By Line VaabenTo tell this story of craft, I must share something which might ruin your first-time viewing of the short documentary film “Victoria,” by Eloisa Diez. So if you haven’t already watched it and don’t like spoilers, here is a piece of advice: Watch the film first, and then get back to what I learned in a conversation with Diez.
“Victoria” was showed at several film festivals around the world, then was featured as part of The New York Times Op-Doc project, which features award-winning short documentaries by independent filmmakers. In the opening scene, we meet Alex Reyes de Anda. He lives in Jalisco, Mexico, a traditional town centered around the Catholic church. He works as a biochemist at the local hospital, sings in the church choir and talks with his partner, Fernanda, about having a family. The film conveys a quotidian life, told through quiet scenes of singing, family meals and conversations about mundane matters.
But soon it stars unwrapping surprises that are offered like small gifts to the viewer: Alex, who was born female, is well into the process of realizing his lifelong dream of being male. He has taken hormone treatments, had top surgery, sports a beard and speaks in a mild, mid register.
As the movie unspools over 23 minutes, so do the reveals that shape Alex’s life. Before his transition, Alex was helping parent his then-partner’s daughter; soon after he began his transition, the woman left and and denied him contact with the toddler. We start to hear his gentle dreams of creating a new family. And then we learn that Alex is receiving fertility treatments. He gets pregnant and gives birth by C-section to a girl, Victoria. The infant is cleaned, swaddled and placed in his waiting arms with a nurse’s coo: “Say hello to your father.” Alex’s voiceover cuts in: “She is a victory over the impossible.”
Reconsidering stereotypical approaches to stories
Because of the story’s structure — like a flower opening from bud to blossom — we don’t know immediately that Alex is a trans man. There are occasional references to fertility treatments, but it’s not immediately clear that they are about Alex’s desire to give birth. It isn’t until the last third of the film that we learn that Alex is pregnant — and even then it’s a gentle reveal.
As someone who has written intimate stories about transgender issues, I was curious about Diez’s approach to “Victoria.” We spoke by Zoom from my home in Copenhagen and hers in in Mexico City; our conversation was helped by an interpreter and Google translate.
“I wanted the viewer to get to know Alex, before I told his story,” Diez told me.
While working on the film, she had several conversations with Kani Arkada, a trans filmmaker and close friend. He urged her to consider her own heteronormative thinking and stereotypes about how trans identities are often portrayed. It was from those conversations that Diez decided to introduce the norms of Alex’s life before revealing that he is a trans man.
“The intention was to delay the moment, to get to know the person before the labels,” she said.
Diez is one of the founders of the working collective La Sandía Digital, a feminist collaborative of audiovisual production, training and communication that works with grassroots movements and civil society organizations in Mexico to tell stories of gender justice and humans rights.
”We try to tell stories about minority groups that are not so often portrayed in the media,” Diez said.
Determined to tell the story from Alex’s point of view, Diez continued to confront her own prejudices and ignorance: “For one, I was surprised to find that Alex has such a rich and strong network – an entire social fabric of family and friends around him. … The media and the few films about the subject tend to show us isolated trans identities, often absolutely rejected.”
Diez met Alex Reyes de Anda in 2016 after a screening of a short film she directed about families fighting to get custody over their children. At first she wanted to tell the story about the injustice Alex was experiencing as transgender. At the same time, Mexico was dealing with a rash of pushbacks against human rights’ activists.
“It was a time of great pessimism,” Diez said. “There was a sense that no matter how much we tried to picture things like forced disappearances and femicides through videos and documentaries, nothing changed.”
A more mature approach to narrative
She began questioning whether the story she was working on about Alex was the right one to tell: ”In the work on human rights, we often follow formulas that have to do with denouncing human rights’ violations. But that narrative doesn’t allow us to see the resistance and strength of people. Even with the best intentions, it treats people as victims. When I met Alex, I realized that I couldn’t continue down that path, and facing this crisis made me mature in my way of telling stories.”
The story of Alex challenged not only how Diez saw trans identities, but also how she saw her work as a storyteller.
“That’s when I learned about ‘narrative practices,’” she said, “where I found a way of rethinking my storytelling.”
