Wednesday 22 November 2017


By Dimitri Keramitas

Screened at the recent Amnesty International Human Rights Film Festival in Paris, Christian Sonderegger’s Coby explores the experience of a 23-year-old girl who transitions into a strapping young man.

Of course, the topic is well-worn by now. What makes this documentary fresh is what the director bluntly calls its “feel-good” aspect - it has a happy ending that’s a sharp departure from the lurid or adversarial, and is not made up by a Hollywood team of scriptwriters. It also demonstrates how gender transitioning can involve not just the individual, but an entire family, which has to change how it views a child or sibling.

A poster for the documentary Coby.
This brilliant film is, however, too complicated to remain within feel-good confines. There are uncomfortable and mysterious elements, some of them discreetly (or coyly) unrevealed by the filmmaker, others perhaps unintended.

The movie is about an individual - Coby - in the furthest reaches of the U.S. Middle West. What is a French director doing making a documentary here? One hint is that Coby’s mother Ellen says a few words in fluent-sounding French to the (off-screen) director, and makes an ironic remark about how the French have an excessive need to understand everything. Perhaps she’d visited France, and met the young director? This isn’t addressed in the film but at the screening Sonderegger revealed that Ellen is actually his “biological mother”, that she’d had him during a sojourn in France and put him up for adoption. That makes him the half-brother of Coby, the subject of his film, and accounts for the sympathy and easy intimacy of the sequences with her/him.

Coby has a dual structure. We see Coby as he is now, with his post-transition name Jake. He works as a paramedic in his rural Ohio town, and lives with his partner Sara (and two adorable dogs). The director has a wonderful eye for nature, whether the harsh snowy winters or the flowery summer season. He also captures the working-class lives of the village residents without condescension.

The other narrative strand is a series of YouTube diary sequences that Coby made when he was still a she named Suzanne, when the physical-physiological transition finally caught up with the psychological one.

Coby is the same person as Jake, but in the end not really. Coby is several years younger (in the YouTube footage), and looks like a teenager. (The documentary makes us realize how in a sense we’re all transitioning age-wise.) He also seems unstable, a molten stew of desires, anxieties and other feelings, pushed along by the determination to become physically, inside and out, what his self-image is. Jake, on the other hand, is a well-adjusted guy. Coby is more interesting - it’s no mystery why the film is titled after that name, rather than “Jake”. The director is masterly at interweaving the segments, creating a counterpoint at once dissonant and harmonious. But credit must go to Coby for the videos’ creation and performance (in addition it was Coby who asked his French half-brother to make the documentary).

Director Christian Sonderegger.
The other characters in the documentary are vividly depicted. Sara, Coby’s partner, has the spunky character of Harry Potter’s Hermione. She’s the one who pushes him into concrete transitional action once he determines it’s the right path. She also defends Coby in public when others react to him in a bemused manner. Coby’s parents are also memorable in their own way. Ellen has a large personality, sometimes on the obstreperous side, but always human. Coby’s father Willard comes off as decent and intelligent, almost a sitcom caricature of the caring liberal dad.

The family represents a bit of a puzzle, or at least something mysterious. Coby’s parents are intelligent, articulate, and educated. They’re also well-off in a way that’s at odds with the rustic setting. Ellen lived in France as a younger woman, and she says she lived a “crazy life with all sorts of people”. Coby refers to how they made “lots of money” (unlike him). We learn that they home-schooled their children and didn’t expose them to television, isolating them (as Coby’s father admits) from mainstream culture. Who are these people really? The family history is probably a movie unto itself, so maybe it’s better not to get sidetracked from the central story, which belongs to their daughter-turned-son.

Appearing with the director at the Amnesty France screening was a young woman who identified as intersexual. She made a valid point that those who examine gender issues tend to pathologize them, to examine them with the idea that they are not just phenomena but effects for which we need to isolate the cause. Ellen argues along the same lines, saying that her son’s situation “just is”, that it isn’t because of his past or his family. If we’d been privy to the full story maybe we’d agree with Coby’s parents that his family was the right thing to have happened for his development. But not fully examining the family history seems to undercut this thesis.

Aside from the YouTube clips, the director includes still photos from Coby’s childhood as a little girl. She doesn’t seem to be particularly tomboyish, but apparently she had a tempestuous, rebellious streak (which in adulthood has become puckish charm). More disturbing is the number of photos of the child Suzanne in the nude. There are families who take such photos of their baby or toddler children in a totally innocuous way, and presumably Coby’s family was no different. It’s a question of culture, and possibly the home-schooling / no-TV household had a very natural slant. But again we are left with the feeling that this documentary, compelling and comprehensive as it seems, is the tip of a submerged iceberg. Coby’s story has a happy end, but a murky beginning, one the director leaves opaque.

Production: Ciaofilms/Willow Films

Dimitri Keramitas is an award-winning writer and legal expert based in Paris. The Amnesty International France Human Rights Film Festival is an annual event. Please see SWAN’s earlier article for details about the movies screened.

Wednesday 15 November 2017


The new director-general of UNESCO, Audrey Azoulay, called for unity and humanism, as she takes over the troubled educational, scientific and cultural agency.

