new doors to open. And, as the film’s tagline aptly puts it, “Changing has consequences. Not changing also has consequences.”
Even if Coby is almost always the centre of Sonderegger’s attention, the documentary follows how the protagonist’s change affects those around him. In well-considered interviews, his mother, father and brother talk about how they had to change in order to accommodate Suzanna’s need to become Coby – it’s a story about gender revolution set in the living room of your average American family. It’s hard to find a topic more personal yet simultaneously more able to reach out to and be relevant for the entirety of society. Coby’s mother briefly sums up the fundamental simplicity of the change by pointing at two pictures, one of Suzanna before the treatment and one of Coby. She says, “There you are, and there you are. The two yous. Only it’s all you.”
Probably the most endearing and relevant scene in the film is a video made by Coby and his girlfriend Sara early on in his transformation. Only seven weeks into testosterone treatment, a playful Coby hugs Sara from behind and looks into the camera. He flexes his arm so that the viewer can see the manly contours it has been taking on. His is the face of a man who knows life is a game of cards. It is also the face of a man who knows he has a winning hand.
At 77 minutes long, the movie is as efficient and as concise as it can be. Every moment is loaded with meaning, from the one when Coby and his father compare their stained, hard-worked hands after they clean the house’s chimney, to a conversation on femininity and emotions that Coby has with female colleagues in the emergency room, while a male colleague listens, sniggering at them.
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