‘The New Man’ (‘El Hombre Nuevo’): Berlin Review

Courtesy of Berlinale
An affecting look at sexuality, solitude, revolution and religion 

Berlin documentary Teddy winner about a Nicaraguan transsexual’s return home

Uruguayan Aldo Garay consolidates his reputation for gritty socially focused (and often prize-winning) documentaries with The New Man, an intimate but far-reaching character study of someone currently living an undefined life between two genders. Stephanie Mirza, formerly known as Roberto, is a Nicaraguan-born transsexual living an impoverished life in Montevideo, but as her troubled her back story, and her stoical reaction to it, emerges, our view of the protagonist shades into the quietly heroic. This tale of personal struggle at the interface of multiple social forces won Berlin’s Teddy award for best documentary, with further screenings assured at fests and sidebars with an interest in gender politics.

The atmosphere of the present life rather than the traumatic events which have led to it define the tone of the film’s first half, which is delivered with slow, sometimes plodding precision. We first meet Stephanie, whose decision to be transgender has pretty much confined her to the margins of Uruguayan society, unsuccessfully seeking accommodation. She wanders lonely through a Montevideo protest march to the melancholy accompaniment of Daniel Lafalian’s simple xylophone-based score, and is interviewed about a sex change operation: something she wishes to do, she explains, because it will give her “peace”. She ekes out a precarious living guiding drivers into parking spaces.

Stephanie’s history emerges in glimpses, and it’s fascinating. One of eight children born in Managua, she was recruited at age seven by the Sandinistas and by the age of ten was teaching people how to read as part of the (largely successful) revolutionary 1980s drive to make NIcaragua literate: later we’ll see footage of her as the child Roberto, confidently standing up and asking questions at a Sandinista rally.

But all this is long ago, and 38 years later Stephanie longs to see her Nicaraguan biological family. Facebook search leads her back to Managua for a family reunion and a livelier second half which is all about other people’s opinions of Stephanie -- including those of her father, wiping the tears away too late as he fumblingly tries to explain why a father might give a son away at the age of seven to the revolutionary forces.

All this thankfully opens out from the sometimes self-regarding nature of the first part. But neither does Garay really explore the emotional richness of the material. He keeps a respectful distance from a multi-faceted Stephanie who is probably, to be fair, a little hard to pin down, but fails to penetrate the matter-of-fact, calm and slightly remote air which his heroine appears to exude at all times.

That said, Stephanie remains an appealing character, one the viewer can get behind largely because, having led a victim’s life, she steadfastly refuses to play the victim. Not much given to self-analysis, she just gets on with things, and Garay is happy to observe Stephanie's reactions to, say, watching her old self on TV clips from Garay’s own interviews with her from twenty years ago, or looking at photos and comparing herself to Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock.

Garay and cameraman Diego Varela do good work in conveying the atmospherics of Stephanie’s day to day, though there’s a tendency to hold on static scenes for just a beat too long: and surely it’s time for an embargo on those vertical shots of frying eggs as an index of the humdrum life.

The title is a punning reference to Che Guevara’s 60s project to create a new kind of person in Cuba, one who would among other things be blind to gender differences. Selfless, hard-working and apparently honest, Stephanie Mirza fits like a glove Guevara’s description of what the New Man could have been.

Production companies: Cordon Films, Lupe Films
Cast: Stephania Mirza
Director, screenwriter: Aldo Garay
Producers: Micaela Sole, Daniel Hendler, Jennifer Walton
Director of photography: Diego Varela
Editor: Federico La Rosa
Composer: Daniel Lafalian
Sales: Cordon Films
No rating
79 minutes

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