Jay Bedwani’s documentary about trans activist Donna Personna feels intimate and honest, but it’s never as fun or loose as its subject.
Donna Personna is a larger-than-life kind of figure. She’s funny, honest and deeply relatable. Donna is also an artist, a performer, a hairdresser and an activist and Jay Bedwani’s documentary manages to find time to showcase all of Donna’s personality even if it never quite reaches her level of brilliance.
Donna is a very sympathetic documentary. It’s warm and funny and Bedwani smartly stays out of the way, allowing Donna to be the star of the show – at least most of the time. At times, Donna moves in and out of focus, as if Bedwani almost forgot he’s making a documentary about a drag performer and a trans activist.
While Donna is undeniably emotional, it also lacks edge. Donna tells some of her memories in voiceover and lines such as “I knew how to stay alive” will tug at your heartstrings, but there’s no anger, no fury, at least in the documentary. Donna herself is constantly soft-spoken and gentle with her words and maybe Bedwani purposely doesn’t want to make a fuss or make a strong political statement about trans rights with his film.
There’s still plenty of power behind Donna’s words and her story. She speaks of having no one to speak to about crushing on boys and she didn’t dress up and get on stage to perform until she was 59. She’s living proof that it’s never too late to live your best life and that’s where the documentary’s power lies.
But, as it often is with documentaries like these, Donna mostly just lifts its subject on an impossible pedestal. The admiration towards Donna almost turns to pity as the film relentlessly chronicles her struggles, rather than offer a complex portrayal of Donna. She becomes one-dimensional – through no fault of her own – purely because Bedwani strives to only show how she has soared despite her struggles. It’s inspirational but not necessarily completely honest all the time.
Bedwani’s film also comes across as a little stiff. It’s never anywhere near as unique or fun as Donna Personna herself. While Donna is certainly intimate, it forgets to portray the passion and life force that Donna herself projects, especially when she’s on stage.
Shot by Bedwani and Frazer Bradshaw, the camera is often awkwardly placed and too static, as if it’s not really supposed to be there, and we find ourselves peering into Donna’s life as unannounced and uninvited guests – like Peeping Toms, if you will. It’s never done maliciously, but the film lacks vision and Bedwani’s direction isn’t as confident as it should be.
But the star of the show is Donna. It’s impossible not to be moved by her memories, especially as she speaks of fearing that she might ruin her family’s life. This is a portrait of a selfless, kind soul, one that shines brightest now that she’s able to be herself finally.
Donna never quite reaches its full potential, but it’s a sweet, tender and immensely positive documentary about a trans activist everyone in the San Jose area seems to know. Her notoriety doesn’t always translate in Bedwani’s hands, but her personality constantly shines through.
While Bedwani carefully toes the line between reducing members of the trans community to just their traumas and creating an intimate look at Donna Personna, he plays it too safe and Donna is never as energetic and lively as its subject.
Donna is released in cinemas and on Bohemia Euphoria 15th July