At the 2023 Telluride Film Festival, Film Quarterly editor-at-large B. Ruby Rich sat down with the noted philosopher Paul B. Preciado to discuss his path towards making his film debut with Orlando: My Political Biography (2023), a film that Rich considers the “first trans masterpiece.”

The noted philosopher Paul B. Preciado has made a film! Preciado’s Orlando, My Political Biography (2023) combines essay and dance hall, stage and garden, in a mix that has beguiled audiences from its debut at the 2023 Berlin Film Festival last winter to its North American launch at the Telluride, Toronto, and New York film festivals last autumn. At publication time, it was in release from Janus and Criterion, arbiters of cinematic quality that rarely pay attention to this sort of rebel work. Their faith in the film’s success is no mistake.

I was able to see Orlando at a press screening at the 2023 Berlinale—the first audience to see the film—and I pronounced it “the first trans masterpiece.”1 Preciado’s jewel box of a film goes beyond even that, blasting its categories wide open, posing as much of a challenge to notions of “documentary” as Preciado already posed to concepts of masculinity/femininity. It’s a thoroughly nonbinary film in terms of both genre and gender. And as a first film, Orlando is nothing short of remarkable.

Preciado, with degrees from The New School and Princeton, has made waves since completing his PhD in philosophy and theory of architecture with a dissertation on Playboy, an early signal of interest in disrupting masculinity, and has been publishing, seemingly nonstop, ever since.2 As a professor, journalist (at Libération), curator (most recently at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris), activist, and prolific author, Preciado is a central figure in imagining a new world across genres and genders. Orlando, then, might be seen as example A of that new world, effortlessly disrupting categories while ceaselessly entertaining. Preciado emerges as a cinematic juggler, conducting festival discussions like seminars, a red-carpet natural.

Preciado entered the high temples of cinema via a commission from Arte, the prestigious French/German production entity where fearless producers (including FQ’s own contributing editor Rasha Salti) pride themselves on taking chances on new filmmakers and strategies. Preciado was summoned for a consultation: Arte wanted to commission a documentary on Preciado’s life as a way to explore what it means to be trans. Once in the room, Preciado fended off the idea, offering up Monique Wittig and other subjects. But by the end of the meeting, the Arte team had instead agreed to produce a film “about” Virginia Woolf’s Orlando to be directed by Preciado. Professing a charming lack of agency, Preciado testified that “by accident, I left the office with a contract, and then freaked out.”

The film that emerged is less a retelling of Woolf’s Orlando than a reimagining of the world as if everyone were Orlando. Preciado opens the film, in person and in the streets, pasting posters onto the walls of Parisian buildings, like missing-person alerts, that claim to search for Virginia Woolf even as Preciado on the soundtrack blames Woolf for usurping “his” transness for “her” book. Assembling a cast of some two dozen trans individuals, mostly adolescents, to play Orlando, Preciado stages starkly artificial scenes that paradoxically naturalize transness. The film’s performance style conflates the natural and the artificial, creating a space that not only neutralizes strangeness but harmonizes its disparate elements. As the Orlandos introduce themselves, one by one, each dons the Elizabethan-style ruff of centuries-old royalty and solemnly tells their life story, the collar serving as both costume and “character.”

Between these direct addresses to the camera are set pieces that range from infuriating (the septuagenarian trans leader Jenny Bel’Air enduring a hotel clerk’s intransigence over her ID card) to celebratory (the bonding of patients in the waiting room of the doctor dispensing hormones, played as a song-and-dance number). Archival footage of Christine Jorgensen and Sylvia Rivera establishes a birthright, while the appearance of such queer icons as Pierre et Gilles creates a trajectory to the present. Most thrilling is the final scene, in which all the film’s Orlandos convene in a courtroom: the judge (Virginie Despentes, no less) bestows upon them the coveted passports with their correct(ed) names and genders. By recasting these scenes of potential and real trauma as magical tableaux that yield happy outcomes, Preciado manages to conscript the audience into celebration, cheering on the Orlandos on their path through the movie—and life. It is to be hoped that Orlando is not Preciado’s final film.

The following interview took place on August 31, 2023, at the New Sheridan Hotel just before the film’s US premiere at the Telluride Film Festival.

B. Ruby Rich:

I know you as a philosopher. Clearly it wasn’t your original intention to become a filmmaker. Growing up in Spain, an only child in a large extended family, were you even interested in movies? Were there any films that influenced you?

