For Orlando, My Political Biography, the term “festival darling” is an understatement. This experimental take on trans history, storytelling, and filmmaking itself has screened and won awards all over the globe, including Berlin’s Teddy Award for Best Documentary Feature. What started as a joke––almost a dare––is now one of writer and academic Paul B. Preciado’s best-known works.
The film uses a collective of trans and nonbinary people to reexamine Orlando by Virginia Woolf, therefore situating the modern trans experience in a classic tale of genderbending. Through stunning visuals, earnest performances, and at least one musical number, Preciado hopes to show Woolf and his viewers that Orlando was never really a work of fiction. Today, he argues, there are more out and proud Orlandos than ever before, though they face significant medical and judicial prejudice.
I spoke to Preciado just hours before his New York Film Festival debut. He wore an effortless, all-black outfit and carried a small portrait of Virginia Woolf in his bag. Paul was fresh from a spin in the Criterion closet, and we met in an airy conference room with wall-to-wall shelves of film studies books. It was pretty dreamy, even if I was nursing a days-long exhaustion cold and he was promoting a film that he once tried to kill.
We had a lot to talk about. Preciado’s Orlando is both an ambitious work of vision and a versatile appendix. It could cap off a curriculum on queer activism, film theory, or, of course, Orlando by Virginia Woolf. Before he had to go make his U.S. debut, we chatted about political solidarity, the role of the biographer, and the decision to cast his ex-girlfriend as a judge.
The Film Stage: How did you arrive at filmmaking after such an illustrious academic and writing career?
Paul B. Preciado: I’ve been collaborating with people that do films, but I honestly never thought I could make a film. Basically, the German-French TV company Arte contacted me saying that they were going to make a film about my life. And I imagine the story they wanted to tell was a very individual portrait about my life as something that is, like, heroic because I have managed to be trans and an academic and da da da. So, you know, I tried to convince the producers from Arte not to do that film. I was like “No, I don’t want this film to be done, I don’t want this film to be done.” But it was a little like in heterosexual stories, where the more you say no, the more they say “Yes, we want to do it, we want to do it!” So it was madness, and basically it came to a moment in which, basically, I said as a joke––really, as a joke––I said, “Well if you really want to make my biography, I think the best thing would be an adaptation of Orlando by Virginia Woolf.” And I thought that would be the end of the conversation. And they said, “This is such a great idea! But who’s going to make this film?” And then the director of the committee said “Paul, maybe?” And I said “Okay, why not.”
It wasn’t real for me until I finally came home, having signed this contract to make a film, and suddenly I thought, “How am I going to do this? I have never made a film in my life.” For more than a month I thought, “Maybe I have to say no.” But things started to be clearer when I decided that it would be this collective biography that would start before I was born and keep continuing on. And also that it would be a letter to Virginia Woolf, and that this letter would be a way of explaining to her that Orlando is not a fictional character––that if Orlando ever was a fiction, at some moment it became real. That there are many Orlandos, and that this is an Orlando moment of revolution.
I’m curious to hear more about your personal connection to Woolf’s Orlando. Why is that an example of your life story?
I was born in Spain at the time of Francoism. And I knew that I was not a binary child, and I knew from the beginning. But there was nothing around me––nothing in the very Catholic, conservative society where I was living––that would allow me to understand my life as a nonbinary person. And then in a literature class, just by whatever random chance, I came to pick up Orlando.
Paul B. Preciado at the 61st New York Film Festival. Photo by Julie Cunnah.
How old were you?
I think I was, like, 12, 13.
And then––since it was like, Orlando: A Biography––I read it and I thought it was a real biography. And I thought “Well, if this life is possible, then my life is possible as well.” So that book, which was fiction, became much more important for me than anything else. Much more important than the Bible, much more important than the Constitution, much more important than anything. I stuck to that book as a way of saying, “My life is possible.” And since then, it’s been with me at different times in my life.
How did you begin to turn it into a movie?
It took me three years to make the whole film. First I had to do casting. Some of the Orlandos I already had in mind. I knew I wanted not just my friends, but people who had been really important in my life as a trans person in France. Like Jenny Bel’Air, who is a woman in her 70s who is a historical figure in the trans scene in France, and also a figure of survival. I didn’t want to make a film about the oppression of trans people, because that has been represented hundreds of times. I wanted to make a film about the process of emancipation, the way we survive through things––our knowledge, our wisdom, our desire, our joy, all that at once. So I knew that Jenny Bel’Air was super-important because she represents all that for me as well.
More than 100 people came to the casting or sent in clips, and then I understood that my assumption that there are many Orlandos was correct. People would come to the casting and say, “I am Orlando. I am Orlando, can I tell you why?” And so it became like “Okay, I’m not wrong. It’s true.” Of course, I also have to say that the book had many problems for me when I started––not just when I read it when I was a child, but when I started to think about adapting it––because there is a lot about the English empire and all this exoticization.
Right. The way Woolf writes about race in Orlando seems crazy now.
