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BERLINALE 2021 Perspektive Deutsches Kino

Review: Instructions for Survival


- BERLINALE 2021: Yana Ugrekhelidze's documentary follows Alexander, a female-to-male transgender individual forced to lead a life of secrecy in his home country

Review: Instructions for Survival

A type of pain difficult to understand or imagine for most of us is at the centre of Georgian filmmaker Yana Ugrekhelidze's debut feature, the documentary Instructions for Survival [+see also:
film profile
, which played in the Perspektive Deutsches Kino strand of the 71st Berlinale.

In her documentary, Ugrekhelidze adopts a rather traditional observational approach to following the troubled life of a female-to-male transgender individual called Alexander. The man lives in Georgia and is still listed as “female” in his passport. Thus, he is forced to lead a life of secrecy, unable to legally find work. Understandably, nor does he want to disclose his identity for fear of the repercussions for himself and his family, especially for his wife, Mari. Their bond is full of sweetness and love, despite the desperate situation they're in. They share the same dream: to leave the country and find a better life.

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A turning point in their existences is represented by Mari's decision to become a surrogate mother for $12,000, a plan that ends up failing, as they both gradually develop a fondness for the unborn child. Throughout the documentary, two key elements emerge powerfully. The first is the strong support provided by Alexander's family ever since the beginning of his childhood – in particular that of his mother, who, in a touching sequence, starts talking about her son's past, while some of his old photographs are shown. The woman never hesitated in showering him with love, despite all of the societal pressures imposed by the local community.

The second element is the hardship experienced by Alexander, on all levels. He leads a life with very limited choices, where having no proper documents means constantly being on the fringes of society, and on top of this, the law does not provide enough protection against discrimination or hate crimes. At the very beginning of the documentary, for example, the man shows a YouTube excerpt from a talk show where one of the speakers clearly points out that members of the LGBT community should be killed and do not deserve to live.

The core meaning of the film is all in its title: Alexander's existence is all about survival, and there are no future prospects for him other than leaving Georgia. The last sequence shows the couple moving to Brussels, where Alexander is finally receiving proper medical assistance with his hormonal therapy and, perhaps, will get the chance to start a new, more normal life. Nevertheless, the pair may face another challenge: being accepted as new citizens by the Belgian community, rather than representing a weight “on their shoulders”.

Jule Katinka Cramer's camera is present but never too intrusive, even though it often follows the subjects from a minimal distance. The whole story is told by Ugrekhelidze with great tact and sensitivity.

Instructions for Survival was produced by Cologne-based outfit Fortis Fem Film. The world sales agent is yet to be confirmed.

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