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After the glut of self-indulgent TV profiles of Caitlin Jenner’s rather public gender change, it might be hard to see the demand for a foreign documentary about a non-celebrity undergoing gender reassignment.

The First Cut

Wojcek decided: Call Me Marianna
Wojcek decided: Call Me Marianna

Marianna was born a boy named Wojcek. Wojcek was married to a woman for many years. They had children. They shared a life.

But Wojcek became Marianna. When she calls home, her mother still calls her “Wojcek” and asks her to speak in a male voice. Marianna’s children reject her. And her ex-wife, while sympathetic, is not very supportive.

But Marianna’s story takes an interesting in the first cut between scenes. In the first scene, Marianna rolls up to a table in her wheelchair, working with two actors who will perform her autobiographical play. In the next scene, a flashback, Marianna is able bodied and she speaks more fluidly.

Through this one cut, writer/director Karolina Bielawska and editor Daniel Gasiorowski tell us right up-front that we will need to pay attention to both the “chronological” story that starts before the surgery, and the “modern” story that features a chair-bound Marianna giving the actors the background they’ll need to tell her story.

“Before”

The chronological story shows winter in Poland. Marianna lives in a humble apartment with a bird and a cat and a telephone. Outside, we see she lives in a glum, soviet-influenced part of town, rather than beautiful old Europe.

She works with her lawyer to get the right to change her gender. She goes shopping for bras. She meets with a friend who is changing gender in the other direction. She stays in with her pets and calls her mother.

The only interesting developments are when she says “I’ve started seeing a man,” and when she sets off for the hospital to actually undergo the surgery.

“After”

What makes Call Me Marianna a very good film — what earns it its spot on the big screen — is the inclusion of the later, “current” timeline. The fact that Marianna has written an autobiographical play seems at first like another fit of self-indulgence. But it’s a devious device for the film that serves multiple purposes.

For one, it fills in the gaps that the documentary camera might have missed in the “chronological” timeline. If the camera failed to catch an important detail, it can be covered in the play. Also, the actors ask intelligent, probing questions about the characters they will play. “What time of year was it...?” “Does he know what his children think...?” “Did she really...?”

Just as importantly, the “modern” timeline can tell you what’s coming — like the wheelchair and the change in voice (you’ll just have to watch to find out). This converts surprise into suspense, which Alfred Hitchcock could tell you is much more interesting in a film.

The screener I watched started to exhibit technical difficulties as Marianna’s story was wrapping up. I was surprised to find just how disappointed I felt at the glitch, and how much I wanted to get to some sense of resolution with her and the film.

That’s when I realized Call Me Marianna was a good film, and not just some self-indulgent TV profile of a transgendered woman.