‘Trans Memoria’ Director Victoria Verseau Interview: KVIFF 2024

Swedish artist Victoria Verseau, born in 1988 and based in Stockholm, explores themes such as body, memory, identity and social structures via a range a media, from sculptures and installations to performance art and short films.

“The works are often based on her personal experiences of being trans and a new woman,” her website highlights. “Based on her own story, she examines larger existential questions; who we are, how we exist and who we want to be.”

Verseau’s feature film debut, Trans Memoria, is particularly personal and intimate. The documentary diary sees her returning to Thailand, the place of her transition in 2012, navigating uncertainty amplified by her close friend Meril’s suicide, and exploring challenges faced by trans women, along with issues of identity and meaning.

“‘Never be yourself.’ That’s what the told us,” one friend says to Verseau in one of the scenes featured in the trailer for the film

The film, which won the Hiventy Post-Production Award, a €5,000 ($5,375) grant for post-production services, at Cannes Docs 2023 when it had the working title Meril, had its world premiere at the 58th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival on Saturday.

Verseau talked to THR about why she wanted to relive and share her transition experience and her struggles with her friend’s death in movie form, her thoughts on the depiction of trans people in film, as well as potential future projects.

You never made a feature film before. Why did you want to share your experience in this format? How much was your goal to work through your own challenges and how much was it about explaining transition and its impact to other people?

From the beginning, I think it was the shock of knowing that my friend Meril had died. It was mostly, I think, a therapeutic way for me to try to digest what had happened. I’m also an artist, so this is something that comes very natural to me. I wanted to try and understand how things unfolded and why and who I had become.

When did you decide to go for a transition?

I had known since I was three years old. Growing up in a small city in the Swedish countryside in the 1990s, noone even knew what a trans person was. I would say that I decided to transition when I got to know about it when I was a teenager. And I went to Thailand back then when it had world-leading surgeries on gender confirmation surgery. So I went to this very special city that I’m trying to also depict in the film. There, I met Meril who was also there to do the operation. So we really supported each other before this very uncertain, and a bit scary, time that was ahead of us. And we very much both longed for a life that would be better and we really yearned to find love.

We were very heteronormative back then. We wanted to find a man to live with. And then we went back to our homes. She was from France and lived in Paris. We kept in contact, and I visited her in Paris once. And when I went to visit her the second time, I couldn’t reach her. Quite soon I realized that she had ended her life, and my world fell apart. She was the only trans friend I had, and I mirrored myself in her. So I was questioning if I would end the same way as she did, and I went into a very, very deep depression.

How did you meet Athena and Aamina who travel and discuss issues with you throughout the film? And how did they influence the film?

It’s really been a roller coaster. Initially, I wanted to make a fiction film about me and Meril. I cast Athena and Aamina to play me and Meril. And when we went to Thailand, we actually filmed both fiction scenes and documentary reenactments. I was a bit like: will this actually work? Can I ever? It is like nothing becomes what you thought it would be – and the film didn’t become what I imagined it to be at all.

The two of them are very outspoken, and they challenged me a lot. And it felt I couldn’t shy away from that, and they really wanted to have their perspectives in the film, which felt so important. So, it’s a little bit everywhere. I love that it sort of has its own form.

What also played a role here is how trans women are depicted on film. For Aamina, it is very important to not be sensationaled or exoticized as a trans woman. I really am happy to see that because life is complex. It has both darkness and light. I think it’s a film of contrasts – it has cinematic, meticulously framed shots and also shaky digital camera realism. It has humor and sadness, a dash of humor. So contrast is very important.

Because I’m a visual artists, I also felt I’m there to let the process lead me somehow, and so the film is just very free and doesn’t obey that many rules. You could say it’s trans. I like that expression.

Can you share a bit about the timeline of when you decided to start work on the film and when you finished it?

We did the surgery in 2012. She passed away in 2015. And then I, quite immediately, started just writing our story for myself. I didn’t share it with anyone. And then I felt it was so crucial to talk about it because her parents condemned her decision to transition, and they threw her out of the house, and her Facebook profile disappeared. So it was almost like she had never existed. It sort of felt like this film needed to be sort of a testament of her that she actually existed once, a commemoration.

I had film material from 2012 and even from the ’90s when I was a kid. I went to Thailand to film in 2019, and I was really depressed. So it was really a challenge to work on the film then. And then we filmed the last scene last year. It’s me and Athena, and we are so much happier. And we’re still here today. And Aamina is also here today.

What role did making the film play in getting you to this happier place?

I think the film saved me. Because when it was at its worst for me, the film was my only meaning. I felt I needed to tell this story, and I can’t disappear like Meril did. And so in a way, it saved me.

The same is also true for Athena actually. She might not be here if she didn’t have this project to work on. She really expressed that. it’s amazing to hear that it helped her so much. Aamina, Athena and I were like a little community. We helped each other when we worked on the project, but it was also very, very challenging. They were in the beginning of their transition when we started filming. And today, they have gone through it – if there’s ever an end to a transition. And I was really in a depression. So we really had a lot of arguments during the making of the film. And it felt very important to address that, as well as having their perspectives, and to show the difficulties of making this kind of film about trans women as trans women yourself.

I have lived quite an eventful and dramatic life, and I felt burned out by that. And now I’ve entered another era. Now it’s the time to tell people about it.