Paul B. Preciado:

I was born in a small town, Burgos, a very conservative, fascist, religious place. Film, when I was a child, was seen as perverse. Watching films was something that people would do on the other side of the border—in France. Film was democracy, sexuality … my uncles and cousins, who were then twenty or twenty-five, would escape for the weekend and cross the border to Biarritz to see films. They would come back with stories about Bresson and Truffaut, telling that they’d seen couples kissing. That was film for me as a child: something forbidden.

And then of course we had the films I was shown at school, like those about Princess Sissi [empress of Austria, queen of Hungary]. There were two kinds of films that I saw when I was a child: those that had to do with kings and queens, shown on TV, and the comedies promoted by Franco’s government, always the same, stories about a guy coming from the countryside to the city, making fun of this poor stupid guy and the way he’s going to be perverted by the big city and then come back to his life in his village. And then, there were the big films that would be shown on TV, supercommercial, like Cleopatra [Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1963]. But those were not real films for me. The real films, the ones that you would see in theaters, they would be in French!

But this was when I was a child. As soon as I grew up, it was the time of the movida.3 But those films were not shown in theaters, you could not see them. At that time, the films of Pedro Almodóvar were completely underground. When I was a child and teenager, my main connection to queer culture was not through movies. There was nothing queer that I could see in movies, which were quite alienating, they were stories that were not mine. Maybe that’s why I became a theorist; I was much more into reading.

Paul B. Preciado, center, on the set of Orlando.

Paul B. Preciado, center, on the set of Orlando.

Close modal
Rich:

Today, though, you are very film-literate. When did your exposure to cinema change, and what films prompted you to become more interested in the medium?

Preciado:

I only got to know films much later, in my twenties, when I came to New York City. I was studying what was then called “continental philosophy” at The New School in 1992. It was such an amazing moment, with departments falling apart and being reconstructed—like women’s studies into gender studies. When I went to see the first debate between Nancy Fraser and Judith Butler, it was like going to see The Terminator.

This is the moment when I really got to see queer films and also when I discovered earlier films: Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1963) and those by Kenneth Anger, Andy Warhol’s films, Bruce LaBruce’s Hustler White (1996), and even the films of Chantal Akerman, whom I discovered at the same time. I became good friends with [photographer] Del LaGrace Volcano and [filmmaker] Hans Scheirl. I was living in New York, and my roommate was studying with Barbara Hammer. And they were all into making films, and sometimes I would even participate in the films Hammer was making with her students; I would go over on the weekend to make coffee for them.

But I saw myself as having a philosophical mission. For me, what was happening with queer theory was so important. I was so eager to learn and study. At that time, films were this cool thing that people were doing; all my friends wanted to make films. But I thought philosophy was more political, more detached. I saw them as aspiring Hollywood filmmakers and thought, “That’s not for me.” I really wanted to make philosophy.

Rich:

It’s interesting that filmmaking for you seemed tainted back then. Maybe it seemed too openly ambitious? After all, that was the moment when “independent film” was exploding into the marketplace and people wanted careers. It was no longer such an alternative calling.

Preciado:

Maybe because it was New York. I was there on a Fulbright fellowship, and many of my colleagues wanted to be artists or to make films, but I was spending my evenings reading Hegel! What was I doing? It seems ridiculous. But beyond any political issue, philosophy was my primary language. Abstraction was much easier for me. I don’t have a narrative mind, or I didn’t at that time. I was not interested in stories. I was interested in analyzing structures, in the architecture of knowledge.

That’s why many of the films I saw then were not interesting to me, were too conventional in their ways of narrating stories. I cannot say they were not important, of course: when I saw Maria Maggenti’s The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love [1995] or Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman [1996] in the nineties, or Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames [1983], they were incredibly important to me. They still are. They became almost like an archive stored way back in my mind.

And I became more interested as I moved from philosophy into the history of technology at Princeton. I started to read Teresa de Lauretis and met her. The idea of cinema as a technology of gender was very appealing to me. Instead of paying attention to the narrative and story, I began to think in a much more structural way about how cinema functions. That’s when I became interested. I started to look at images differently, less from the point of view of content than in terms of what subject was being produced through these images when they were projected, less about narrative than about the performative force of images. This was also the moment when performative theories of gender were very prominent. We were all following Judith Butler and trying to think about her ideas, we were all saying that gender is a political and social construction. Then I started to teach architecture students at Princeton, who would come back to me and say, “Ah, so what kind of a construction is that exactly?”