“The period in which we’re living faces numerous global challenges: massive degradation of the environment, obscurantism, terrorism, questions about the contribution of science, deliberate attacks on cultural diversity, the oppression of women, massive displacements of populations,” Azoulay said at her investiture ceremony on Nov. 13 in Paris.

Audrey Azoulay (Photo: UNESCO/Alix)
“Our inability to prevent these tragedies can be explained by a common blindness: the lack of knowledge, the denial of universal values, and the absence of a global and humanist response,” said Azoulay, a former culture minister of France.

She said that UNESCO is more “necessary” than ever and stressed that the organisation “can and must participate in a world order based on multilateralism and humanist values”.

At her swearing-in ceremony, an ambassador of one of UNESCO’s 195 member states told her: “May the Force be with you”. The “Star Wars” quotation evokes the difficulties that lie ahead for Azoulay, in the quest to strengthen UNESCO financially and heal internal rifts.

Without a magical lightsaber, she will have to rely on her experience, diplomatic skills and the backing of member states, many of whom expressed support and encouragement after her election, although they did not all vote for her.

“I would like to assure you of the support of the Africa Group as you carry out your work,” said Zimbabwe’s Ambassador Rudo Mabel Chitiga, on behalf of UNESCO’s 48 African member countries. “We are very happy to note that you have roots in Africa ... we therefore welcome you as a sister.”

Azoulay at a press conference.
Azoulay, 45 years old and of Moroccan descent, was a minister of culture and communication in the government of François Hollande and has worked in various related sectors.

She was first nominated by UNESCO’s 58-member Executive Board on Oct. 13, with 30 states voting in her favour, against 28 for Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari of Quatar. There had been nine candidates at the beginning of the race in March, including three women.

UNESCO’s General Conference – the second of the organisation’s two decision-making bodies – voted on Azoulay’s nomination Nov. 10, with 131 states in favour and 19 against (some of the organization’s member states were not eligible to vote). Her investiture ceremony took place a day before the two-week Conference ended, on Nov. 14.

Throughout the process, some delegates said Azoulay had shown keen awareness of UNESCO’s precarious situation, especially as the United States and Israel have announced their withdrawal from the organization.

It’s expected that she will use her multicultural background and youthful “dynamism” to bring diverse parties together.

Audrey Azoulay and Irina Bokova (Photo: SWAN/McK.)
“I grew up in France with the chance of coming from elsewhere, like millions of French people,” Azoulay said at her investiture. “France and Morocco, Europe and Africa, North and South. Morocco has this special asset in today's world – an asset that is enshrined in its most important text, its constitutional text – to be based on multiple roots. The preamble of its Constitution clearly affirms the attachment to Berber, Jewish, Arab-Muslim, Andalusian and African civilizations.”

She pledged to uphold UNESCO’s mandate of working for peace through the advancement of culture, education for all, and science.

Azoulay takes office Nov. 15. She is the second woman to lead the organization, succeeding Irina Bokova of Bulgaria, who was director-general from 2009. 

For a more complete article, see INPS news agency. You can follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale

Tuesday 7 November 2017


The French branch of rights group Amnesty International is hosting its 8th Human Rights Film Festival, with movies from countries including France, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zambia.

The six-day festival, which runs until Nov. 12 in Paris, includes features and documentaries, with the aim of raising awareness and increasing the public’s engagement in favour of human rights,” the organization said.

Each screening will be followed by discussions between the filmmakers and the audience.

“Through a rich selection of narratives, the films give a voice to victims and to those who fight daily to advance rights,” Amnesty International France said.

“Cinema can arouse emotions, spark indignation and give us a wish to discuss and to understand ways in which each of us can contribute to change,” said Camille Blanc, the group's president.   
The focus this year is on violence against women and children (Jusqu’à la garde / Maman Colonelle / I Am Not a Witch), the situation of refugees in France (Une saison en France), transexuality (Coby) and human exploitation (Makala).

French-Iraqi filmmaker Abbas Fahdel is the keynote presenter or parrain, appearing at the launch on Nov. 7 for a discussion with the audience.

The poster for Maman Colonelle.
The opening film is the gripping Jusqu’à la garde (Custody), by French actor and director Xavier Legrand, who got an Oscar nomination for his 2013 short film Avant que de tout perdre (Just Before Losing Everything). 

Already acclaimed at screenings during the Toronto and Venice film festivals, Custody is the continuation of the story, begun in the earlier short movie, of an abused woman dealing with a manipulative ex-husband.

Other participating filmmakers include Dieudo Hamadi, from the  Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), whose documentary Maman Colonelle portrays a senior policewoman battling to stop abuse of women and children; Emmanuel Gras, with the documentary Makala, a film about back-breaking labour, also set in the DRC; France-based Chadian director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, with the drama Une saison en France (A Season in France), which tells the story of undocumented migrants (“sans papiers”) in Paris; and Zambian fillmmaker Rungano Nyoni with her haunting debut feature I Am Not a Witch - about a 9-year-old girl accused of witchcraft and sent away to a "witch camp".

SWAN will have reviews of some of the films at a later date.