Paul B. Preciado – Orlando: My Political Biography is Collective Therapy for us

Paul. B Preciado (photographed above by Pierre et Gilles) is a philosopher, curator, writer and now director as his new film Orlando: My Political Biography has been receiving awards around the world and will be released in the UK from July 5th (trailer available here). His area of expertise is gender and sexuality, having written a book Testo-Junkie about his experiences transitioning, and given a later published speech to psychoanalysts called “Can the monster speak?” that predicted the current wave of anti-trans hatred being courted worldwide. 

Those are the gleaming highlights but that sentence doesn’t really capture the level of dedication and passion that Paul brings to his work. That is evident most of all when hearing him speak. Before writing my review (available here), I was fortunate enough to interview Paul about Orlando. Here is the full conversation, from the creative process, to the philosophy driving it and how it not only captures the power of being trans but within that power are lessons for everyone. 

Paul: Hello Leigh.

Leigh: Hi, how are you doing?

Paul: I’m good, how are you?

Fantastic. I really enjoyed the film. I watched it three times now, because I kept finding new different ways to approach it.

I really enjoyed the way that you blended reality and fiction, and the past and the future together. So the first question I have is, how did you find a balance between the life stories of the various people in the film, and yours and Orlando’s? Was there a process, or was it based on the individuals?

Well, thank you for the question. At the beginning, when I was thinking about the film, it was not so clear to me that I will have these four narrative lines that you finally see mixing up within the film, which is my own story, my own biography in a sense, like life story, whatever you want to call it. What is a biography anyway?

The stories and the biographies of the different Orlandos that basically participate in the film, but also the story of Orlando as is being told by Virginia Woolf, and then the much larger story of the invisible Orlandos of history, right? Invisible trans and non-binary people of history, even though that could have been a much, much larger thread within the film. So at a certain point, for instance, I was doing a lot of research on visibility of trans people, but not mostly in films, which is something that has already been done by other people, but also in the media across other mediums, like basically photography and many other mediums, and on TV as well. Basically, how suddenly, as soon as we were constructed as trans, almost immediately we came across in the image, and through television, which is like kind of a once in a lifetime. It’s like in a sense, we were invented at the same time that photography and television are, as political visual gender, sexual creatures, right?

So basically, so I was doing all this research, and then I found myself with a lot of footage, for instance, on trans histories. But then I decided that it had to be balanced in a sense, with the personal stories of the trans people that I was speaking with, and that I was reworking with the specific chapters of Virginia Woolf’s book, they were like so impressive and so beautiful. 

And I also really wanted to honour them as, you know, like basically as being part of the film, that at the end. I thought, well, for instance, like why at the end deciding like it would be like a piece of Coccinella and a little bit of Marsa P. Johnson and a little bit of Sylvia Rivera, but I couldn’t have like the whole. It was impossible to have like the whole genealogy of the trans history, right? So it was a little bit like trying to have like all of these layers at the same time to show that we are, in a sense, done and undone by these histories. That some of them are visible but are with forms of visibility that are extremely violent to us, for instance. Yeah.

And also just fragments of visibility. For instance, how important it might have been for people in the in the 1960s or 70s, when suddenly they saw Coccinella on TV. What that made of you if suddenly you’re thinking that you’re trans or non-binary person, like a teenager, for instance, and then you’re watching television and then suddenly you’re seeing Coccinella, right? Or like basically like having no chance whatsoever of seeing like people like Marsa P. Johnson who were like completely invisible in terms of the media at that time, right? 

So knowing that we are made as political beings, we’re made of these fragments that and some of them are fictional, some of them are reality, but also some come across like fictions to us, because basically it’s like you have no agency on how you want to be represented, right? 

Yeah. One of the things that you mentioned about working with the chapters of Orlando, was there any chapters or parts that you really wanted to put in but kind of had to cut for time or, you know, felt you wouldn’t be able to figure out?