I began to make a cartography of the ways that this construction was really happening. It was only then that I realized that images in cinema were one of the most important and dominant technologies of Western culture. And that changed everything for me. And this happened in the early 2000s, at the moment when I was writing Testo Junkie. I started returning to this background archive I had in my mind and saying, “Hey, there is something here that is interesting, let’s look at how these images are working, how they are constructed, what is the subject they are producing.” I realized I had a huge collection of images.

When I came to France, queer cinema was really not known. I had probably the best collection of queer cinema in France! Then I started to have conversations with people like Élisabeth Lebovici.4 I was coming with my suitcases full of films, so I organized screenings at my house. I realized that, yes, these films had the potential to produce a different subject, especially in contrast to mainstream French cinema. In France, we were all so affected by the Nouvelle Vague, but it was immensely straight and binary and classist, and in terms of gender, a catastrophe.

For me, photography and cinema and architecture aren’t separate, I look at the three of them together as technologies of representation. I was much more on the side of decoding images then. But a new moment came when I was working with artists, especially when I worked on documenta 14.5 Some artists—like Shu Lea Cheang—started to ask me to collaborate and write scripts for them. That was a turning point for me. I started moving a little bit away from just decoding and criticizing images. I have never looked at cinema as a critic like you, but rather, within the framework of a larger theory of the subject.

Preparing for Orlando, I was madly watching all of Godard’s films, because they’d been superimportant for me, even though they were impossible too, because I would be thinking at the same time, “Oh my god, this guy is obnoxious,” with this very prominent straight male position in his films. Nevertheless, his way of undoing the difference between fiction and documentary, or inventing a language for making films as essays, using theory in films, archival material, the history of films, within something that was not a classical documentary format—all these were immensely important for me. I don’t have a formal education in cinema, but I know Italian cinema: Antonioni and also Pasolini, whose films I know really well.

This accidental way of becoming a filmmaker was good for me, because I didn’t have time to ask myself the questions that would have prevented me from doing it … not having the knowledge, not having enough film culture to do it, all of these things.

Maybe it was good to have an antidisciplinary way, because I’m difficult with films myself. When I see films, they very often get me very annoyed, especially those films that people tell me to see, saying, “Oh, you’re going to love it.” And then I go and I don’t love it. Precisely because of being this nonbinary trans person, I am not an easy spectator for films.

Rich:

I do think that the question of the body is overlooked as a condition of spectatorship. I have written about that, actually, in terms of my own experience as a woman.6 I often have to defend myself to fans of particular films that I hate, saying, “I inhabit the wrong body for this film.” Is that what you mean?

Preciado:

This is something that relates to my childhood. I don’t speak too much about it, but I grew up as an autistic child. I went to a special school in Spain, even before university. I was an only child, but in a big extended family with cousins, grandparents, aunts and uncles. I was hypersensitive to films when I was a child. My cousins or friends would sit in front of the TV and they would watch an entire film. But I would watch just a few minutes, maybe three minutes of a film, and I’d be hyperstimulated and mesmerized.

Just a few images, a few minutes, could constitute a whole world … I could dwell for weeks in images that I had in my mind. For me, not only horror films, any films, even Buñuel’s, which used to be on television, haunted me. I was scared of them. I remember the first time that I saw Un chien andalou, I was haunted for weeks. In a sense, that stays with me. I cannot do what people do today: sit in front of Netflix and watch for hours. People are always telling me to watch series, but I cannot.

Even now, I select very wisely the films I am going to see. Otherwise, I see films as a sort of mental rape. Images are alive—I felt that as a child—like viral creatures that come into your mind and do things. I became very attentive to what is coming into my mind.

A scene from Orlando, My Political Biography.

A scene from Orlando, My Political Biography.

Close modal
Rich:

You’ve said that you are not a filmmaker and that you were “untrained,” but Orlando strikes me as an incredibly mature film project. How, then, did you devise your approach to making your first film? You must have drawn on your own existing skills.

