A Tight Focus on the Spiritual Side of Transitioning
The documentary Rites of Passage by Jeff Roy follows a 42-year-old practicing Muslim and Indian transgender to Bangkok for gender reassignment surgery and puts her Islamic faith and ethnic identity at the center of the journey.
by Emily Frost, guest contributor
When Jeff Roy first met Maya Jafer in Los Angeles, he had prepared a long list of questions. But he barely got in one; Jafer had finally found someone with whom she could share her story.
Ms. Jafer, a 42-year-old transgender woman and a practicing Muslim from India, spent the next hours detailing a cultural and religious background that never accepted her and describes a personal journey full of upheaval. Mr. Roy, who had never made a film, decided Jafer’s story needed to be told.
Rites of Passage is all about the journey. The metaphor is central to the documentary. Before the film begins, Ms. Jafer has been on an internal voyage during two years of hormonal and psychological therapy. In the opening scene, she is moving again.
Without any explanation, the viewer is thrust into an airport in Thailand, the only place where she can afford gender reassignment surgery. The harsh lighting and close-up shots make it feel as though we, too, have been on the impossibly long flight from Los Angeles. The director favors immediacy and honesty above all else, shooting with a cinéma vérité style.
Ms. Jafer rarely needs prodding to open up. She views the camera as a chance to share wry and self-deprecating commentary. As she and a friend of the director’s, whom she just met, taxi to a nighttime shopping area, she discusses a sexual massage. There’s lightness in how she addresses this stranger as she tells him “she hasn’t had sex in two years,” but, after the surgery, men will be all over her. She’s basking in the liberation of her decision. There’s no turning back.
The film benefits from its tight focus on Ms. Jafer. These opening confessions hook the viewer. And lest the audience think the trip will be all light-hearted quips and high jinx, Mr. Roy cuts to the heart of the matter, inserting a climatic scene early in the film.
Riding in a taxi through congested streets, Ms. Jafer speaks directly to the camera: “I have no one to talk to at all,” she cries, “all I have is God.” This may be the most intense period of her life, a turbulent mix of dread and anticipation. Though Mr. Roy is filming, he’s beyond her reach. Jafer is alone.
Here’s where Mr. Roy’s film strikes out on an independent path. Other American documentaries have focused on the enormity of transitioning from male to female or vice versa. They delve deep into the physical and social side of the transition. But what about the spiritual side? The tendency is to think of transgender or transsexual people as progressive and, by extension, secular. But Mr. Roy puts religion and ethnic identity at the heart of Ms. Jafer’s journey.
In the taxi, she begins to pray. The prayer has a soothing power, but Ms. Jafer’s trembling voice bespeaks the fear and anxiety washing over her.
Prayer and her faith are the only connections she still shares with her Indian and ultra-orthodox Muslim family. Her father is devout, and was also abusive. As a child she was awoken early in the morning, beaten, and ordered to pray. “How would you find love for God in that way?” she asks, sweeping tears from her face, trying to preserve her black eyeliner and mascara. It took Ms. Jafer many years to create her own relationship with God, separate from what she knew as a child. Here, again, the director lets the camera roll, and the uninterrupted scenes of Ms. Jafer struggling to regain composure don’t seem out of place with the “along for the ride” quality of the film.
Early on, the film establishes the stakes are high. “If it were not for God and spirituality, I would not be alive today,” Ms. Jafer says, pressing the palm of her hand to her forehead, her yellow headscarf slipping slightly. There was a time when she realized her choice was transitioning or suicide.
God plays a huge part in her decision to live — and to transition. Ms. Jafer pushes aside the temptation to curse God for giving her the wrong physical body. As the taxi pushes forward, she works through her distress, the camera tight on her face, knotted with tension.
The film is intentionally short. Mr. Roy trimmed the fat so moments like those in the taxi stand out, but it’s hard not to wish to see more of Ms. Jafer getting from point A to point B in Bangkok. In a later scene, she sits with a group of Thai men, sipping her first ever glass of wine and eating a bowl of long, steamy noodles. How did she get there and who are these men? They barely seem to know each other.
Back at the hotel, the film shows Ms. Jafer dancing in the dark, losing herself to trance music. She drapes herself across the couch, rises, and spins around her long, black wavy hair. Mr. Roy illustrates her moment of release — a respite from her direct confessional approach to the camera.
