So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God He created them;
male and female He created them.
– Genesis 1:27 – New International Version
There are many versions of Genesis 1:27. They each carry the flavor of the community from which they come, as well as a specific focus on certain phrases or words. The problem is that with each shift from the Torah (part of the Jewish community) to the Bible (pick a version used by various Christian communities), the intention of the verse gets sifted through the perspective of the faith and community. Especially now in the United States, as the state of Florida is shaping to be a battle ground for personal rights and freedoms regarding the trans and intersex communities, the interpretation of Genesis 1:27 becomes critical in shaping perspective. But why? What does it matter? If we’re created in G-d’s image, then there can be nothing wrong in the way someone presents or opts to exist. This is only a small piece of first-time feature director Tünde Skovrán’s moving documentary Who I Am Not, an exploration of self-perception, self-love, and the battle between who we think society wants us to be versus who we are.
Skovrán uses a pseudo-narrative documentary style as she follows two subjects, former Miss South Africa Sharon-Rose Khumalo and Dimakatso Sebidi, two intersex individuals on different journeys of personal acceptance. Moving forward, in order to keep things clear, from the presentation in the documentary, Khumalo appears to use she/her pronouns while Sebidi clearly states a preference for they/them. That stated, Who I Am Not is best described as a pseudo-narrative because Skovrán opens with a voiceover from Khumalo explaining how she wishes she lived in a movie so that she could have a script to dictate her words and would know the future. This is, of course, intercut with snippets of Khumalo in different aspects of her life: pageants, prepping for on-camera work, and other aspects which suggest she’s a known personality. Using this as setup, there are several moments in which Skovrán captures Khumalo on camera doing something as simple as swimming and transforms it into a dazzling scene of philosophical introspection as Khumalo is shown as curled up like a fetus in the suddenly dark surrounding water. There’s another moment so seamless in execution involving Khumalo in which she herself is transformed, a sequence that speaks a great deal to the amount of energy she clearly uses while out in public (perhaps masking) and what she seeks for comfort. Because of this mixed-fiction style, I couldn’t help but pay attention to what seems to be Khumalo’s apartment: a strikingly white, almost sterile living space where all the objects within it are minimal to the point of absence of person. Within the framework Skovrán’s created, this implies how Khumalo may view herself, a vibrant and colorful person to the outside world but a blank canvas in private, unsure of where she fits and therefore unable to determine decoration that is tailored to her.
Conversely, the portions with Sebidi are far more traditional in their documentary presentation. We follow them as they engage with their live-in partner and family and try to balance seeking employment from people who don’t understand what it means to be intersex with the mystery of who they are. Against the female-presenting Khumalo, Sebidi proudly walks both gender paths, even if preferring a more male outward presentation. Through Sebidi, we learn of what can happen to intersex babies, the medical procedures they might endure as parents seek to push the newly-born toward one gender preference over another. It’s heartbreaking to travel with Sebidi as they discuss with their father the choice that was stolen from them, though it was not the intention of their father to do so. What’s uplifting through all the pain is how Sebidi is confident in their identity and that the quest to find confirmation from doctors (only one we see on camera during this period) of their status is more about empowering themselves (solving personal mysteries) than outside influence. The answer they receive, though, doesn’t matter, especially as framed by Skovrán; it’s how Sebidi views themselves and whether they love themselves that matters.
Which brings us back to the religious aspect of identity and love that opened this review. Both Khumalo and Sebidi seem to be practicing Christians who also partake in cultural customs. So there are several sequences in which one or both demonstrate their belief in G-d. There are also several sequences in which a discussion is had regarding the difficulties of being openly intersex in communities in which the corporeal form is a product of G-d’s design. Unlike Americans who proclaim that all they care for are children with ten fingers and ten toes then proceed to banish, estrange, or otherwise reject their child when they state their identity as anything other than cishet, there is a sense that – while not fully understood or accepted everywhere – both Khumalo and Sebidi exist with support systems in their African homeland. What Skovrán shows audiences is another way to look at things, specifically that the communities that Khumal and Sebidi belong to don’t outright reject them for being as they were made. When partaking in a ritual conducted by an individual only identified as Elder, they tell Sebidi that they are exactly as intended, nothing is wrong. It’s an external validation that clearly moves Sebidi, but I read it also as Sebidi receiving confirmation of the view they’ve held for themselves that pushes them toward greater acceptance of self.
Placed side-by-side, Khumalo and Sebidi are a study in contrasts — one well-known but struggling for personal connection and the other less financially successful but surrounded with support. Yet, they are not so different. It’s not just the ways in which Skovrán presents their respective trials and perspectives, it’s that they merely want to feel connected to and whole in their skin. The aforementioned doctor states on camera that while chromosomes form as XX (female) and XY (male), that there is possibility in the formation for testosterone and estrogen to still ebb and flow more or less, making it so that whether XX or XY, the chemistry of the body may lean in a different direction. Thus, a battle between physical chemistry and spirit may take place. With respect and delicacy, Skovrán places us on the frontlines of battle with Khumalo and Sebidi. We, the audience, see them find some kind of answer, hopefully loving themselves more in the process as we do. There is nothing wrong with them, whether you believe in G-d’s image or not, for they are as anyone else: complex, beautiful, and human. By the end, they know who they are not and, with luck, so does each member of the audience.
Screened during SXSW 2023.
For more information, head to the official SXSW Who I Am Not webpage.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.
Categories: In Theaters, Reviews
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