Preciado:

I decided I would approach it like a book project, imagining it would be a book with images. I read Virginia Woolf, of course, and watched all the adaptations based on Woolf, as well as the biopics about her … I thought, “Okay, nothing very inspiring there.” But then I considered: what happens when theory people make films? Who are the people that in history have done both, like Pier Paolo Pasolini? I researched all the films of Pasolini, looking for the relationships between his writing and his films. When I think of all the other theory people, well, there are horrifying examples—like Bernard-Henri Lévy…. These were warning signals: be very careful, you might go in the wrong direction and make a caricature of your writing.

I wasn’t blocked by lack of training, but I was blocked by the fear of becoming “the writer who wants to make a film.” Of course, there are also interesting examples, like Marguerite Duras. Pasolini was for me the most interesting, because he also went for adaptations, really weird ones, and because of the people he cast in his films, his relationships to them, and the writing of the films. I read his scripts and tried to figure out how the films related to them. Pasolini became an important counterexample for me.

Rich:

Did you have any other models? What about Rainer Werner Fassbinder? Are there films that you do want to claim, or that might constitute a lineage for you?

Preciado:

I’ve never been a superfan of Fassbinder. All my friends in the nineties were into this Fassbinder madness, but it was not a model for me. Chris Marker became more of a model. At some point, Chantal Akerman as well. When exploring the writers who were making films, I was paying a lot of attention to the kind of language that I was attracted to in films. When I thought about this idea of writing a letter to Virginia Woolf, it was because I was looking at films that had the form of a letter. I am not saying I was not informed by all the earlier trans films, like By Hook or by Crook [Silas Howard and Harry Dodge, 1991] or even Shijuku Boys [Kim Longinotto and Jano Williams, 1996], which I saw much later. Of course, I was, these were very important: they became a landscape for me in which I could land my film. If my film were to belong to something, it could perhaps belong there.

But in a sense, it’s not the same language I am using. They form a kind of political genealogy of films to which I could belong. I realize that without having seen By Hook or by Crook I could not have what I do have in my film. Nor without the films of Shu Lea Cheang…. Just because you are queer or trans, though, there is not only one language, not only about camp, which they’ve so often been reduced to.

This is not, in my film, exactly what I wanted to do. Nevertheless, that kind of camp tradition was necessary for me to even be able even to think about how to deconstruct the relationship between fiction and documentary. Without this campiness, I would not be able to do it. But I didn’t want camp to be the language of my film.

Rich:

I don’t think of By Hook or by Crook or Shu Lea’s films as camp!

Preciado:

I consider Shu Lea as “digital camp.” Because camp depends on what you are camping … Shu-Lea is camping the digital. By Hook or by Crook has to do more with trans masculinity, which I think positions itself somewhere else, which is not exactly camp. For me, it’s straight films that are camp; they are kitsch, much more kitsch and camp than any trans film you can think of.

Historically because of the way gender has been constructed, there is no way to work with gender except though camp: you have to constantly code and uncode these references of a mainstream binary masculinity and femininity. And especially if you think about Orlando, well, Virginia Woolf was already very campy; she was camping Shakespeare when she wrote it. That provided a foundational level on which I’d be working, but I knew that was not the cinematic language that I wanted to use because it depends a lot on the uses of language.

Rich:

What really strikes me about Orlando is how much you returned to a model of collectivity from your past as an activist, a model that is not exactly common in filmmaking.

Preciado:

For me, philosophy is direct action. I don’t separate them. But of course, it’s not the same: when you sign your name to a book, as writers, we have a personal responsibility to what we say, even though ideas are constructed collectively. I suppose that, being from Spain, I’m very conscious of writing as a way of political resistance. The writers that I read there during the years of fascism were very important to me. I do not separate, I don’t see philosophy as something that is not collective or not political. For me, philosophy is political, but not quite the same; it’s like direct action, but not the same kind of action that you do when you do activism collectively.

Rich:

My immediate response to that is to remind you that film is so very hierarchical, possibly more than most other art forms. In Hollywood or television, it’s like the army: everyone knows their place and their rank. Even in the independent film world, it’s a fairly strict hierarchy.

Preciado:

Not for me. I approached it as an activist project, gathering all the Orlandos [the young people in the roles of Orlando], reading Woolf’s Orlando with them. Since they are different ages, you can imagine that it isn’t the same to read it with Jenny Bel’Air, who is seventy-five and has a completely different political and anticolonial and trans history, as it is to read it with a sixteen-year-old teenager who is just blocking their hormones and thinking that this act is not even radical, just possible. For my generation, it was not possible; it was more radical precisely because it was not possible.

