Director Jay Bedwani captures an intimate portrait of transgender activist Donna Personna as she finds her voice, both creatively and socially. Born Gustavo, the protagonist grew up in a conservative Baptist Mexican family and always felt that she had to hide parts of herself in order to survive. It is only recently, namely for the past decade, that she has been living as Donna, openly and freely. Now in her 70s, she is known in the community for her lip-synching performances in downtown bars but is also celebrated for actively supporting projects empowering trans people.
The documentary follows Donna as she goes about her activities. She is contacted by a theatre director, who wants her to co-write a play about the trans experience. The focus of the play is on a specific historical episode: the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot, a clash that saw a group of transgender people stand up against police harassment in 1960s San Francisco. Donna’s meetings with the creative team involve her sharing anecdotes about her life; she talks of the challenges she faced while growing up and it transpires that her main regret is that her estranged siblings have never met her as Donna.
Although it deals with violent riots and glitzy shows, this a quiet and unassuming documentary that chooses to focus more on Donna’s feelings rather than her actions and achievements. This approach is effective in that it makes the viewer feel closer to the protagonist, but it does slow down the pace somewhat, and it feels like the narrative lacks intensity. The film culminates with a family reunion and then the performance of the play that Donna worked on. Both events highlight the huge importance of having a support net and a united community in order to feel safe and validated.
Donna is released on 15th July 2022.
Watch the trailer for Donna here: