Navigating the Quest for Personal Truth
To truly prove ourselves, sometimes we must pursue goals that are seriously over the top, quests that most of us would view as seemingly impossible, possibly even foolhardy. The statements such gestures make go a long way toward validating the intents behind them. But, perhaps even more importantly, they say a lot about us – who we are, what we’re championing and what we’re made of. So it was for a determined athlete who attempted something never before tried, a venture designed to prove something about herself and what she stood for, as depicted in the inspiring new documentary, “Against the Current” (web site, trailer).
Veiga Grétarsdóttir spent many years in search of herself. This courageous transgender kayaker struggled to come to terms with her identity, a difficult task for someone trapped in a body whose physical gender did not match what was in her consciousness. She tried desperately to be the man she was born, attempting to live up to the qualities and behavior of what society expected. It was an ordeal compounded by being born into a family with two brothers, both of whom were comfortable in their own skin and urged their sibling to join them in their typical male pursuits. Veiga (born Veigar) joined them and likewise sought to engage in all of the activities that make men who they supposedly are. She openly admits to intentionally overcompensating in these activities, as if making an extra effort would somehow make a difference, a common practice among transgender individuals trying to vanquish their seemingly inexplicable contrary impulses. Veigar even went so far as to get married and have a child with his wife, Helga, believing that this was what a man was supposed to do and that it would “cure” him of these “errant” thoughts.
But, try as he might, Veigar could not fight his feelings. He felt compelled to dress in women’s clothing and to apply makeup. He would look for ways to hide his secret and to indulge these urges in private, often making excuses to his wife and family so that he could have time to be alone to pursue his impulses. However, despite the satisfaction he derived from these solitary diversions, he had difficulty reconciling his reality with his feelings. It tore him up, and he decided he had to make a change. He thus attempted suicide – twice.
Realizing that suicide was not an answer, Veigar finally recognized the need to acknowledge and accept his circumstances. With the help of a support group and friends like Elín Esther Magnúsdóttir, Veigar stepped aside to allow Veiga to come forth. She underwent the gender reassignment process and became the woman she is today.
While much obviously changed in Veiga’s new life, her old life did not completely disappear, such as her love of sport, particularly kayaking. In fact, she always dreamed of circumnavigating her native Iceland, an ambitious undertaking for anyone who has ever attempted the 2,100-kilometer journey. But Veiga’s ambition was something even more bold than the attempts made by others who undertook this venture – she wanted to go about it in a counterclockwise direction, against the prevailing current.
When asked why she wanted to undertake such an odyssey, Veiga remarked that she had been going against the current all of her life and that a journey of this nature somehow seemed aptly fitting. But there was more to it than that. Just as comedian Dick Gregory undertook prolonged fasts and long-distance runs to draw attention to causes near and dear to him, Veiga embarked on her quest to promote awareness of transgender issues. After all, as Gregory observed, once people ask why someone is engaging in extreme ventures like this, it opens the door to explaining why and thereby making the cause known, a goal comparable to what Veiga was undertaking. In addition to promoting support for the transgender community, she was also seeking to generate interest in several organizations aimed at providing assistance to those in need. She particularly sought backing for groups offering help to prevent suicides among at-risk trans individuals, a cause especially important to her in light of her own history.
After months of preparation and training, Veiga was at last ready to begin her journey. Accompanied by fellow kayaker Örlygur Sigurjónsson for the first leg of her trip, she embarked from her home port of Isafjärder on the west coast of Iceland to start what would be a 103-day endeavor. With director Óskar Páll Sveinsson in tow, the filmmaker and his crew followed Veiga on this remarkable and groundbreaking trip. Gorgeously filmed footage of her journey, intercut with segments drawing parallels between this odyssey and the one that led her to this venture, tell a compelling story of triumph, fortitude and personal growth on multiple fronts. The result is an uplifting and enlightening tale of what we can accomplish – and who we can be – when we set our minds to it.
The twin journeys examined in this film reflect the twin journeys that Veiga underwent in her life, and they mirror one another in many ways. That’s not entirely surprising, though, given that our outer world is a reflection of our inner selves, the realm of our thoughts, beliefs and intents, tools that help make our existence come to life. Our existence thus becomes a materialization of what we hold most dear, and Veiga’s experience illustrates this with tremendous clarity and fidelity, an accomplishment apparent in the results she attained.