Reading Orlando with them and engaging them in this conversation, I found that all the things that people warned me about in terms of films—that it was going to be so difficult—were not true. I realized it is not very different from teaching, which I have been doing all my life: basically, reading texts with people and discussing them, asking people what they think about what they’re reading, and developing their ideas around that. All of it is very similar to the methodology that I used for Orlando.

Rich:

At what point did you realize that this set of conversations and meetings and rehearsals were going to be Orlando? That what people commonly refer to as “preparation” was actually going to constitute the text and presentation of your film?

Preciado:

I had this desire. In a sense, I was fed up with this new trend of documentaries about trans people, about trans subjects, that was always the same story: what it means to be trans, as though the narrative and story and language are already there, and you just have to find people to play it.

Two young, reclining Orlandos in Orlando.

Two young, reclining Orlandos in Orlando.

Close modal
Rich:

Yes, it’s become prepackaged, like a new version of the coming-out story that was so central in mainstream queer cinema of a certain period, or like the “money shot” in pornography as Linda Williams so powerfully traced it.

Preciado:

The body has a critical position in trans narratives that’s very different. It is interesting to me because it’s crucial: the body as anatomic theater in a classical sense. The body’s right there, and has to be made visible, as anatomic proof that this is a trans person, to let everyone know: this is a woman, or a man, and will become—what, exactly? I think this is crucial in relation to the queer and homosexual coming-out narratives that precede it, but the way that trans identity has been constructed is overloaded with medical techniques.

I’m superconscious of that, in my own history as well as in the political history of the construction of trans identity: making the body visible, the conditions of medical observation. That’s why I use the term anatomic theater … because in classic anatomic theater, the body lies down, dead. And I think that’s the ideal condition for the straight binary representation of the trans body: it is when the body lies down dead. And then you can say: the end.

This is the story of the trans films that we saw in the nineties: the trans person had to die at the end. Was it a man or a woman, trying to pretend to be something else? There was this moment of anatomic truth. It’s the hyperscopic language of pornography as well, with the moment of revelation, displaying the sexual organs.

Rich:

Did you see your film as a counter to this?

Preciado:

For a couple of months, I wasn’t sure. I even had to call a lawyer to ask what to do if I couldn’t make this. I didn’t know if it would be possible. I didn’t want to make a film in that [old] tradition, but I was not sure if it was possible to avoid, precisely because of the hyperbolic visual language that had been used to represent the trans person and body.

I thought, “Am I going to be so intelligent as to skip those and find a new language myself? Don’t be silly. Of course not. You will fall into the trap and produce again one of these movies that you don’t like, that on the contrary, produce underlying forms of binarism and a construction of the trans body as monster.” All these things I’ve been trying to escape from! I thought, “Maybe you think you’re very clever decoding these things as a philosopher, but when you are going to be making a film … ”

Again, to return to Teresa de Lauretis’s concept, gender technology is not something you invent individually out of your pocket. This is not the way things work. This is an epistemological device, it is how the Western patriarchal colonial regime has been constructed for ages. It’s not so easy to come up with something different. I had a lot of doubts. When rereading the original Virginia Woolf book, there were many traps, many things that I didn’t want to do. But I wanted to try. What would happen if I took this early-twentieth-century language of Woolf’s, created before the upheaval of legal medical pharmacological language on trans, and played with it to create a counterrepresentation?

I didn’t know if this would work, though, so I talked to my producer.7 She said, “I don’t understand what you are telling me, I have no idea what you are trying to do, but okay, I’ll give you a weekend to take the camera, your cinematographer, your team, and do what you are trying to do, and tell me if it works or not, and then we’ll see.”

And I shot the scene in a Paris park that is the first scene in the film.

Rich:

I am curious about the role of nature in the film. It seems almost perverse that you initially place the trans figures in a park, as there is such a cliché about translating identities into “nature” to make an argument, alongside the common trope of the park as an age-old place for gay cruising. Obviously, those are not your intentions here. What is this park?

Preciado:

The first place that you see in the film is the Colonial Garden in the Bois de Vincennes on the outskirts of Paris. It is the garden that was used at the turn of the century for the colonial exposition of 1907, where the many pavilions of the world were constructed. I knew that was the perfect place for Orlando. Even though I don’t identify it in the film, Parisians would recognize these gardens. This garden now is almost completely forgotten, ruined. The French government doesn’t know what to do with it, because it’s a relic of colonialism; they don’t want to completely destroy it, but no one really wants to do anything with it.

