“My favourite word is ‘persistence’,” says Donna Personna, the eponymous subject of Jay Bedwani’s documentary, while perusing an inspirational quote on a colleague’s wall. At that moment, she is talking about her hopes of finding a mass audience for her cabaret work, though she’s under no illusions about the modest extent of her formal talents. There’s much more at play here, however. Now 75, Donna is a late-blossoming, relatively new turn on the San Francisco performance scene. That’s one kind of persistence. She’s also trans and, though conscious from childhood of her non-normative identity, has been publicly living her gender only from the age of 59.
Over the past decade, Donna has evidently nurtured highly substantive forms of self-actualisation, friendship, and cultural and political agency. And, as Bedwani’s film documents, she is engaged in complex and reflexive projects of engagement with her past, on both intimately personal and broadly structural levels. Donna is the story, then, of the successful third act of a trans life – something that still constitutes a triumph in itself.
The film is structured around observational footage of Donna’s current life, including joyous dancefloor experiences, tense backstage moments and conversations with a younger trans friend that reflect how some elements of trans experience have changed over time while others remain regrettably familiar. Donna also narrates voiceover passages of personal memoir, looking back at her suburban California upbringing in a large family headed by a Christian pastor and the alienation from them that accompanied her growing awareness of her sexuality and gender identity.
Strikingly, she recalls becoming conscious of how queerphobia not only made her personally vulnerable to rejection and violence but also made her religious family, with its deep yet fragile investment in normative respectability, vulnerable to social annihilation should the truth come out. “I had the power to destroy their lives,” she notes, and the determination not to do so came at great personal cost. Meanwhile, as a teenager, Donna clandestinely became part of the San Francisco queer scene and befriended many of the trans sex workers involved in the 1966 Compton’s Cafeteria riot, a pre-Stonewall uprising that has recently begun to gain belated recognition.
These pasts return as we observe Donna collaborating in the production of a play that dramatises the riot and making steps toward restoring relations with at least some members of her biogenetic family. Each process has its own delicacies, compromises and rewards, validating ongoing reckonings. This short film offers a long view of a complex life marked by challenge, generosity and, yes, persistence. How remarkable that Donna’s signature expression is an open-mouthed laugh.
► Donna is in UK cinemas from today.