In reaching this point, though, Veiga had to face a number of personal fears, serious limitations that were holding her back from achieving fulfillment in life. This required her to address these issues and examine the beliefs that were driving them. And, by being willing to confront them directly, she was able to rewrite those notions and, in turn, courageously reshape her existence. That’s quite an accomplishment in itself, but the particulars of what she did were even more impressive, given that they unfolded on multiple fronts.
To a great degree, Veiga was able to achieve this by taking a good, hard look at who she really was – on the inside. In doing so, she was able to face her truth and then live it, through her beliefs, with integrity. That proved significant, as that integrity enabled her to materialize her reality with tremendous authenticity, a result that provided her with great satisfaction.
Given the challenges Veiga took on, she came face to face with great undertakings on two fronts. In depicting these endeavors, director Óskar Páll Sveinsson described Veiga’s journey as one characterized by two classic confrontations: humanity vs. nature, as evidenced by her kayaking adventure, and humanity vs. itself, as seen in her gender reassignment odyssey. Both called for struggle and sacrifice. However, as Veiga admits, these challenges enabled her to boost her self-confidence, helping her grow more committed and courageous, skills she took with her from these experiences that she believes she will be able to draw upon in future ventures. She hopes, as I’m sure most of us would, that this development will be something she carries with her, enabling her to draw upon it when needed in subsequent undertakings. All she needs to do is believe in herself and her abilities.
With these elements in place, Veiga was ultimately able to live out her destiny. By taking on these challenges, Veiga drew attention to the needs and concerns of transgender individuals, efforts that have helped lead to the betterment of the trans community. There’s a tremendous nobility to come out of that, but one that’s also characterized by a great sense of personal fulfillment and satisfaction, knowing that our beliefs – and their manifestation – have really helped make a difference.
What resulted from this 103-day endeavor, as chronicled in Sveinsson’s sensitive and gorgeously filmed documentary, is a journey of self-discovery on multiple fronts – and one not limited to the waters off the coast of Iceland. The juxtaposition of the two primary story threads is perfectly balanced, showing uncanny parallels between what Veiga experienced on the ocean and what she underwent during her life onshore. In addition to footage of Veiga’s experience in both of these journeys, the film also features interviews with her parents, Grétar and Sólveig, her brother, Kristinn, her lifelong friend, Bjarki, her former wife, Helga, and kayaking experts, Guoni Páll Viktorsson and Örlygur Sigurjónsson, all of whom provide additional insights. This offering is an inspiring and uplifting piece of filmmaking, one sure to stir the spirit, tug at the heart and encourage us to fulfill potential we never knew we had. The film is currently playing in limited theatrical release and is available for streaming online.
When we succeed at proving to ourselves (and others) that we’re capable of living our personal truths, we often come away from the experience with a new sense of self, one that tends to be authentic, empowering and uplifting in many ways. Veiga Grétarsdóttir proved that to herself through her heroic journeys and to us through this film. The path to fulfillment may not have always been an easy one, but the results speak for themselves and, one would hope, help to inspire those seeking to accomplish the same.
A complete review is available by clicking here.
The Summer of the Documentary
Summertime is movie time, and this year is a little different, one characterized by a plethora of excellent new documentaries, a number of which will be discussed on the next edition of The Good Media Network’s Frankiesense & More video podcast with yours truly and special guest host Danielle Findlay. Tune in Thursday July 29 at 1 pm ET on Facebook Live by clicking here for a lively discussion of releases worth seeing in theaters or via streaming. And, if you don’t see the show live, catch it later on demand!
In the Absence of Hope
When our lives stagnate or don’t turn out as hoped for, we often need a miracle to get on track. Out of cynicism and disbelief, that’s frequently seen as too much to hope for. But, then, all of a sudden, out of the blue, something happens to change all that, completely shifting our outlook and altering the circumstances in our favor. This is particularly beneficial when the stakes are high and many would be affected by a change in fortune. Such is the case in the uplifting and satirical new Macedonian morality play, “God Exists, Her Name is Petrunya” (“Gospod postoi, imeto i’ e Petrunija”) (web site, trailer).