I thought, “Trans and queer people are a little bit like this garden, basically, we are ruins of the colonial history, ruins of the patriarchal history, but in a certain way, we are super beautiful, we are alive.” The nature/culture debate was so central at a certain time. I think that debate belongs to the binary mind, yet it’s still very important for trans studies and politics. In gender studies, for a long time nobody really wanted to talk about the materiality of the body because it was thought to be too related to nature, and that such a study would immediately fall back into the most backward, essentialist ways of analyzing gender…. For me, in trans politics and studies, the material bodily dimension of gender is still important. That’s why I wanted hormones to be present in the film.

Rich:

Your scene of trans people bonding in the doctor’s waiting room while waiting for their hormone prescriptions, transforming anxiety and a feeling of powerlessness into humor and a dance number, is so wonderful and madcap. Can you talk a bit about that?

Preciado:

For us, it’s ordinary life. I wanted to show the strategic position that both the psychiatric discourse and institution have in terms of controlling the way we access different technologies of gender. One is hormones: why they are delivered in such an easy way to straight women as contraception and why they become such a big deal when it has to do with queer or trans teenagers or adults. But this was very controversial. Even my producers were worried about that scene with teenagers in the room. Are we going to have the film banned because of that scene? And in the US context, where the discussion about trans youth is so strong?

Of course, while I was working on the film, I was having discussions with all my academic friends. And I thought, “Oh my god, everyone is expecting me to make this very serious, brainy, film about Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, and I’m making a film for teenagers.”

Rich:

I want to ask you a few questions about the casting. How did you decide who was “trans enough” to be cast in your film?

Preciado:

I am interested in transitioning as a multiple complex political experience that can involve the critical appropriation of many different technologies of gender: naming, language, surgery or not, hormones or not. For me, the most iconic person in the film is Jenny Bel’Air, a very well-known figure within the trans community in France: a political figure who, because of her generation and class background and race, has had the least access to technologies of gender. She does not even have the right passport, cannot go to the doctor to request hormones. But that doesn’t mean that she is not the most important and emblematic trans person in the film.

For me, this is crucial: I am not interested in identity politics. I am interested in disidentification, in critical ways of using and counterusing these different technologies of gender to invent ways of living nonbinary lives within a binary world, which is very difficult yet is already happening.

For me, the notion of the nonbinary is larger than just being trans … not another identity, but a completely different epistemic regime. Having a series of identities that are straight, gay, lesbian, trans—that’s one way; but another way is to look at this epistemic shift that is happening right now. We have been living for five centuries under a binary colonial patriarchal regime, and this regime is collapsing, falling apart, not just because of metaphysical reasons, but because politically it is not sustainable in terms of ecology or suffering or the production of death. That’s what I’m interested in. That’s why cinema is so crucial: because here we can invent collectively a different regime, a different epistemology.

The Bois de Vincennes’ ruined colonial gardens, in Orlando.

The Bois de Vincennes’ ruined colonial gardens, in Orlando.

Close modal
Rich:

And what made you decide to cast Virginie Despentes in the final scene as the judge, who functions as a very original deus ex machina and offers a sort of benediction to the assembled cast by granting them passports with the correct(ed) name and gender?

Preciado:

Virginie was my partner for ten years.8 We live very close to each other in Paris and see each other every day. We’ve worked together on many projects. So I knew I wanted her to be part of the film, but also knew that most of the people in the film and making the film—the music, everything—were nonbinary or queer; everyone was bringing a queer politic and coming from that experience. But I knew I wanted Virginie. Because when I was writing the script, the first person I ever showed it to was Virginie…. She encouraged me to do it, in contrast to other people who told me it would never work.

My first thought was to have her play Virginia Woolf. But the more I read Woolf, the more I began to think she herself held a nonbinary position in a world that was not nonbinary: imagine that you could now recode the world in a nonbinary way and could open it up to something else . . . like scratching the epistemic field to open up something else. I see Virginia Woolf already as doing that … struggling with femininity, not exactly heterosexual, but not a lesbian, seeing herself always as a failure.

