2/1/2022 0 Comments
Atticus Spicer (they/he)
As soon as we got out of the car, I started running. My roommate and I had just gotten home from the secondhand store, where we bought a bookshelf for a clean twenty-eight dollars and ferried it back with the power of queer determination and six bungee cords from Home Depot. We listened to Lady Gaga on the drive and took pictures of our sketchy set up at red lights. We caused a mild public disturbance with the volume of our music and accompanying scream-singing. As we pulled onto our street, the clock in the dash told me I was running late; I had somewhere to be in five minutes and a half mile of pure Ann Arbor residential area between me and it. I panicked. The car door was still bungee-corded shut, the ties securing the bookshelf to the roof threaded through all four completely rolled down windows in the middle of December, so I climbed out through the window. I undid the cords to help my roommate out and then began sprinting to make it on time. My asthmatic lungs felt scraped raw by the frigid air and my shoes were definitely not the right kind for running, but, damn it, I had a documentary to see.
As it turns out, the chaos of my getting there was just the previews for what would shape up to be an immensely compelling experience— an electrifying night that I think, at least partially, defined my whole fall semester. Essentially, a friend of mine in the FTVM department had made a documentary and planned on screening it in their shed for the first time that night. Specifically, it was a documentary about trans eroticism and the way trans and gender nonconforming folks experience sex, tentatively titled, “My Body is a Paradise.”
Weeks before, we’d ended up sitting on their apartment floor for an hour, talking about the tragedy of how insufficient the options are for finding nonfiction sources discussing eroticism and sex in the context of trans and GNC experiences. We both lamented the grossness of what sources did exist— the way they often festishized and otherized the perspectives of those they focused on, and the way they glossed over other key details of what it means to be trans and GNC outside of sex in favor of more salacious details. We learned we both were coincidentally working on independent projects aiming to explore queer sex in an honest and more intentional way, and geeked out over the topic together. Flash forward several weeks and my friend finished their project, with a rough cut runtime of an impressive hour and two minutes. When I read their announcement that the first cut was finished, I immediately signed up for a seat at the screening. It was a film I knew I absolutely couldn’t miss.
Of course, I was not the sole spectator for this little gem of a movie; that honor was bestowed upon a couple dozen of us, ranging in ages, professions, backgrounds, relation to the director, and, most importantly, ties to the LGBTQ+ community. Which really means: everyone in that shed was queer. When I got to the screening, there were already a handful of people waiting. A cinderblock wall was the screen, the ground and a collection of miscellaneous lawn furniture were the theater seats, and groups sat in comfortable, intimate clusters against the back walls. I quickly shuffled my way into a lone wrought iron chair and found myself surrounded by strangers, whom I wasn't sure I had the right to talk to.
This isn’t to say that I felt completely out of place or really uncomfortable at all to be in the screening; I recognized a few people and everyone I didn’t seemed incredibly friendly anyways. It’s just that the pandemic had obliterated my opportunities to socialize with others and this represented my first real outing in college. The chill of the air, the bite of it, mingled not unpleasantly in my nervous system with a special sort of anticipation. I watched others come in and find places to sit, and noted their outfits, the extravagance of some of them. I observed the almost familial way people talked to each other, laughed easily, and squeezed themselves into the increasingly dwindling available spots without real hesitation. I chatted with two people next to me, possibly a couple, about the art of crochet and the lesbian flag hat one of them had made, and felt grounded.
We all cheered when the director, my friend Paz Regueiro, announced that we’d start soon, and waited for the final people to arrive. It was a packed theater, full of vibrancy and potent personalities, many of whom were featured in the very documentary before us. In this moment, before the film started and amongst the talk-laughing of a couple dozen people, I felt like we were experiencing something. A something that felt like queer joy and enthusiam and expectation for art that would finally be real. For all of the things that can be said about safe spaces and their viability, this place felt like one, and I realized then that I had accidentally wandered into a collective of queer people, eager and ready and excited to watch ourselves on screen.
