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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