I started then to think instead about the judge and I asked Virginie, “Would you like to be the judge?” For me, also, I don’t like to talk in terms of alliances—as if there’s a queer identity, a lesbian identity, et cetera, and then we do alliances between them. I’d rather talk about composition, like in music or in chemistry, when different elements come together. I wanted to at least have a feminist culture present in the conversation. That’s my history, and Virginie being there would represent that.

Rich:

It’s such an important scene, too, because there has been so much tension between lesbian and trans communities over the past two decades. Yet here you magically transform those dynamics: you have the lesbian bestowing her blessing on the trans community.

Preciado:

Yes, that was very important for me, because as a trans person who has spent much of my life within the lesbian and feminist communities … it’s beautiful…. This is part of who I am politically. But that is not true of all trans people, especially the young ones…. But in terms of political genealogies, without that fight, this wouldn’t be possible. For me, it’s interesting to see that composition without thinking in terms of identity politics: not as something that the lesbians give to the trans, but as a new nonbinary epistemology that we are constructing together, instead of fighting over who is more trans than you, or who is giving permission to the other to do whatever…. I see it as multiple struggles, with different techniques, in order to invent new epistemics to go beyond the colonial patriarchal binary, hopefully.

Rich:

I particularly love the scene of the operation without a body, in which the doctor and operating-room staff carefully cut into a volume of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and begin to surgically remove key words, to excise them from the text.

Preciado:

Every scene in the film was done as a political ritual, one that was important in terms of the very performing of it. Many of us have passed by the operating table, or not. I knew I was going to have the surgery soon after the film; I was already on a waiting list. When I went to that surgery, I went in a completely different way …

It’s not a question of identity. It’s a question of political dissidence. There is something about being queer, trans, nonbinary in this hypernormative society that is extremely vulnerable and at the same time extremely powerful, something that has been captured and taken over by legal language and medical institutions. This society captures an enormous political energy and reduces it to medical language: “You’re sick and I’ll give you a cure. You have a problem with your body? Yes? I’ll cut the organs that you don’t need. And I’ll give you new ones.” This is bullshit. This for me is an act of medical colonization…. When I was on the operating table, what was happening was not what traditional Western medicine thought was happening.

I am not reconstructing my chest to become a man. The body is a political fiction. Just as Freud discovered the unconscious beneath consciousness, so for me, the somatic is inside and alongside the body. This surgery in a sense is a way of stepping into this nonbinary regime. My body is not a male body, it is a nonbinary body. That is the way I see it, that is what the surgery is: not for reconstructing the body nor trying to make my body more masculine. I think I was able to get onto that operating table differently because I had shot the surgery scene already: in Orlando, My Political Biography.

1.

See B. Ruby Rich, “Film Festivals in Winter,” Film Quarterly 76, no. 4 (Summer 2023): 89. I also tweeted out the phrase during the festival and repeated it on a Film Comment podcast in February 2023.

2.

The thesis was subsequently published as Pornotopia: An Essay on Playboy’s Architecture and Biopolitics. Preciado’s other books include Countersexual Manifesto, Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era, Can the Monster Speak? A Report to an Academy of Psychoanalysts, and An Apartment on Uranus: Chronicles of the Crossing.

3.

The movida is the term given to the counterculture movement that erupted in Spain, especially in Madrid, after the death of Francisco Franco in 1975, accompanying the sudden transition from fascism into democracy.

4.

Élisabeth Lebovici is a French art historian, professor, and journalist who is well known in France. Her exhibition Exposé.es at the Palais de Tokyo in 2023 addressed the work of artists and collectives on/with the subject of AIDS, including in New York in the eighties.

5.

Preciado was the director of public programs for the international art exhibition documenta 14 in 2017.

6.

See B. Ruby Rich, “Why I Cannot Watch,” in Unwatchable, ed. Nicholas Baer, Maggie Hennefeld, Laura Horak, and Gunnar Iversen (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2019), 207–12.

7.

Preciado’s producer, the production company Les Films du Poisson, comprises Yaël Fogiel and Lætitia Gonzalez. In 2023, Les Films du Poisson also released Mona Achache’s hybrid autobiographical film, Little Girl Blue.

8.

Up through that decade with Despentes, Preciado identified as a lesbian, Beatriz P. Preciado. The early writings were published under that name. Despentes herself is well known in the US for her novel and film Baise-moi and her autobiographical manifesto, King Kong Theory.