Sometimes the film feels like a ghost story, such as the hotel in Thailand where you and Meril stayed and a mall that is now abandoned. You even have a conversation when one you tries to take a photo and says “go,” but you understand “ghost” or “ghosts.” We even see you under a blanket looking like a ghost. I heard you have also done exhibition with a ghost theme or title. Why does the ghost theme resonate with you?

It sort of has many meanings. Ghosts could, of course, be memories that haunt you. And they linger, they never abandon you. But it also is very much me having a hard time accepting that things disappear. I miss my grandmother so much. I miss Meril so much. And I miss things that I’ve lost, and places and buildings that might have been torn down.

I went back to Thailand to this same city in 2023, and the hotel had been closed down to be demolished. And the shopping mall, as you say, had really decayed and been filled with water. It’s scary seeing how things fade and disappear. But it’s also breathtaking.

I connect it to dreams as well – memories and dreams. I dreamt a lot about Meril and the city. And then there are no people there, it’s not like the Thailand you usually see filled with tuk-tuks (three-wheeled motorized vehicles used as taxis) and beaches. It’s more this empty, weird in-between space. I feel I get close to something in that space. I find a lot of meaning in not knowing everything also. You can’t ever speak to someone who passed away, even though some would say you can. During the film I also tried to talk about that muteness. When someone dies, there’s a clear boundary – you can never reach that person. But at the same time, I hope that it would be possible.

I sometimes believe, and I also doubt. So there is this constant shifting between positions – ambivalence. The integrity of telling my story has also felt very ambivalent.

‘Trans Memoria’

Courtesy of Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

Meril is a big presence in the film even though we don’t really see her. Did you ever consider showing her in some form, for example, through photos throughout the film or did that feel not respectful?

It was both respecting her, because I couldn’t ask her if she wanted to be part of it, but also respecting the family, even though they did something terrible. I didn’t want to sort of reveal their identity.

Also, I think I have two pictures of Meril, I don’t have any voice recording, and I all I have is my memories and this emptiness. That emptiness, I feel, was important, that void. Absence was important for the film.

You also talk a lot about hope, loneliness, and how you and Meril were hoping to find love in the film. How have things played out for you?

Yeah, I have a partner. I found that cis man like me and Meril wished to find. We’ve been in a relationship for 10 years. I love him very much. But maybe Meril and I had a bit unrealistic dreams when we struggled so much and fought so much and imagined what we would get and didn’t get that. And I feel much, much better today. Finishing this film was important because it was sort of something that kept me from moving on in life.

Athena has also found the love of her life. So that’s very nice. I have meaning today, and I hope it will last. I think I found a way, and Athena also did very much. I think the film helped us somehow.

What would you like people to take away when they see the film?

The film has this quite unique voice and a mixing of different formats and it doesn’t really obey the rules that much. But I also wish that people would feel that they have been able to get a glimpse into hidden wounds that haven’t been visible before. And maybe they can find something about these more existential questions, such as meaning, mortality. It’s a very honest film. I feel I don’t censor myself.

I wonder if one takeaway for people seeing the film will also be that transition is not a quick physical change, but takes more…

Yeah, it’s really a process, both very physical, but also mental. And the invisible inner journey is very important, what’s going on inside. That’s indeed very much a part of the film.

Do you have any thoughts on the depiction of trans people in film, on TV or even in the news?

I heard somewhere that there has been this trans revolution, and so many stories about our lives have been made. But usually they were made by people without that experience, and also people without that experience are playing us.

I also agree with the community that there have been a lot of tragic narratives. That’s something I really struggled with when making this film. I needed to tell my honest, true story, my experience, but then also Athena is asking me in the film why I’m making this dark film.

But I think there’s a difference when the creator of the film is trans herself and telling people about her own story. And also, there is humor in it. The film ends with this scene where we managed to finish this crazy project after eight years, and we feel better today. It’s important that Athena and I are still here today. We didn’t disappear like Meril unfortunately.

But I couldn’t hide reality. I wish that this discussion would also come up after people see the film because I feel what I’m seeing hasn’t really been depicted on film. Life is complex. It has both darkness and light in it. I understand the need for more positive narratives as well to identify with. But I wanted to make a more honest film about what I’ve been through. Some moments are happier and you are finding your way, some moments are darker.

Could we see more films from you?

I have new ideas and am writing many different ideas. But I can’t really say much about them yet. I have this superstition that, if I tell too much too early, it’s going to not happen.

There’s an old film idea that I actually started before Trans Memoria. I’m going to try to finish it. But I have other projects that are newer and that may be more representative of what I do today.

Anything else I haven’t asked you about that you would like to highlight?

You really asked very good questions. One other thing I wanted to explore when making the film was identity and when you achieve your greatest dream, what comes after that. You have to relate to normality and the life after. I came to a point where I was sort of finished, even though you are never finished. And then I saw that my identity was a part of the struggle. I sort of lost a little bit who I was after the transition. I needed to find out who I was, again after the transition. And this film is a part of that. It really doesn’t have to do that much with the actual surgery, but is about finding your identity.

We’re all individual inside, but it can be scary when you get labeled. It’s the same with being trans. I think: am I really trans or am I just a human being that has this experience? And what is trans? Of course, I am, and I am a woman, but I was also a little boy at some point. You can do many things during a life and go through all these phases and have all these different experiences along the way. So everyone is in a transition.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

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