In 2021, Jordan Bryon took significant steps to physically realize his identity as a transgender man, opposed by a society that often viewed him with hostility and a government that neither understood nor respected him. As he began hormone injections in preparation for gender-affirming surgery, he soon found himself embroiled in a political storm over his basic right to exist. His precarious position has become all too familiar as barbaric anti-trans laws crop up in the United States like encroaching weeds, but Bryon is not American. He hails from a small town in Australia and he undertook the sensitive and undeniable work of transition while working as a journalist in Afghanistan when the Taliban – a group not known for its politics of tolerance – took over the country.
“[I was] making this transition without any idea where it was going or how to plan for it,” Bryon told the Guardian via Zoom. “And yeah, it was just too hard to do it myself. I couldn’t keep living and doing all the filming at the same time, and SO, the Taliban took over. I gave up and quit, then these guys convinced me to keep going.
The guys in question are Bryon’s co-director Monica Villamizar and her team, collaborators on the new documentary Transition, which premiered last weekend at the Tribeca Film Festival. Bryon had embedded himself with the Taliban on a New York Times assignment, while keeping a separate video diary of his personal journey through those difficult and formative days, when he met fellow journalist Villamizar. (“I heard of Jordan long before I met him,” she says.) She convinced him to redirect the course and drift of the mission toward a more intimate and subjective view of the subject he had come to. cover. Bryon’s rocky path opens a doorway into a complex portrayal of the Taliban, a reactionary terrorist organization nonetheless capable of individual acts of empathy toward a determined assimilationist. The transition is part of the tension between the body and the State, between the need to be seen and the fear that to demand so much could pose a vital risk.
Villamizar wanted to emphasize “Jordan’s everyday life – living, working, being himself” enough to humanize his extraordinary circumstances, but his moves inevitably lead him into dangerous territory. With the help of local contact Teddy, Bryon had ingratiated himself with the local officers to the point of attending their meetings and breaking bread amicably outside of working hours, their mostly cordial manner. something of a surprise to him. An obvious paradox arises: how and why did an organization reviled worldwide for its doctrine of repression open its door to a trans man? As Bryon explains: “The Taliban is not a homogeneous organization. There could be media-friendly Taliban, who have welcomed the opportunity to tell the Taliban narrative… They can also be very hostile. We were lucky, the only reason we had access to this Taliban unit was because the commander is quite a knowledgeable guy, not even media, but in general. He wanted to tell the story of the Taliban again, to show that particular unity in a different way.
Villamizar and Bryon had no intention of doing public relations for the Taliban, and so they took it upon themselves to weigh their handful of positive impressions against the campaign of conflict being waged all around them. Bryon and Teddy have been mauled by intelligence officers a few times during protests, taking rifle butts to the back of their heads and nearly losing their gear. (The camera took on charged significance in Afghanistan after an assassin used one to conceal the bomb that killed commander Ahmad Shah Massoud. “There’s a lot of paranoia,” Villamizar says.) They’ve also been arrested at the regional airport for taking – authorized video, and detained for hours by officials who confiscated their phones. “They deleted the pictures, but luckily that was without realizing that they just go to the trash folder, where you can always undo them,” Bryon recalls with a laugh.
He also found, however, that the passing mechanics worked in his favor when playing a foreigner in a foreign land. “Everything I say about Afghanistan has to be contextualized by the fact that I am a white person, a white man and a white trans man,” he says. “For me, the best thing was that Afghanistan hasn’t developed to the point of understanding LGBTQIA+ issues or communities. So when I was living there, I became anonymous. All my life, I had this label on my forehead because I was identified as a dyke, or a butch lesbian, or a trans man. These labels followed me everywhere, but in Afghanistan, they were not aware of these things. I was just Jordan, blank slate. From there, I was able to grow into the person I wanted to be without being affected by those labels. I came from a small country town in Australia in the 80s and 90s, and that wasn’t Wasn’t always pretty. I have scars on my back from rocks being thrown at me. There was graffiti in the school about me. It all came with a lot of shame. The blank slate in Afghanistan did not come with this shame.
“To really accentuate the white person lens in all of this, I was able to find myself through this experience,” he adds. “Of course, Afghans in the LGBTQIA+ community have a radically different experience than this. It’s in bold and italics.
As the Taliban continued to make Afghanistan an inhospitable place for gay people of all stripes, Bryon nonetheless developed a deep affinity for the nation he considered his home. The process of coming to terms with this contradiction emerged as the central substance of the film, with no easy resolutions offered to a thorny inner enigma. “Teddy and I lost months of sleep over this ethical dilemma of ‘How do we like these guys? These guys are awful, we hate them. No, we love them. No, we hate them. No, we love them. Shouldn’t we be doing this? It was the most confusing experience of my life… This conflict is the most interesting thing in the film, for me. I am very attached to this aspect. As a character, I have no resolution for myself or answers to these questions. It didn’t feel right to have the movie respond when I personally don’t have an answer.
Bryon and Villamizar share a firmer certainty about the paramount importance of protecting those who are still persecuted by the Taliban. Despite all the hardships they went through during the transition, the co-directors also enjoyed a handful of perks that many others aren’t blessed with. More than a tribute to Bryon’s tenacity in the face of strong opposition, the film pays tribute to anyone with the conviction and courage to live honestly under conditions that seek to punish or erase any sign of difference.
“We’re both minority filmmakers, you know?” said Villamizar. “There is so much hate everywhere. We are appalled at what is happening, in terms of the persecution against the trans community. But we wanted to approach everything from a non-judgmental point of view. We hope to have a social impact with this. There are a lot of Afghans who are left behind, we worry about them – refugees and trans communities.