Life is quite unfulfilling for Petrunya (Zorica Nusheva), a plus-sized, thirty-something unemployed college graduate who still lives at home with her parents, Vaska (Violeta Shapkovska) and Stoyan (Petar Mircevski). She has few prospects for work or for a meaningful social life, and some would say that it’s largely of her own doing, making little effort to improve herself or her lot in life. But, then, it’s not entirely surprising, either, given that she lives in the sleepy little community of Štip, Macedonia, a town with high unemployment levels and few jobs. There are particularly few opportunities for women, given the ensconced patriarchal culture of the former Yugoslav republic. Most women are relegated to comparatively menial jobs, such as garment workers and secretaries, often under the thumb of leering, sexist bosses.
Vaska tirelessly attempts to motivate her daughter to find work and a man, but she unwaveringly clings to the traditional outlook that women are supposed to be subservient to their bosses and husbands. This attitude flies in the face of Petrunya’s views; she’s a liberated free thinker who believes that women should stand up for themselves, even if her own lack of initiative in this regard often leaves something to be desired and undermines her noble contentions. Nevertheless, that doesn’t deter her maternal diehard control freak from trying to push her agenda, nagging Petrunya to get up off her behind and move on with her life instead of perpetually sponging off mom and dad. And, when she learns about an opening for a secretarial position at a nearby garment factory, she cows Petrunya into going for an interview.
Petrunya quickly discovers that her would-be boss (Mario Knezović) is the personification of an unrepentant letch. She leaves the interview disgusted and wanders aimlessly around Štip, trying to collect her thoughts. In the course of her meandering, she comes upon an Orthodox Christian priest (Suad Begovski-Suhi) leading a religious procession and, oddly enough, a group of men dressed only in swim trunks as they move toward the local river. The sight is strange, considering it’s January 19 and decidedly quite cold. However, given that it’s also the Epiphany religious holiday, it’s time for the latest edition of a longstanding tradition, one in which a cross is blessed and tossed into the river. And, once the cross splashes into the water, it’s a signal for all of the eager bathers to jump into the river to retrieve it. The one who is fortunate enough to find it is then said to be blessed with a year’s worth of happiness and good luck. Anyone can participate in this unusual religious sport, provided one condition is met – only men are allowed. But that doesn’t stop Petrunya.
Apparently unaware of the rules of the game, Petrunya impulsively jumps into the river, too. And, as fate would have it, she successfully recovers the cross, much to the amazement of all the onlookers. However, her retrieval of the icon sets off an immediate firestorm. Several male participants, including a particularly angry and vocal contestant (Ilija Volcheski), claim that Petrunya “stole” the cross, despite the fact that she obviously and legitimately came across it first. Before long, disgruntled competitors seek redress from both the priest and police authorities, including Chief Inspector Milan (Simeon Moni Damevski).
Petrunya is soon taken into custody for questioning, even though no formal charges are filed, primarily because no one can stipulate what, if any, laws she has broken. Frequent allegations are leveled against her that she broke “the rules,” but those rules are never fully enumerated (not to mention the fact that rules don’t have the force of law). In true patriarchal fashion, the priest, the inspector, disgruntled participants, and others, including an intimidating interrogator (Nikola Kumev) and potential prosecutor (Bajrus Mjaku), seek to bully Petrunya, gestures that increasingly empower her and galvanize her in her confrontational stance. She continually and aggressively demands to know what she did wrong and why she can’t rightfully retain possession of the cross, requests that repeatedly go unanswered.
As the situation heats up, it draws the attention of the media, most notably an ambitious journalist, Slavica (Labina Mitevska), intent upon raising awareness of Petrunya’s plight (and less than subtly seeking to bolster her own public profile). With her beleaguered cameraman (Xhevdet Jashari) in tow, she covers the story from as many angles as possible, zealously upping the scenario’s feminist message with each televised report.
In no time, the circumstances threaten to spiral out of control. The patriarchal old guard holds firm to its position, even receiving backing from sources like Vaska, who obsequiously and unquestioningly adheres to the view expected of her. Petrunya is virtually on her own, supported only by Slavica, her father and a sympathetic young police officer (Stefan Vujisić). But, the more her foes try to push their position, the more they realize they’re on shaky ground, especially when faced with an intractable adversary who appears to have the force of law on her side. Will Petrunya be able to hold on? Or will her opponents overrun her with threats, intimidation and even outright physical violence? Maybe she’d better hold on to that cross as tightly as she can.
