Tribeca 2023 Review: A Sense of Duty Comes Naturally But What It Demands Does Not in “Transition”

If there is a defining characteristic about Jordan Bryon, it is one of responsibility, made clear when he wonders aloud in “Transition” how much longer he can keep reporting on Afghanistan after the U.S. withdrawal of troops has led to chaos in the country after the Taliban has retaken control over the government. Others have fled for obvious safety reasons, but also there may be a sense among foreign journalists that there may not be much of a story left to tell, and in sticking around to prove otherwise, Byron could be serving the greater good but at no small cost to his own mental health. This is hardly a new circumstance for Byron, who has been hemmed in a far more intimate way by his principles, riding the situation out as he begins preparations for gender-affirming surgery, locked into a perpetual state of limbo when presenting as a man to gain access to the Taliban for the purposes of a documentary even though close inspection of his legal documents identify him as a woman.

The premise alone is bound to get attention for “Transition,” but it’s the unique perspective that Bryon has, working with co-director Monica Villamizar, that makes the cinematic memoir provocative, with the Australian documentarian feeling more comfortable in Afghanistan when the threat of gunfire seems less dangerous than pointed stares in a community where he’s more well-known and the difficult work of winning the trust of a Taliban commander to participate in a documentary for the New York Times has already been done. Bits of that project make it into “Transition,” with Bryon and his cinematographer Teddy, a native Afghan, engaging in casual conversations with a Taliban unit where the point is made that they are not unlike either of the documentarians in certain respects with Teddy bonding with the leader over the fact that both had planned on careers in engineering before the world had other plans for them once the U.S. invasion began, and only Bryon can know how he relates as he listens on, sympathetic to anyone not doing what comes naturally to them.

It becomes clear that Bryon’s access to the commander was predicated on the goal of relating their humanity to the rest of the world to see, and while this isn’t to be mistaken for sympathy for the Taliban, it becomes fascinating when that’s being fulfilled even as Bryon still thinks he’s betraying them, never letting on that he’s biologically a woman in spaces where their presence amongst men is punishable by death. One might suspect that logistics might be a primary concern of Bryon’s in “Transition” but embedding amongst the Taliban and getting hormone treatments are all appear to come relatively easily to the savvy filmmaker. Instead, it’s the stress of truly not living his truth that’s revealed to be much harder, anxiety-ridden over when to wear a mask and when not to at such places as security checkpoints and feeling as if he’s putting Teddy in jeopardy by keeping his biological identity a secret, and there’s no one to truly confide in, despite the support of Kiana, a photojournalist that he can trust to understand his professional dilemmas, yet believes his personal ones seem out of her reach. This gap may have been torturous in the moment for Bryon, but as he and Villamizar ably capture this abstract dread in concrete ways, it feels as if by generously offering up his experience, he’s closed it considerably for anyone who feel they’re at a distance by the end of “Transition.”

“Transition” will screen at Tribeca Festival on June 9th at 5:45 pm at the Village East and June 17th at 5:15 pm at AMC 19th St. East.

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