After the wine and the dancing, the film moves back to reality. Ms. Jafer, brow furrowed, consults graphic anatomical photos as a Thai doctor describes how the surgery works. The filmmaker’s choice not to interview doctors or nurses helps capture Ms. Jafer’s disorientation, as does his quick and choppy editing style.
Mr. Roy stays in raw mode in the next montage. Ms. Jafer has her photo taken and is shown nude from the waist up, her new breasts exposed. Her red toenail polish is removed, her genitals are shaved, and her playfulness is gone. She’s wearing a blue hospital shower cap and murmuring prayers, prone on a gurney and quietly weeping.
The film closes as it began, with movement — and with the audience thrown into the middle of things. It feels like a suspense movie. Kudos to Jeff Roy for transforming what could have been a very talky documentary into a film full of action. In the final shots, the camera angle is low, the world seen through Ms. Jafer’s eyes — the neon lights glaring down, the anonymous Thai nurses moving efficiently — and then the doors of the operating room swing shut.
"Rites of Passage" screens at the Palm Beach International Film Festival on April 15 and at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival on April 21 and 26. The full version, “Mohammed to Maya,” will connect with Jafer after the operation and will premiere in Mumbai at the Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival from May 23–27. A special preview screening of “Mohammed to Maya” will be held on May 1st at Metropolitan Community Church in Los Angeles, with a question and answer session with Jeff Roy and Maya Jafer.
Emily Frost is a radio reporter and online journalist. She is an Annenberg Fellow at USC’s Annenberg Graduate School for Journalism and an executive producer and host at Annenberg Radio News.
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Confessions on Life, Death and God (video)
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
This PostSecret video is imbued with a lot of light-hearted moments, but there are two people who tell stories that touched me deeply. Those are the takeaways that I’ll sit with and remember in the most unexpected moments. What are those two for you?
Bill Moyers Interview with Christian Wiman on Poetry, Love, Faith, and Cancer
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
For several months, we’d been batting around the idea of interviewing Christian Wiman. We knew of his poetry and had read Every Riven Thing, his latest book of poems. And I was incredibly interested in his successful approach to reviving Poetry magazine as its editor.
But, it wasn’t until I was watching Bill Moyers’ interview with Wiman one Friday night though — and the ensuing response online — that I pushed him to the top of our list. Gratefully, he accepted our invitation and our host Krista Tippett took him even deeper into his ideas about religion and God, death and the ineptitude of poetic language romanticizing it, and how poetry can become a “false idol.”
We’ll release our show with Christian Wiman, "Remembering God," on this Thursday, April 12th — first on podcast and then on public radio stations throughout the week. Until then, watch this marvelous interview.
I found in the woods in Maryland a wildflower, the bloodroot flower. It blooms very early in the spring, around the time of Lent and Easter, depending on when Easter falls. The reason why it’s called the bloodroot is because the root itself, if you press it, you break it, you’ll get a red dye that can be used as a dye. But the bloom itself only lasts a day. But it comes out of the sepulcher of the earth. And what it leaves is these heart-shaped leaves. And that is a microcosm of resurrection for me.
I have a wild imagination. You know, I mean, I’ve described the stakes in my vegetable garden in the wintertime as crosses on which bodies are draped, you know. I don’t mean that in a gory sense. The geese in the sky remind me of the crosses that pilgrims have carved into ancient Christian sites. I think there are signs of the cross all over creation. How do you account for that? Well, clearly, we’ve forgotten, we’ve forgotten paradise, we forget God. And that’s why I think we have scripture to remind us.
—Vigen Guroian, from his interview with Krista Tippett in On Being's "Restoring the Senses: Gardening and an Orthodox Easter"
~Trent Gilliss, senior editor
You know, at one time I worked for the World Council of Churches and we were based in London. I came from Africa. There was someone from Taiwan. There was someone from Malaysia, someone from the States, and then someone from Latin America, and he introduced me to Latin American liberation theology. And I came to visit for the first time in the United States and here encountered black theology. So all of that was a very significant part of what helped to open my eyes. Mercifully, there isn’t anything like the so-called self-made person.