In this day and age, many of us might assume that the sexist attitudes Petrunya faces have disappeared, but, as her experience shows, that’s obviously not the case. Societies that cling to unabashed, inherently biased patriarchal thinking still exist, making life difficult for women who are seeking to advance their status and fulfill aspirations that they believe aren’t in any way restricted by gender. As a consequence, those who feel oppressed have to work harder at making their voices heard to see their objectives realized.
In the face of such opposition, it can be difficult to stay committed. However, those who believe in their cause understand the need to remain focused and ardent in their pursuits. That’s crucial, because our beliefs, thoughts and intents ultimately work to shape what we experience. A commitment to those notions is thus essential to see those goals materialize.
Petrunya understands this, even if she’s not completely conscious of it, as some of her actions (or lack thereof) demonstrate, primarily before she becomes embroiled in the cross grabbing controversy. That changes, though, once she sees what she can accomplish, despite the relentless criticism she’s grown accustomed to and the oppressive, incessant bullying she experiences at the hands of the sore losers in the race for the icon. She realizes that she can accomplish certain goals, despite what others contend. She believes in herself, and that bolsters her confidence to succeed and to empower herself. She’s not the inferior, incompetent ne’er-do-well that her mother and the men of Štip make her out to be.
Through this experience, Petrunya genuinely begins to tap into the nature and power of her true self, and, with a conviction to back up that newly discovered self, she runs with what she’s found. While some might find her argumentative and gratingly confrontational, she’s actually just fighting for what she believes to be truly and rightfully hers, and who can blame her for that?
That this revelation occurs on the holiday of the Epiphany is a tremendous irony, to be sure. But that irony is actually rooted in Petrunya’s newfound ability to transform her beliefs into manifestations that are in line with her desires and her authentic self. She draws upon the tremendous faith she has quietly come to place in herself, an additional spiritual link to the practical developments that have emerged as a result of this experience. There’s something of an irony in that, too, given that Petrunya generally has had a secular outlook on life, but transformative events like this can do much to reshape one’s existence, both personally and in terms of how they impact the wider world.
While Petrunya seems to have a gradual and modest change of heart about spiritual matters as her story progresses – as evidenced by her mounting desire to retain the cross, something she previously would likely not have cared much about – this development illustrates the significance of divine input in the unfolding of events. As our collaborator in this process, the divine spark helps to make possible what we seek to attain. Petrunya may not be consciously aware of this joint alliance, given her views on religion, but it’s present nevertheless, especially in the ways that things develop. There’s a genuineness about this, too, particularly when one witnesses how Petrunya fares in comparison to those who claim to speak for God as definitive authorities on spiritual matters. One could say that, in this context, the film’s title aptly reflects what’s at play in this story.
Based on Petrunya’s experience, as well as the message that Slavica seeks to promote through her broadcasts and the no-nonsense guidance offered by the protagonist’s best friend, Blagica (Andrijana Kolevska), one would likely characterize this movie as a feminist manifesto. However, as an interview with director Teona Strugar Mitevska in the film’s production notes indicates, calling this picture a story exclusively about women’s rights sells it short. Mitevska says that it’s a universal story, one that speaks to the search for justice, fairness and equality, regardless of gender or other defining characteristics. The core concepts associated with manifesting and promoting these principles are essentially the same, no matter what the underlying issue may be. Petrunya’s efforts at challenging authority figures to seek the implementation of change may be primarily directed at benefitting women, but the process she employs could just as easily be used to better the circumstances of minorities, excluded constituencies or others who face comparable conditions.
Given how this story opens, Petrunya may seem an unlikely candidate to champion a cause such as this. But, then, considering how her life had been unfolding, perhaps she needed a catalyst like this to get her on track. And, in this case, it was one that had a greater purpose behind it, too, one that would benefit not only her, but also others similarly situated. It was as if she were living out her destiny, one that she had not consciously envisaged or anticipated, yet it was one whose impact would be significant and felt by others besides herself. In the process, Petrunya’s undertaking led to the betterment of not only herself, but also others around her. In a culture where women are often openly treated as second-class citizens, Petrunya’s righteous defiance sends a powerful signal to those who would support unjustified actions that try to thwart the legitimate aims of others. In the wake of events like this, it’s apparent there truly is a God – and He/She/It has collaborators who help to make initiatives like this possible.