Yes, the racism. But Virginia Woolf’s writing can have that. She can be homophobic, a misogynist, lesbophobic for sure. But what I like about Virginia Woolf is that, through her writing, you can see her struggling with her own prejudices. And because I was writing this letter to her, and at the same time reading a lot of her work and almost having this impression that she was with me––I knew that I could also tell her, like, “Well, excuse me, but there are certain things that are not exactly as you represented them.” I knew I couldn’t do the adaptation without also being in dialogue but also in tension with Virginia Woolf myself.
I would love to hear more about your experience taking on the role of biographer, because that’s such a prominent part of the novel. You’re writing your own version of trans history and working now, in this particularly contentious period for trans politics. What was it like to take on that responsibility?
Very good question. I think what made it possible for me to be in that particular role, which is very difficult, is that I am an Orlando myself. The whole trick is being the trans biographer of a trans biography that is not just mine, but a collective one. It was almost also like asking the Orlandos that participated in the film for permission––like, do you allow me to take your biography as mine, and do you want to take my biography as yours? Because basically, for instance, if you take Ruben [Rizza], the teenager in the snowy scene, he is Orlando by Virginia Woolf because that scene comes exactly from Orlando. But he’s also me because he’s playing part of my biography, and he’s also playing his own story. And in a sense, I’m also becoming him a little bit. I never had a chance of being trans when I was a teenager. I couldn’t be trans; it was impossible in my society. But through Ruben, in a sense, I enact a part of my life that I was never able to live.
Sometimes I saw it like a landscape with many, many, many Orlandos. It’s an endless multiplicity of Orlandos, which includes the dead and those which are not born yet. It’s like this long genealogy, and that was also very present for us every time we were shooting this way. When you belong to certain communities––for instance, if you’re Jewish or you’re coming from a postcolonial background or you’re coming from a racially excluded background––you feel that you are one of the survivors of a history that has been annihilated, and therefore the dead are also present. So I would say we’re many, many more than 26, even though that’s the number of Orlandos onscreen by the end of the film.
I would love to pick up on that thread. Obviously you have a long history with lesbian academia and activism. Your ex-girlfriend [Virginie Despentes] is in the film, which is a very lesbian move. It can feel, at times, like the tension between lesbian history and trans history is predicated on the notion that they’re mutually exclusive. How did you approach that, given your background and the recent cultural interest in Virginia Woolf’s lesbianism?
I do not see it this way, clearly. My answer would be that I see it in a very Orlandesque way. You know what I mean? I’m not interested in identity politics so much. For me, politically, that’s basically the end of the conversation. “What is the limit of ‘lesbian’ and when do we start moving toward ‘trans’?” If you start doing that––applying a very binary gaze and almost a medical, diagnostic mindset––I’m really critical of that. What I’m interested in is different practices of dissent against the binary regime, and the patriarchal, heterosexual regime. There are many different ways of dissenting, and some of them are going to be characterized within this society as being lesbian; some of them will be characterized as being trans. But I’m more interested in this… I wouldn’t even say “alliance,” because for me, “alliance” implies separation. Anarchist theories speak about composition, in the sense of basically how we make something together, like how we compose something, as in music. And that’s super-important for me. I guess that’s one of the reasons why Virginie is there as well, at the end.
All the Orlandos are nonbinary or trans, and that was super-important for me because I wanted that as the story of Orlando. If you have to confront pharmacology and medical diagnosis to be who you are––if you’re going to be stripped of your passport––that is pretty serious. I’m not saying that trans people are “more oppressed” or whatever––it really depends, right? But there are different techniques of oppression. And therefore you have to develop different strategies. And I really wanted to talk about that, because that is very easy to miss. But at the same time I wanted to have a composition with lesbian culture, and also with my life, because Orlando is my political biography. So I think that this political biography could not be told without my lesbian life and without Virginie, as someone that I love and that I made my life with.
Why put Virginie in a position of power?
I think that what I wanted was for people to realize that the law is conceptual poetry transformed into social rule. It’s like money, for instance, that says, “This is one dollar by the United States.” It’s like, “Actually this is 100% recycled paper.” So with Virginie I wanted law to be incarnated by a writer, by fiction––not by someone who comes from politics.
How has this experience been? As a writer and academic, you’re probably not used to so much public feedback on your work.
What’s been fascinating about the film is that everyone, very mixed audiences, come to see the film, and I didn’t anticipate that when I was making it. And what I love is that, basically, when the film ends, you can tell that they look at each other differently. My father has never read my books fully––he doesn’t understand anything that I do––and he came to see the film at the festival in San Sebastián, and he was crying, and he said to me, “For the first time I understand what you’re fighting for, and it’s so important.” And some of the actors were outside, and my father went to see the actors and hugged them and praised them. And I thought “Wow, this is revolution.” If my father, who is 92 and pretty conservative, can have a different way of looking at things because of this film––this is a miracle, no?
Orlando, My Political Biography opens in limited release on Friday, November 10.