Masks and Faces: Identities

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Masks and Faces: Identities (Vittoria Colonna, 2008)

While the absence of a live-action feature from the Dublin Critics' Circle "Irish films of 2009" (1) was a telling comment on the quality of Irish fiction features that were released last year, the situation was considerably better for feature documentaries; notably Joel Conroy's Waveriders and Alan Gilsenan's The Yellow Bittern: The Life and Times of Liam Clancy (both of which are discussed elsewhere in this year's review). Alongside these, a number of other documentaries did well on the international festival circuit: Ken Wardrop's His and Hers receiving Sundance's World Cinema Cinematography Award for documentary and Ross McDonnell and Carter Gunn's Colony winning the First Appearance Award at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam.

Vittoria Colonna's Identities should be counted among the year's considerable documentary achievements. The film offers insightful glimpses into the lives of five transgender people living in Ireland. A sequence of the film focusing on one of these individuals received the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) Human Rights Film Award in June, and the full film won the documentary award at the Gaze Film Festival in Dublin in August.

The film begins with an epigraph from Oscar Wilde's The Critic as Artist: "Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth." Although quoting a queer Irish author discussing the revelatory power of artifice seems particularly appropriate to a film that will explore sexual and gender identity partly through performance, it is striking that as soon as the film begins, those uses of the generic "man" and the pronouns "he" and "him" are put into radical question. Because documentary conventionally operates not at the level of the generic but of the specific, Wilde's "man" is subsequently represented by five individuals living in Ireland in 2008, whose life stories suggest the contingency of such terms. In five separate sequences of approximately fifteen-minute each, these social actors engage in performance and allow the camera to observe aspects of their lives in order to reflect on the importance to them of sexuality and gender identity.

Each sequence consists of a performance piece shot in colour and a longer observational segment shot in black and white as the social actor engages in everyday activities. Because three of the social actors are also stage actors who perform drag acts, the performance pieces work best in these sequences, which are the first three we see. So, in the first sequence, Fabio Ferri poses alluringly framed against glass shards and crystal chandeliers as well as later in his drag-queen persona of Sibyl Vane (another Wilde reference or is it Nabokov?). In an chiaroscuro-lit pool, Leonid Dale Belino dances with goldfish bowls, before discussing the surgical procedures s/he has undergone to become a "pre-op" transsexual and his/her role in the introduction of Filipino ladyboy culture to Dublin in the form of a ladyboy beauty pageant. Shani Williams performs a rockabilly song in her personae of Slick O' and Sade O'Saphhic and then explores the drag-king world with her partner and drag-king friends.

In both performances and observational segments, these sequences are largely exhibitionistic and celebratory. For these practiced performers, the format works well, and a strong sense of collaboration between filmmaker and social actors is apparent. The sense of almost seamless progression from artistic self-presentation into observational segment is explicit in Ferri's sequence, in which the camera follows him from his performance set to the dressing room and he begins speaking to camera. Filmmaker and social actors worked on together on these performances, helping to build relationships of trust that allow for the intimacy of the observational segments. Colonna succeeds in establishing close bonds with the film's social actors, but hers remains an outsider's view. …