It’s something of a cliché that a documentary about a transgender woman must show its subject sitting at a dressing table and putting on makeup and, indeed, such is the case here. Before even the title card has made its appearance we meet Donna – full name Donna Personna –, the subject of Jay Bedwani’s film, as she applies eye makeup and prepares to go on stage for one of her lip-syncing performances. Happily, though, the cliches end there and we are immediately in a scene where Donna is being fitted for hearing aids. Her natural ebullience and infectious laugh have charmed not only the nurses but also this viewer. Afterwards, when filling out a form, she informs the nurses that the name on the form is her old name and that she prefers Donna but that it’s not her legal name. It’s a small moment that shows how an ordinary task for everyone else is that bit less straightforward than it is for trans people. Any thoughts that this was going to be another film about how difficult life is for trans people were soon dispelled as Donna’s good humour and natural charisma come to the fore in an entertaining documentary about her life as a performer and activist.
The film gives us a glimpse into her life, the youngest of 15 children in a conservative Christian Mexican family. We see home movie footage pre her transition and we learn that she hasn’t spoken to her siblings in years. “They have never seen me as Donna,” she says at one point. We also see her on stage, lip-syncing – badly, as she says herself – and as she walks around the streets of San Francisco. We see her at work, developing a play about the Compton Cafeteria riot, an event that happened three years before Stonewall. We see her engaging with younger members of the trans community and, most movingly of all, we see her reconnect with one of her sisters.
It’s rare that we get to see stories about older trans people. Donna, now in her 70s, didn’t come out until she was 59 and it’s refreshing to see an older trans woman living her truth and being so full of joy and positivity. For that reason alone, Donna is well worth catching, but there is so much more to this lovely film. Donna approaches everything with a zest for life that would put most of us to shame and I wanted to spend more time in this woman’s company. We need more stories like this. The older members of our community have much to teach us and the least we can do is take the time to listen.