Regretters : case study of a gender political chamber play
(excerpts from a production study, Clare Havell 2011)
Regretters (2010) is a Swedish documentary featuring two men who had sex changes to become women, only to regret their decision and re-transition to more masculine identities and bodies. Dealing with complex subject matter, the format of the film is very simple; the two participants Mikael and Orlando sit with one another in a studio, showing each other slides, video, artefacts from their lives as women, as they interview each other, for one hour. Regretters is played out in the studio – storytelling at its most pared down, quite aptly described by one critic as a “gender political chamber play” (Eriksson 2009, p.45).
How does a gender political chamber play come to be produced? And seen? Who is it made for? Unusually for a film so steeped in queer and transgender narratives, it did not originate from a background /lived experience of queerness on the part of the director, but an interest in the nature of change and regret.
Regretters did not begin its life as a film. It began as a radio show on Swedish Radio, part of a weekly series Lindeen was presenting on different experiences of regret. It was after Mikael, one of the participants in Regretters, spoke on the radio show that Orlando called the station to express his own experiences of re/transitioning. Lindeen has said that he immeadiately wanted them to meet, and to produce a film from the encounter, but it went on a detour of sorts stemming from the fact that Mikael didn’t want his identity to be known. As Lindeen didn’t like the usual documentary solution to this problem – blurred faces and distorted voices – the project was developed as a theatre piece. After recording an interview with Orlando and Mikael, actors played their parts on stage. It was the success of the theatre production that changed Mikael’s mind about appearing in a film.
“I never wanted Regretters to be a film about the politics of transsexualism. Even though one of my biggest fears while making both the play and the film, was that people from the trans community would misinterpret the film to be a statement against the idea of transitioning, or something like that. I was more interested in trying to use the transsexual journey as a metaphor for all kinds of big decisions that we make in life and that affects our identities, and see what happens when we come to regret these decisions. Ultimately, I wanted the film to touch on these more universal existential themes that we all think about when we realize that we can’t live life twice, and must come to terms with the paths we have chosen for ourselves.Or try to change them over and over again.
But the feared hostile reaction from the trans community never really came.”
I was also sceptical before watching this film – fearing an undertone of judgement and anti-gender reassignment surgery rhetoric, but it doesn’t come. There is not even a feeling of voyeurism. This is probably due to a number of factors, including the political integrity of Linden, the vast amount of research he put in, as well as to the drawing of attention to personal experiences of homophobia, transphobia, stigma and sexism, but most significantly perhaps, the level of involvement of the subject/participants.
This involvement included the payment of actors fees, typically an area of great taboo in the field of documentary (with the exception of celebrities, and people in extreme need i.e. famine victims. In the case of the latter, it should more be a ‘gift’ after filming is finished. (Rabinger 2009, p. 381) This code comes from the conviction that if you pay someone money they will tell you what they think you want to hear, not how the situation really is. It is a code which ignores the multi-layered motives people have for what they say and do on camera, as well the many non-cash payments which occur.
But for Linden the issue is honesty with and responsibility to the subject/participants is most important;
“I don’t believe in documentaries as being objective. I believe all storytelling is constructed, so I would rather be there manipulating it to be true to what I, as a filmmaker, want to give my audience…..it also felt like the most honest and respectful way for me to treat Mikael and Orlando, hiring them as actors and giving them a more active role in the filmmaking. Instead of getting surprised when seeing the finished film, they knew already on the set what I tried to achieve, and could protest right away, or try to understand the task and deliver their best.”
(Linden in an interview with Cook, 2010)
Regretters is a most beautiful conversation. One where power is held and shared by the subject/participants, where personal experiences of suffering and transphobia don’t victimise but reflect on wider power relations in society, as well as our own abilities to make change happen.
Of course it also pushes documentary boundaries of form, structure and aesthetics. A talking head on screen has never been so engaging.
Books and Magazines:
ERIKSSON, Niklas, 2009. No Regrets. Swedish Film, issue 3, 44 – 46
RABINGER, Michael, 2009. Directing the Documentary, 5th Edition, Oxford: Focal Press
COOK, Catherine, 2010. Interview with Marcus Linden, Director of Regretters. (Online) Available from: http://www.thedocumentaryblog.com/index.php/2010/05/26/interview-with-marcus-lindeen-director-of-regretters/ (accessed 21.3.11)
LEEMAN, Lisa. Money Changes Everything–or Does It?: Considering Whether Documentaries Should Pay for Play (online).Available from:
LINDEEN, Marcus 2011, In an interview with myself via email dated 25.4.2011