Yeah, this is a very important question because when you work with a book like Orlando by Virginia Woolf. Of course, no matter how much I felt, and I had this very weird feeling and sensation that she had written my biography, you know, before I was born, which is such an uncanny sensation, right? But at the same time, there was also so many things in the book that I didn’t find comfortable, I didn’t feel comfortable with, that I found, you know, that that they belong to a different political period altogether. But in a sense, of course, like Virginia Woolf, I mean, no matter how much I love, and I adore Virginia Woolf, and the more I have worked on her writing, the more I feel completely indebted to her poetry and the beauty of what she tried to do.

And also, for instance, something which was so important for me, that realizing at the same time that Virginia Woolf was extremely colonial and many of the assumptions that she had. She could be misogynist, homophobic, of course transphobic without even like the notion of transness being invented then, but it was also transphobic in a sense. All these things are true.

But at the same time, because of being herself like such a psychiatric object, right?  Being constructed herself as someone that is suffering from melancholia and being constantly subjected to the psychiatric gaze and psychiatric institutionalization and so on. In a sense, she also shared a lot of things with us, with sexual and gender political minorities, right? So it’s very interesting because at the same time, I was like, oh my God, this, I don’t really like it.

But also, I wanted also to save a particular Virginia Woolf for the future as well, to say like, you know, because I don’t like so much this perspective now of basically like cancelling or saying like, okay, this should be like thrown to the garbage. It’s like, well, this very complex, unfortunately, extremely racist, extremely colonial history is also our history, and we need to do something with it. You know, so it was how to come to terms with that.

And then I think the most interesting thing for me to do was reading some of the chapters with the people that were participating in the film, for instance with Amir that is coming from a migration background, partly coming from Africa from his father’s side. And discussing with Amir like, okay, how do you see this chapter? How would you feel about like basically dressing up like this? Do you think it’s this or, you know. Going with Amir into a contemporary critical reading of that chapter. I’m speaking about chapter of basically like going to what is supposed to be Constantinople in the book and becoming this diplomat figure that is coming from the Imperial England. So that was quite interesting, like, how are we going to do that? 

Some people were like saying to me you should go to Turkey to shoot that chapter. Well, of course, I didn’t have the money to go to Turkey anyway. But it was super interesting speaking with Amir to basically to realise that this kind of Oriental myth is constructed again of multiple fragments. That it has pieces of Chinese Orientalism has pieces of Muslim Turkey, pieces of Africa. Of course, then for instance, when I found the setting for shooting that particular chapter, which is the house of Pierre and Gilles, who are like two photographers, very well-known queer photographers.

Yeah, they’re the doctors in the film, aren’t they?

Yes, the doctors in the film. Then when I found the place, because they invited me to have a discussion with them and have a picture being made and everything. And when I got to their place and saw the house, like full of like queer stuff and at the same time, like, you know, in a very kind of kitschy, already post-post-post-Oriental, you know, retake of these myths.

And then going there with Amir to actually shoot the scenes, he felt that it was trying to do that chapter with a full and kind of post-colonial critical reading of her take on Constantinople.

Orlando, My Political Biography – In cinemas 5th July.

It felt pretty clearly from that as well to me, because when you see some of that Orientalism come in and start to be discussed, it felt like you were going ‘hold up, I don’t just love her blindly, you know?’ And going back to what you were saying about how she experienced a lot of the pharmaceutical gaze, that’s actually something that I found really resonant in this film is the way that it’s not based in medical things, nor psychiatry, but its very body focused. And as a disabled person, so much of the journey of what happens to the body when not normative felt resonant in that area as well.

And I was wondering how you’d respond to those who find such like a body-based perspective uncomfortable or, say, those who feel as though transition is a bit too centred in the way that we view transness?

Let me see if I understand the question correctly, because for me, the body is not, it’s not an anatomic object. You know, that is for me, the key to everything that the people that are basically, they’re always like, ‘oh, well, but this is like reduced to the body and the body, the body’. It’s like, well, those that have been considered historically bodies are very specific political minorities. It’s like, you never speak about like a man, a white middle-aged bourgeois man as having a body. We don’t consider even that there is a body.