So in the middle of filming, Diez took a one-year diploma course in Narrative Practices, where she was introduced to the work of Australian Michael White around
“narrative therapy,” originally developed as a way to help people deal with negative challenges or perceptions through narrative. The idea at core: We give meaning to our lives based on the stories we tell, and we can change the meaning of our experience though storytelling.
As Diez explained it, the stories we build about our experiences shape or constitute the worlds we inhabit. “It’s not a tool, but a way of thinking,” she said. “If we transform those stories, we can give new meaning to our own experience. A story that victimizes us, and then turns into our identity, builds very small worlds. But through story we can rebuild worlds that we can inhabit in a more dignified and stronger way.”
So instead of recounting the violence and injustice that Alex had experienced during his transition, Diez went looking for the victories in his life.
“They were not necessarily public victories with public recognition, but smaller and more intimate,” she said. “It made a huge difference in my focus and way of telling his story.”
Patient reporting and a well-paced structure
Filming the short doc took several years; Alex lived seven hours drive away from Diez, and her other work as a sound producer limited her availability to travel. But the slow pace of making the documentary became an advantage as it allowed Diez was to witness Alex’s pregnancy and delivery.
“If I had finished much earlier, the story would end with Alex in a depression, unable to reconnect with his first daughter,” she said. “Over the years, Alex overcame that struggle, reformulated his life based on music, formed a relationship with Fernanda and decided to bear his second daughter.”
Diez mapped out the story structure to identify the main topics and the path of the story, which was key to determining what to include and what to leave out.
“It helped me not to get lost,” she said, showing me her notebooks, several maps, drawings and charts, all organized with colorful sticky notes. “I was building a map with all the themes, to later make decisions about which ones were going to be present. It was a slow process, because there were so many topics.”
Among those topics:
And not least: Music. Alex and his partner Fernanda both sang in the choir, and music plays an important part in the film.
“Music is a character within the story, since music allows Alex to express sadness and at the same time helps him reposition himself within his society brings him closer to his new partner,” Diez explained.
Songs for the score of the film were chosen from the repertoire of the choir: “I didn’t want anything instrumental, and the music was recorded specifically with the choir to underline the narrative. Music has an emotional function of the story, but is also an extra protagonist.”
The film premiered at a film festival in 2021 and has since been screened more than 100 times at festivals, cultural institutes and schools, and included in The New York Times Op-Docs.
When Alex had a chance to watch the first edit of the film, he was worried about how people in his family and community would react, and he requested a few changes. But on the whole, he accepted the film as a genuine representation of his life, and is very proud of it, Diez said: “He calls it our film.”
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Line Vaaben is a writer and editor for Politiken, the largest newspaper in Denmark. Her work has been published in several Danish textbooks, and she teaches narrative and longform journalism to students and professionals.
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Alex seen through knowing eyes
Through immersive journalism, I reported and wrote “He Should Have Been A Boy,” a story published in 2020 about Daniel Valter Jensen who finally gets top surgery (breast removal) after waiting for years. After “Victoria” was released, I asked Daniel what he thought of it from a transgender point of view.
“I’m both a man and a woman,” he said. “My expression is fundamentally masculine, but I have feminine features. And I am at peace with that — something I recognize in the story of Alex.”
But the film brought conflicted emotions. He spent most of his youth struggling with his identity; when he finally transitioned, he was too old to give birth. His ex-partner, with whom he spent many years, has children, but he lost contact after the relationship ended.
“I cried when I watched the film,” he said. “As a middle aged, 50-year-old trans man, I feel a deep sadness, because I never managed to build a family of my own. Like Alex, I had to leave a person behind; I couldn’t be Linda anymore — I just couldn’t. And as he says in the film, transition comes at a price.”
Daniel knows two trans fathers who lost their children when the biological mothers left; the men had no custodial rights.
“I just so very much hope that Alex’s partner, Fernanda, stays with him,” Daniel said. “I really admire his courage and calmness during his pregnancy. It must have been hard.”
And he loves that Alex names his daughter Victoria: “The price for being a rebel is high. But it’s worth it.”
~ Line Vaaben ~