Taking on an entrenched, centuries-old social, religious and political patriarchy is no easy feat, but the protagonist in this pan-European production unwittingly does just that. Director Mitevska’s latest crackles with intensity and biting satire, telling the fact-based story of a 2014 incident involving a similarly situated woman who was proclaimed to be “crazy,” “troubled” and “disturbed.” It delivers an important and empowering message, despite getting bogged down occasionally in repetitive, circular arguments, making the picture come across as a little heavy-handed and dogmatic at times (at least to those of us who reside in more tolerant and open-minded societies). Nevertheless, for a culture that has long fought against progressive social change, perhaps such a sledgehammer approach is what’s needed to get the message across to those who have staunchly resisted it and used whatever means available to them to reinforce such an archaic view against women. To many, it might seem that films like this should no longer be necessary, but the fact that it was made suggests the opposite and that there’s yet more work to be done. Fortunately, “God Exists” does a fine job in that regard. The film has been playing in limited theatrical release and is available for online streaming.
Miracles can work wonders to restore hope, especially when it seems irretrievably lost. They can lift our spirits and restore our faith in the notion that things can work out for us. For those particularly beset by misfortune, that can be a godsend – literally – as Petrunya discovers for herself. But, for these wonders to be truly effective, we must recognize the role we play in their manifestation, developments that wouldn’t occur without our involvement, no matter how much input our divine collaborator supplies. Realizing that is indeed significant, if not a miracle in itself.
A complete review is available by clicking here.
The Creativity of Two Icons
Genuine literary icons are rare. Writers who possess the ability to grasp profound insights and then deftly express them through prose don’t come along often. But, for those times when they’re present in uncharacteristically prolific numbers, it’s indeed fortunate for the world of literature. So it was in the mid 20th Century when two such giants were at the peak of their creativity, a pair of writers whose lives and works are profiled in the engaging new dual biography, “Truman & Tennessee: An Intimate Conversation” (web site, trailer).
Truman Capote (1924-1984) and Tennessee Williams (1911-1983) were two of the greatest American wordsmiths of the 20th Century. Both were born in the South. Both rose to fame in the 1950s. Both wrote works that contained controversial subjects for the time. Both battled with issues of alcoholism and artistic stagnation. Both became celebrities in their own right, earning notoriety outside of their writing accomplishments. Both were unabashedly gay at a time when such revelations were quite uncommon. And, even though they wrote works through different milieus (Capote primarily penning novels and short stories, Williams composing stage plays), the parallels between their lives and works were uncanny. But, to a great degree, that’s not surprising, given that they were also friendly rivals and good, lifelong friends.
“Truman & Tennessee” is a rare dual biography chronicling the lives of these two writers, detailing the works of each and showing their compositions’ similarities in tone and thematically. The film also examines how their parallel personal lives significantly influenced the content of their writings. But, perhaps most importantly, director Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s offering presents an ongoing “dialogue” between Capote and Williams, drawing from materials they each wrote about one another and presented in alternating voiceover narrations read, respectively, by actors Jim Parsons and Zachary Quinto. These readings are further supplemented by archive footage of Capote and Williams in television interviews conducted by David Frost, Dick Cavett and Tom Brokaw. The result is an intriguing and introspective look into the hearts, minds and work of these two literary icons.
As most writers are well aware, it’s always wisest to draw upon what one knows when putting pen to paper. So it was for both Capote and Williams. They wrote about their Southern upbringing and heritage. They plumbed subject matter that was near and dear (or at least familiar) to them, often painful in nature and exploring themes they were acquainted with, such as alcoholism, abuse and sexual repression. And they both achieved tremendous acclaim for what they wrote, with many of their materials being made into movies, many of which are featured in a series of well-chosen film clips that effectively capture the themes and nature of their works.
The processes that produce such results are both simple and complex. Their simplicity stems from tapping into the particulars of one’s experience. Their complexity comes from how one views them and translates those details into thoughts, beliefs and intents. But how does one reconcile the two?