There is a political subjectivity, but not a body. Right. But as soon as you’re considered like either disabled, suffering from a mental condition, either like, let’s remember, and this is for me crucial, that the way in which transsexuality was constructed medically was as disability, really, you know? So, I mean, this is, those are things that for me are crucial in order for us to be able to build a political answer to what is happening.

And that, that is also something that I wanted to show in the film, because at the beginning, for instance, when I was doing the casting, I think that some of the people that came to the casting thought that I was going to choose one Orlando. The best, I mean, the best Orlando. And the people that were very worried, they would come and they would say, ‘well, you know, I’m, I’m, I’m transitioning, but I’m not taking hormones. I am, well, I’m not, I don’t have paper yet’. Like, as if they would have to almost apologise in front of me for not being like trans enough and I’m like, ‘what are you talking about?’ 

It’s like, for me, the film is not really about like transsexuality as what the medical establishment and the legal discourse has constructed. It’s about many multiple ways of questioning the gender and sexual normativity, the binary, that binary. So there are so many different ways. And so for me, I’m always thinking about this kind of, I call it, I like to put it in revolutionary terms, because for me, it is revolution.

Yes exactly! When speaking to the people that you were working with, all the various Orlando’s it’s really amazing how earnest so much of the film is. And I was wondering, what sort of approach did you take to maintain such vulnerability on set and through to the final cut?

Honestly, for me, it’s been, you know, it’s my first film and I never thought about making films. I used to curate and to work with artists. So basically, I’m used to working with other people. But I, I was also a little bit like surprised by the, by the generosity, the beauty, the intensity of what people were able to give, you know.

So was it less of a coaxing thing and more of a just making sure that you present it in the best way that they were already?

Well, it was, it was half and half, because for instance, when I started making the film, I was trying to choose a cinematographer, right? And I saw like several cinematographers that were actually really good, that had like brilliant recommendations and whatever. And some of them, for instance, they would immediately tell me, okay, but this person is a woman or a man, as if they needed to know in order for them to be able to frame the image.

Because of course, we always speak about like, the female gaze and the male gaze and whatever. But let’s put it clearly, there is the normal gaze and the binary gaze, right? Which is, and I mean, if you’re coming from disability, you know what it is.

Absolutely. This film feels like it was filmed in a non-binary way. The way that it refuses any of those kind of gazes.

That’s exactly what I was looking for. So I was trying to explain to my cinematographers that it’s basically as soon as they would ask like female or male, I’m like, ‘well, this is not interesting’.

So I really was working with my team to be able to create like a safe space when working. Like a space which is not, and I’m not defining this in a kind of very strict way, but it’s basically like how to look at someone without reproducing the violence of the binary and normal gaze, right? So that took a little while.

And then the point in which basically my cinematographer, all of them, all of the people working with me, we started being like almost so comfortable, all of us. Like I knew from the beginning, I didn’t want anyone… there were like moments of extreme vulnerability in front of the camera. Some people would actually break in front of the camera. Some people were actually like completely, you know, not being able to play, or crying. And we had like a long time for that.

So these, we call them like fake interviews. The way in which I framed them, basically like teaching the Orlandos to speak like Orlando by Virginia Woolf, choosing texts from Orlando and mixing those texts with their own words. They learn how to do that, okay?

And those, I call them like fake interviews because they answer with the words of Orlando, right? So those actually, sometimes they would take like four, five, six hours to shoot them because they needed like to try again, sometimes like break, sometimes not being able to do it, sometimes come back. And all of us, it was amazing because sometimes like my cinematographer at the end of one of the shoots, he would be in tears. Like basically we would have to cut the image because my cinematographer was in tears, you know with like how people would actually be able to say the text after like taking like so much time.

I was also surprised myself by the, by the strength, the courage, the beauty. And then basically just like the, once that has happened once you’re like, oh my God, this is a miracle. And then like, you start like doing it again and you realize that it’s basically that you have to create the context for this world and this comfort. Maybe trust or reliance on yourself and on the other one that is looking at you appears.