I mean, they are people who helped to form me. And then discovering that the Bible could be such dynamite. I subsequently used to say if these white people had intended keeping us under they shouldn’t have given us the Bible. Because, whoa, I mean, it’s almost as if it is written specifically just for your situation. I mean, the many parts of it that were so germane, so utterly to the point for us…
When you discover that apartheid sought to mislead people into believing that what gave value to human beings was a biological irrelevance, really, skin color or ethnicity, and you saw how the scriptures say it is because we are created in the image of God, that each one of us is a God-carrier. No matter what our circumstances may be, no matter how awful, no matter how deprived you could be, it doesn’t take away from you this intrinsic worth. One saw just how significant it was.
Theodicy Defined: The Power of God and the Problem of Evil
by Susan Leem, associate producer
Tethered between stone and sky. (photo: Enrico Marongiu/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)
This week’s show has a theological term in its title that sounds obscure, even impenetrable: "Monsters We Love: TV’s Pop Culture Theodicy." Depending on your view of an omnipotent God, it could be both. ”Theodicy” attempts to answer ancient questions like, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” and “If God is good, why does evil exist?”
The television shows mentioned in “Monsters We Love” are filled with “amoral zombies” and “loving vampires” and “righteous serial killers," as Krista Tippett puts it. At the core of this theodicy is the question of what makes "good" people different from characters we can register instantly as "evil."
The Greek philosopher Epicurus came up with his own twist on the problem of evil, the “Epicurean Paradox”:
“Is God willing to prevent evil but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence, then, evil.”
Merriam-Webster describes theodicy as a “defense of God’s goodness and omnipotence in view of the existence of evil.” And on the free will of human beings, one explanation of free will theodicy suggests that God values good choices from humans only if we have the free will to make them. This leaves the possibility for a misuse of free will, and evil choices. For St. Augustine, evil results from the failure of humans to exercise moral responsibility, not God.
What is it about watching the moral failing of others that draws millions of viewers to these TV shows? Maybe it has nothing to do with their final choices or even their failings. For me, it’s empathy for seeing someone else struggle between choices of good and evil in situations where it’s not clear to me how free their will actually is.
Centenarian Woman Thanks God and Deputies Who Defied Court Order to Evict
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
"I knew that they know what they were doing. God don’t let them do wrong."
Here’s one of those feel-good stories that makes you smile for human decency and feel a little bit sad knowing that this act of kindness may be an exception. On Tuesday, WSB Channel 2 in Atlanta reported that Vinia Hall, a 103-year-old woman, and her 83-year-old daughter were about to be evicted from her home when deputies of the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office and hired movers defied a court order to evict the two from their foreclosed home in northwest Atlanta.
For the purposes of this project, take note of the strong expressions of faith in God “making it right” and citations of the Bible, by Ms. Hall and also by a neighbor and community activist too.
Q:If you want to find God try spending 30 yrs. in a siberian prison.
Did you (or someone you know) spend three decades in a Siberian gulag? If so, let’s talk! We definitely want to hear about your experiences and ways of thinking about the divine in the world. Here’s my email address: email@example.com and my phone number: 651.290.1354.
If not, might I recommend reading Slavomir Rawicz’s epic tale “The Long Walk” (the movie is not nearly as good as the book) — a miraculous story of a Pole being imprisoned in a Siberian gulag in 1939 and then escaping and trekking thousands of miles to freedom. He might have some insights into the nature of God and man that could further this conversation.
I look forward to your reply,
Trent Gilliss, senior editor
The reality emerging out of the Exodus is not just a new religion or a new religious idea or a vision of freedom but the emergence of a new social community in history, a community that has historical body, that had to devise laws, patterns of governance and order, norms of right and wrong, and sanctions of accountability. The participants in the Exodus found themselves, undoubtedly surprisingly to them, involved in the intentional formation of a new social community to match the vision of God’s freedom.
—Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination
For those about to take my life, may God have mercy on your souls, may God bless your souls.
—Troy Anthony Davis, speaking to the prison officials who executed him by lethal injection at 11:08 in a Georgia prison last night, according to an eyewitness account from an Associated Press reporter.
About the photo: A demonstrator outside the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson, Georgia, on Wednesday, September 21. (photo: Erik S. Lesser/AFP/Getty Images)
~Trent Gilliss, senior editor