LA DÉBUTANTE is a journey into the life of a 56-year-old trans woman who comes to the realization that it’s either transition or death. It’s an inspiring story on the blossoming of womanhood and a testament that it’s never too late to become who you are.
Countries of production: France, Brazil
Duration: 44 minutes
Born in post-war rural Nord-Pas-de-Calais, Emilie’s first 56 years were a struggle to fit into the only model of the good life she knew. From working the fields at the age of six and going to school on horseback, hardworking and self-taught Emilie became a suburban home owner in the affluent city of Beauvais, married to a nurse and raising three children.
She was a success story, but she wasn’t herself. She’d always known that the child riding the horse was a little girl. Though she showed pride in her performance, she was also painfully aware that the young man staring back at her in the military service photos was playing a role.
While Emilie was acting the part, a revolution was taking place: gender nonconforming people from around the globe began finding each other - and themselves - online. In a historical turn, their voices began to echo beyond the margins; they were connecting, telling their stories, multiplying narratives. Together and through example, they began to feel entitled to a life of authenticity and self-worth.
By 2010, Emilie goes online. Eureka! Her most secret and unrealizable dreams now seemed entirely possible. Many other transgendered people were living it. With so many new paths open to her, the closet was no longer an option. As she movingly reveals in La Débutante, from that point on, it was either transitioning or “a bullet to the head”.
So, in 2013, at the height of the so-called “Trans Decade”, the soon to be grandmother Emilie makes her debut into womanhood. As confident as ever, she embarks on a different journey to success, this time on her own terms, defying the norms. A daughter of our times, she starts by connecting online, building a network, meeting up with like-minded people in real life, and, as many others before her, expressing herself on camera. Our camera.
Here begins our story of “an ordinary woman living an extraordinary journey”, as the protagonist describes herself. Once her decision was made, Emilie engaged director Lena Tosta in the process of unveiling and embodying her femininity, her “coming of age”. Relying only on spontaneous interaction and discourse, we witness Emilie’s first Rites of Becoming as she reveals her very particular universe to those who cross her path, to our lenses and ultimately to herself. Although her experiences are unique, they also speak of the unwelcomed struggle she shares with an evergrowing number of late-bloomer transgendered people, who, simply to fit in, must defy the institutions they value.
It was 2012, and the first gay wedding had just been celebrated in France. As a Film Anthropologist interested in dissidence and gender, living in Paris and on the hunt for a new project, I rationalized myself into the subject: It’s a historical turn, I have to film it!
As I dived into the the universe of same-sex marriage, I found myself only tangentially challenged - visually or otherwise. Probably the most filmed ritual on Earth, gay or not, Western weddings tend to vary very little and the first homossexual ones in France stayed true to the script.
While still trying to discover my an angle on gay marriage, I found myself drawn instead to the transpédégouines, a queer group whose headquarters was the co-op, trans-run bar La Mutinerie. While the mainstream gay movement was fighting for marriage inclusion, these queers wanted to see gender norms and patriarchal institutions implode under the pressure of their own anachronisms.
However avant-garde, La Mutinerie was open to diversity and welcomed independent groups, some of which gravitated towards gender normativity, such as the trans women who gathered for the Brief Therapy Workshop. Theirs was a struggle to legitimately perform their gender, to be accepted as the women they were, not to blur the gender lines.
I was tagged along to one of such workshops by Barbara - a Brazilian engineer and a trans woman “still disguised as a man”, as she put it. I had suggested “La Mute” as a place Barbara could be herself among other trans people. So, one Saturday spring morning, Barbara changed at my place and we headed there together.
What we found was a group of twenty or so people composed entirely of women, primarily middle-aged, only some of which had begun their transition. It would be close enough to describe them as typical French madames, with their studied elegance and carefully tailored presentations. Emilie was the most senior of them all, but stood out rather as the most upbeat and expansive. We bonded very easily and, by the end of the day, I had been invited into her life - camera and all - to document the first steps of her transition.
Voilà, I was captured. It couldn’t get more auspicious than that. I was gladly derailed from a stale research project by a confident, open-hearted person living the most significant passage in her extraordinary trajectory, eager to bare herself on camera. Not only that, but she volunteered to actively co-produce a film.
It sounded like a film anthropologist’s dream come true and that’s what it became. Emilie maintained her interest in the film throughout the process. She effectively debated what, when and where to shoot, and convinced her entourage to participate. She opened the door of her home and heart; welcomed me into both her social life and her private moments. Since many of her activities involved the embodiment of femininity, my camera and I were even invited to share her intimate rituals of the body.
Originally, I had considered the project important because it allowed Emilie to express herself and the world to fathom the joys and sorrows in her remarkable trajectory, and maybe even to empathize with “the trans cause”. It was a delightful surprise to realize that it meant much more to Emilie. When we finally watched the film with her therapy group, I caught her commenting with a friend: “C’est ça, ça c’est moi!” - “That’s it, this is me!” and I understood that, more than anything, La Débutante allowed Emilie to see herself, perhaps for the first time in her life.
The result is not your typical transition story about a man “becoming” a woman. It’s a coming of age story, a film about a woman becoming herself, in society’s eyes and in her own.
about the filmmaker
Lena Tosta is Brazilian and French anthropological filmmaker and former lecturer at the Universidade de Brasília (UnB) and IESB, in Brasília, Brazil. She holds a doctorate degree in Anthropology and two master’s degrees, one of which is in Anthropological Cinema from Jean Rouch’s Anthropological Cinema Department at the University of Paris X. She has produced audiovisual work and conducted field research in Brazil, India, Canada, Nepal and France and currently works with film production, curation, exhibitions and gives speeches on Visual Anthropology and on her ethnographic fields of expertise.
La Débutante is her first medium-length documentary, though Tosta has directed a number of multimedia ethnographies and short documentary films and art videos, as well as participated in over 20 important festivals, seminars and exhibitions in places such as: Musée du Quai Branly, Paris, France; Alliance Française in Toronto, Canada; The National Museum and National Theatre, Brasília, Brazil; Conjunto Cultural of Banco do Brasil, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Brasília, Brazil; The French Embassy in Brazil and at the India Habitat Center, New Delhi, India. She is the founder of the production companies Femídia and Etnofoco and has had articles published internationally, both in academic periodicals and in magazines. She’s the recipient of the 2002 Pierre Verger Prize for Visual Anthropology.
Most recent audiovisual works as director and director of photography:
Hub das Pretas - 2017
O Leve - 2017
Tatá e Danú
Destemidas - 2016
Choque - 2016
Varanasi, Umbigo do Mundo - 2014
Directed, Filmed & Edited by
João Pedro Guimarães
Maísa Arantes de Amorim
Cíntia Domit Bittar