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Existence as activism

IDENTITY / Intertwined with days of protests, the final days of Chile's radical Cabaret Travesía Travesti show how important it is that the trans community stands up to tell its own stories.

As the Chilean uprising of October 2019 was gaining momentum, activist transvestite show Cabaret Travesia Travesti had the last ever performance. Beyond the high heels and the flashy outfits, these performances had always been politically charged, calling for involvement and the change of a painful reality: that of a historically stigmatised community that is often subject to deadly violence. For Nicolas Videla – who was part of the cabaret troupe – this last performance marked the end of an era, and at the same time opened up a possibility: that is to tell the true stories of this community turning into flashy characters by night, but underneath that, constantly struggling to stand its ground, find dignity and say ‘I exist.’

Travesti Odyssey, a film by Nicolas Videla
Travesti Odyssey, a film by Nicolas Videla

A world never truly seen

Beyond it being a celebration of the troupe, watching Videla’s Travesti Odyssey feels like a dive into a world you’ve never truly seen from close, and certainly not from the inside. It’s not a sneak peek, and it’s not an affair with the flamboyant aesthetics, the glitter, and the mannerisms one might associate with the idea of drag. Instead, it is as close as one can get to an immersion through a film, an intimate look into a complex human experience, most often misunderstood and misrepresented. A world that is different from the mainstream ‘normal,’ because of that is generally hidden, inaccessible, and portrayed in a voyeuristic way.

The film is built as a collage of interviews, archive footage, and scenes from performances. Footage of Mini DV and VHS tapes meet Videla’s camera lens in a spiral-like journey that often feels unreal. The story it tells is not linear but instead surfaces as the puzzle pieces come together. It tells of activism, but more importantly, it portraits a unique kind of identity, a close-up exploration that can push the viewer out of her comfort zone.

Travesti Odyssey, a film by Nicolas Videla
Travesti Odyssey, a film by Nicolas Videla

The scale of courage

Understanding the struggles, the feelings, the love that drives the members of the troupe, with two main characters that are at the core of what Travestia Travesti was – it all comes together as an experience that might not be entirely relatable for an outsider, but certainly, one that an outsider can and should understand. The coordinates of such a life might be different from the mainstream. But so is the scale of the courage it takes to show up and embody the truth of who you are to a world that doesn’t get it, judges, or turns a blind eye. Or worse, a world that often turns aggressive. A world that often seems to feel that your existence is something that simply should not be.

The marginalisation narrows options, and in this case, for this community, the options are twofold – surviving at the margins, quietly, in the unseen, hoping the worse won’t happen. Or take charge, stepping out and up and turning their shared experiences and reality into art – their very existence an activist statement. They chose the latter.

But the demise of the troupe is not driven by outside pressure but by internal dynamics and personal differences that might seem petty at first. Yet, as the story unfolds, one can wonder – how could it be otherwise? The love, the friendship, the identity struggles are all knitted with an invisible sense of the unavoidable, of belonging by necessity, finding in each other a support vessel that holds space for this unique reality. Yet, it encapsulates all social needs in one small bubble bound to burst.

it encapsulates all social needs in one small bubble bound to burst.

Being part of this community means being part of a microworld that is unavoidably claustrophobic because it is so small. Its members have to be everything for each other – friends, mentors, support, and work colleagues. It is a microworld in which they are assigned to each other by their very identity. And though they share in the experience, they each are individual and very different people, battling their individual battles, internally and with the outside world. They need each other and, at the same time, have no choice but to have each other, a narrow system of support in a love-hate dynamic.

Travesti Odyssey, a film by Nicolas Videla
Travesti Odyssey, a film by Nicolas Videla

Out from the comfort zone

From the many documentary films you might see over time, watching Travesti Odyssey is one you will remember. And you will do so because it will make you feel uneasy and push you out of your comfort zone to the point of feeling privileged. Trans stories are told mainly by outsiders through their lens and understanding. Instead, Travesti Odyssey is an insider’s story, an unapologetic dive into a world that feels raw, suspended out of your reality, and yet so real and so close to the very elements that make a human life: the personal histories, the sex, the primal need to belong and to be seen, and the struggle to turn one’s life battles and discomforts into a coherent sense of being true to self. And just as the troupe kept turning struggle into activism performance, Videla’s film turns the stories of what happened in their lives and behind the scene into art.

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Bianca-Olivia Nita
Bianca-Olivia Nita
Bianca is a freelance journalist and documentary critic. She is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.

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