“Being an old woman was never part of the fantasy,” observes one of the subjects of “I Am a Woman Now,” Dutch docu helmer Michiel van Erp’s affecting look at five European men who were reborn as women in a Casablanca clinic more than five decades ago. The quintet of sex-change pioneers are now older, wiser and — in most cases — happier, their life experience adding a welcome new perspective to a subject that’s become a staple of the nonfiction circuit. This beautifully shot widescreen docu has been a sales success since its IDFA premiere last fall.
Pic opens with Belgian Corinne van Tongerloo visiting the grave of “miracle doctor” Georges Burou in Casablanca. The French surgeon, who died in the 1980s, started performing sexual reassignment operations as early as the mid-1950s. A prim old lady now, van Tongerloo, a former nudie dancer, sees her trip to Morocco as a pilgrimage to her second place of birth.
Altogether feistier is English rose April Ashley, whose gray hair sports more than a small hint of purple and who sips champagne throughout her interviews, her regal poise and wit counterbalanced by sobering tales of an extremely difficult childhood. Initially coming across as rather perky woman, Dutch beautician Colette Berends reveals a more troubled side as she rather casually recounts how she decided to leave her much younger b.f. of many years because of the age gap and her fear of becoming an old woman.
Also struggling with the onset of her twilight years is Jean Lessenich, a German who was also operated on by Burou but who has since gone back and forth between taking female and male hormones, the latter at the insistence of her Japanese g.f. of 20 years, now deceased. Though it doesn’t quite wade into the waters of a documentary such as Marcus Lindeen’s “Regretters,” about two older male-to-female transsexuals who lament their decisions, Lessenich’s story does suggest that gender identity is not clear-cut for all transgender people, and may be a lifelong search without a definite answer for some.
But the other subjects, including Frenchwoman Marie-Pierre Pruvot, or “Bambi,” one of Burou’s very first patients, feel their lives has changed drastically for the better, as directly suggested in a scene in which Ashley meets Burou’s son and thanks him for his father’s work and courage. Their post-op youth is also vividly brought to life through memories, pictures and Super 8 footage, notably when some of van Erp’s subjects meet in a French villa to reminiscence about the good old days. As they reveal their struggles with themselves and the people around them, the film beautifully suggests these individuals’ process of coming to terms.
Van Erp (“A Funfair Behind the Dikes”) casts a respectful and sensitive eye on his protagonists throughout, with one exception: The presence of the camera during a revealing conversation between van Tongerloo and one of her girlfriends, which has the whiff of a more sensationalistic and voyeuristic reality-TV approach that doesn’t jive with the pic’s overall sensibility.
Musical choices are key in the docu’s subtle and continuous modulation in celebrating these women’s uniqueness as well as their much-desired normality, with French chansons alternating with Louis Ter Burg’s Muzak-like score. Beautifully framed widescreen lensing makes good use of shallow focus.