Of course, that very idea of seeing oneself onscreen is one of the main selling points of the documentary. “My Body is a Paradise” consists of numerous interviews, shot in a straightforward and simple format, and intercut with one another depending on the topic. These interviews, filmed in environments that seem to mirror the personality of the interviewee— often their bedroom— give the documentary a particularly strong sense of credibility and reality. Roughly ordered in such a way that each interviewee gets their own introduction clip before discussing their thoughts on one of the main topics, the documentary’s pacing and chronology reveals a commitment to showing each person’s individuality and distinctive perspective from the outset. It works in its favor, honestly, and enables the viewer to get a feel for the young, lively, and incredibly likeable “cast” before tackling any of the more nuanced subject matter. For its merit as a documentary, “My Body is a Paradise” manages to cleanly avoid two of the main problems that often plague the genre: the troubles of staging reality, and the difficulties of entertaining while discussing something serious.
Have no doubt, the “characters” in this film entertain. The people featured in the documentary, all trans or gender nonconforming, all have brilliant, insightful, and often hilarious things to say for each subtopic. Each interviewee brings such a fascinating perspective, and it frequently feels as though the viewer is sitting with them themselves for these conversations. It’s immersive and authentic, lacking that element of forced staging and clear un-reality that some documentaries suffer from. Regueiro times each person’s introductions so well and with a precision that implies very purposeful choices made about what clips to use to represent everyone fairly. More than that, the introductions and way each interview was shot— with frequent camera movements emphasizing genuine smiles, moments of honesty, and items around the interviewee that embody them— are truly enjoyable to watch. The documentary’s entertainment value results not only from the charisma of everyone on screen, but also the obviously attentive and sincere filmmaking techniques that captured them in the first place.
“My Body is a Paradise” feels like sitting with an older sibling you always wanted but never had, who you would’ve yearned to ask all of the difficult questions addressed in the film. You feel a real kinship with the folks present in the documentary— or perhaps I did, because I was surrounded by them. It was a unique pleasure to be able to hear their occasional commentary to the things they said in the documentary, to hear the extension of a joke delivered and edited into immortality on the screen. As far as my ethos as a reviewer goes, my thoughts on the film are absolutely colored by the experience I had watching it. But, I don’t consider that to be much of a problem at all. I can attest to the reality and authenticity of “My Body is a Paradise” because I had the luxury of witnessing the mannerisms and values of these people, strangers to me, as both a film viewer and as an observer in real life. Regueiro made both art and an archive from these fairly long, unbroken interviews, all with a poignancy and attention to detail that amazes.
The content of the interviews range too much for me to be able to fairly summarize it all in this review. It covers a wealth of important topics, from kinks, to the idea of trans people preferring to date or have sex with other trans people, to the exploitation and fetishization of trans people, to the ways intimacy might feel different with cis partners as compared to trans partners, etc. More significant for this review’s sake is the fact that the documentary’s general mission– to collect as many relevant opinions on trans and GNC eroticism and sex as possible– conveys one of its major themes: relevancy. The people discussing trans and gender noncomforming living are, in fact, trans and gender nonconforming; their opinions are the most relevant, and their matter-of-fact, true-to-life explanations put the topics included into clear perspective. It’s possible that the documentary’s simplicity and relatively low production quality as a student film may put people off, but that’s not important. “My Body is a Paradise'' accomplishes what more financially-backed and highly produced documentaries often can’t. It both legitimizes and simplifies these incredibly nuanced subjects in a way that provides excellent, straightforward representation.
For me, the relevancy of all that the documentary depicts stunned me. From the perspectives it shows with care and open respect, to the way these topics apply to myself and everyone at the screening, to the context of watching it with most of the cast and crew, “My Body is a Paradise” was a truly unforgettable experience. As a nonbinary person, I felt overwhelmed by the way I related to all of the ideas and honest thoughts presented on screen, even if they were experiences I hadn’t had myself. The exaltation of trans and GNC perspectives felt like a genuine breath of fresh air, both soothing and stinging more than the cold air of the shed did. In creating this documentary, Regueiro succeeded in rectifying the appalling lack of media like “My Body is a Paradise,” media that genuinely takes a vested interest in what trans and GNC folks have to say.
When the lights in the shed went down, the cheering ceased, and we first hit play on the laptop propped up next to a box of wine, the opening text said, “Michigan, 2021.” I felt that declaration in my bones, because what “My Body is a Paradise'' really serves as is a gorgeous time capsule, both bound by and representative of the moment in which it was made. The folks on screen looked like me, talked like me, referenced the same media as me, and in witnessing each moment of their undiluted thoughts, I felt the timelessness and significance of their ideas. In walking away from this film, I truly believe this documentary is an effective answer to the call for more media about queer issues, made by and for queer people.