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Review: Who I Am Not


- Romanian actress Tünde Skovrán's directorial debut is an emotional ride through the complex inner worlds and oblivious cultural surroundings of two South African intersex people

Review: Who I Am Not

Romanian actress Tünde Skovrán makes her feature-length directorial debut with Who I Am Not, a documentary about two intersex people in South Africa. The film has world-premiered at the Thessaloniki International Documentary Festival, where it received three prizes (see the news), and is also screening at SXSW and CPH:DOX.

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Intersex is certainly the most poorly understood variation, even in this era of recognition and gradual social acceptance of non-binary gender identifications. This is obvious when Dimakatso, an activist who goes by the pronouns they/them, is looking for a job. The confusion on the faces of the people at the laundrette or in the factory is telling enough, but deeper implications come in the dialogue: the factory director says it would cost money to replace all of the signs, and which of the two bathrooms would they use?

Sharon-Rose, a former beauty queen and a marketing manager at a pharmaceutical company, does not have this problem. She found out about having XY chromosomes later in life, which plunged her into an identity crisis. While she gets looks of admiration instead of confused glances, inside, she is conflicted even as she goes out on a date with a man.

Dimakatso was, like most people born with both sets of genitalia – neither of which is fully developed – assigned a gender at birth, and that was female. Their father remembers that the doctors decided to get rid of the penis, but he is not sure if they removed it or “tucked it in”. Those old hospital records are gone, so Dimakatso goes to a gynaecologist, who simultaneously explains to them and the audience the biological and surgical background of these procedures, and does a genetic test, the results of which we will learn in the final third of the film.

While we get to know our protagonists through their interactions with their family and friends, we also learn of the local social background via segments filmed in a primary school and a church – it's easy to imagine what children are taught about the “only two sexes”, or how the evangelical-type preacher is exorcising these “demons”. In another scene, Dimakatso goes to a shaman who recognises there are “two spirits” inside them, and prescribes a cleansing ritual involving four chickens. Tribal culture has known of such cases for millennia, and thus emerges the question: which side is the enlightened, civilised one here?

The documentary is full of remarkably emotional scenes. Dimakatso's girlfriend is supportive, but they live in poor conditions, where we see the significance of the class divide. Meanwhile, Sharon-Rose, who cannot have children, visits a friend who is breastfeeding, and later we see her in her all-white, airy apartment. Skovrán combines these contrasts with the one thing the two have in common, strengthening the impression of how the issue of identity eventually overrides all other concerns, which is most evident in the segments in which the two protagonists exchange their experiences and hopes.

The film is peppered with impressionistic, elegantly executed symbolic scenes, such as a wasp stuck in a droplet of water, or an exquisite dream-like sequence with Sharon-Rose. These serve as a welcome buffer between the segments of high emotional intensity, but also pull the film out of a straightforward investigative vibe. As is the case with its protagonists, its heart is what makes it what it is, and not its form.

Who I Am Not is a co-production between Romania's Double 4 Studios and Canada's Filmoption. CAT&Docs has the international rights.

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