Call Me Marianna: A touching portrait of an ongoing struggle

by Vladan Petkovic

– Karolina Bielawska’s second feature-length documentary is screening in the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival’s Forum section

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The second feature-length documentary by Karolina Bielawska, Call Me Marianna [+], won three awards at the Krakow International Film Festival before going on to snag the Zonta Club Prize at Locarno for the director whose film especially contributes to the promotion of justice, solidarity and an ethical attitude. Now it is screening in the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival‘s Forum section.

At first sight, we meet Marianna as an attractive woman in her 40s. She lives alone with a cat. But what we also see early on in the film is that Marianna is confined to a wheelchair, hardly able to talk, with her left hand immobile, but is working on a theatre play with two actors.

Marianna used to be a man and is now going through hormone therapy and legal proceedings with her family. In Poland, to change your sex, you have to get permission from your parents, regardless of your age. So Marianna had to sue her father and mother to be able to get sex reassignment surgery, something she wants more than anything in the world.

She seems to be winning the battle – she gets the permission and the surgery in Gdansk goes well; she has met a man who accepts her for what she is, but there are unexpected problems coming her way. Suffice it to say that the price for establishing her sexual identity was very high for Marianna.

The concept of the film is divided into pure documentary following the protagonist, and her work on the play, with which she is confronting her past. She was married for 25 years and has two children, and is now trying to re-establish contact with Kasia, the ex-wife. This structure works both to bring us closer to Marianna and to give us an insight into the problems that transgender people face. For instance, the situation with her parents is, to say the least, expected in the intensely Catholic Poland, but the fact that Marianna has remained a very religious person really is not.

Even more importantly, though resistance is expected from old, traditional parents, it seems the whole society is ostracising Marianna, or at least this is the feeling we get from the film. There are no scenes of outright aversion, but for most of the movie, she is on her own. She does have a girlfriend who appears now and then, but she goes to and back from the surgery in Gdansk alone. Her solitary life with a (constantly purring) cat does not alleviate the feeling either.

Call Me Marianna is a touching, at times troubling – and in several instances devastating – documentary on a topic that will not get old any time soon. However much we wish to congratulate ourselves on the free-minded society we have built, we only need to think of Marianna and realise that the fight is still going to go on for quite a while.

Call Me Marianna is a co-production by Studio Fimowe Kalejdoskop and the Polish national broadcaster, TVP. London-based Film Republic handles the international rights.