From a theoretical standpoint, Capote and Williams provide us with an important example from which to draw. As evidenced by their writing, we see a pair of scribes who intuitively knew how to authentically convert these intangible notions into tangible creations. They drew from their experience and transformed those incidents into thoughts, beliefs and intents that they then used in penning their works. Understanding this is important to the rest of us, too, because, if this practice can be employed successfully for composing a novel or stage play (as their examples illustrate), it can conceivably be used for the materialization of any other venture, be it painting a portrait, designing an interior space or simply making dinner. The process can be applied to virtually any undertaking, no matter what aspect of life we apply it to.
By drawing from what we know – the innermost thoughts, beliefs and intents of our true selves – we can operate from a standpoint of personal integrity. Even if those experiences aren’t the most pleasant but make for worthwhile creations (like good prose or drama, for example), the more we can delve into their depths to produce something meaningful, the more authentic we can be in yielding those manifestations. Such authenticity tends to ring true, not only with us, but also with others, leading us to embrace the validity and fidelity of those creations, as well as to foster their acceptance at large, a condition that no doubt helps to account for the popularity and appreciation of the works of writers like Capote and Williams.
To bring these writings into being, Capote and Williams let their creativity flow freely, without hindrance or limitation, even when it came at a high personal cost. When Capote wrote In Cold Blood, for example, he became more than a little personally involved in the creation of this nonfiction novel and the fates of the convicted murderers it was based upon, a development that affected him profoundly. The impact was so intense and pervasive, in fact, that he descended into the depths of alcoholism and struggled to write anything new, issues that plagued him for the remainder of his life. Yet, in enduring this experience in bringing this book to life, Capote produced what is arguably one of the greatest literary works of the 20th Century.
Of course, this naturally raises issues about the nature of what we create – and what notions we embrace in doing so. Such exercises may indeed yield remarkable results, but we must be cognizant of the costs involved. Is it wise to tap into territory that could potentially destroy us, even if it leads to a good book? Such instances truly can be prime examples of “be careful what you wish for.” As was the case for both Capote and Williams, suffering can indeed serve as a source of inspiration or as a stumbling block to personal and creative fulfillment.
Still, no matter what we draw from, when our creative efforts result in manifestations that stand the test of time, we live out our destiny, especially when it leads to being our best, truest selves for the betterment of ourselves and those around us. Capote and Williams gave us a wealth of literary and theatrical classics, enriching our cultural lives and enlightening us to some of life’s most challenging circumstances. It also helped that they had each other to help guide one another in these undertakings, something we should all bear in mind when it comes to consulting our kindreds in taking on creative initiatives of our own. With such an outlook and resources like these, there’s no telling what we may be capable of bringing into being in our efforts to make the world a better place for all of us.
Bringing together the insights and words of two legendary writers in one film is an intriguing approach to the biographical documentary genre, an approach employed cleverly and skillfully in this offering. By combining archive interview footage with voiceovers of their writings, viewers see a picture emerge not only of these two gifted artists, but also the parallels between their respective backgrounds, the nature of their longstanding friendship and the ways in which their personal lives influenced their work. These discussions are supplemented by numerous clips from film and television adaptations of their novels and plays, including “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951), “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (1958), “Baby Doll” (1956), “The Night of the Iguana” (1964), “The Glass Menagerie” (1973), “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1961) and “In Cold Blood” (1967), to name a few. While this release is not always especially revelatory about either of these well-known individuals, it’s nevertheless quite intimate and authentic in their on-screen depiction, especially in the archive interviews. If nothing else, this film puts an interesting spin on its material and brings its protagonists back to life, even if only for a little while. The film has been playing in limited theatrical release and is available for streaming online.
Perhaps the greatest attribute of the works of these writers is the gifts to us that they represent. We should be grateful for these literary and theatrical masterpieces for the contributions they have made to the world of the written word, additions that have benefitted us all. Truman and Tennessee may not have had the easiest time bringing these materials to life, but their efforts were rooted in integrity and a desire to capture the truth. They have enriched us, both for their insights and authenticity, speaking to us in a manner that’s simultaneously personal and universal, results that only an icon can achieve.
A complete review is available by clicking here.
Copyright © 2021, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.