Orlando, My Political Biography – In cinemas 5th July.

So did making Orlando make you revisit thoughts and feelings from previous works like Testo Junkies? Actually on the note of Testo Junkies, do you have any sort of words of wisdom for the Orlandos DIYing their own transition in the current atmosphere? Because Testo Junkies was about 16 years ago.

Yeah, totally. But the difference is like the, the collective perspective, because basically Testo Junkie is at the same time, in a sense, is written as a kind of intoxication protocol. So it has, you know, even though you can think that it’s just like self-fiction or something like that, you know, auto fiction or whatever, in reality its very corrective as well. It’s very much like Orlando, you know what I mean? But you don’t feel it so much, it’s made in such a way. So you don’t really realise it.

But of course, when I did that, I was much more isolated in terms of being a trans person, even though there were many, many trans people around me, of course, but trans politics were not as visible as they are today. At the same time, on the negative note, it’s also amazing the way in which trans people have become the target of far right, extreme violent politics as well. Right.

So in a sense, it’s a very different, different time. The time of Testo Junkie for me was like, basically, I did it is very experimentally in a sense, and it’s completely like philosophical. And what I wanted to show, I guess, from Testo Junkie into Orlando, is that this is not anymore just my adventure. And it’s not anymore like a philosophical experience or something like that. Now, this is a collective, political, almost like planetary revolution.

Leigh: Absolutely. Yeah.

So for me, that is crucial. And also like, what I was doing myself at the beginning with hormones or whatever, now is done in hundreds of different times by non-binary people that some of them are using hormones, but not changing names. Some of them are like changing names or not using hormones.

And that there is like this way of like going off the protocol. There’s so many ways of going off the protocol that is becoming almost, is so away and so rich and completely like compared to what the medical protocol was proposing. It’s like we’re opening up a completely new field of experimentation and production of subjectivity.

The final question I have is, if you had to distill the philosophy or the message of Orlando into something succinct for the average person, cis or trans, what would that be?

Well, what I would say is that we’re all transitioning, all of us, that, you know, that living in the current political conditions is transitioning. Yes. And there are like there are certain lessons from the people that are actually transitioning in different ways that we can give.

I mean, you know, it’s almost like it seems to me that if you think about 20 years ago, it would always be like basically we will have to explain ourselves to the normal people and almost like, oh, we are as normal as you and everything. Now it is the opposite. It’s like you don’t believe it, but you are as abnormal as us.

You know, it’s like, yes, please join us because it’s like you are, you might not realise yet, but you’re also like extremely subjected to the politics of normalisation that might destroy your life as our lives. So you have to join us in what I call like, to come back to the subject of the body, what I call so much of political fights, fights of bodies. Different kinds of bodies, you know, against the capture and the destruction of the power of living.

So it’s a way of saying like we have something to tell you, please listen to us because you might think that we’re just like a few of us are monsters. They are like very strange. But these politics of monsters might be very useful to you too.

And that’s all the questions I have. If you have anything else that you wish to say or speak on in the time we have remaining, then feel free.

Well, I, I guess that, the question now is how, how are we going to fight this violent political situation in which we are in? I mean, I’m in France now, you know, and then do we have like the far right almost coming to government.

Having basically at the centre of all this politics now is the extermination of the trans body as us, as if we represent the major danger, right? So I think that Orlando in that sense for me is, is almost like, like collective therapy for us.

It’s a way of, this is what I’ve been experiencing with people, like people go to see the film, they gather with, with friends and it’s a way of saying like, ‘no this is what we are doing is fine. There’s no problem, you know, being trans is just great. Other people are having trouble with us, but our life is, could be fantastic.’ 

It’s just one of the most beautiful things that can happen to you in life is being trans, you know, and transitioning.

Yeah, definitely. Its why I say I’m genderqueer because whether I’m trans masc or feeling more femme or whatever, I’m always queer.

You know, like being genderqueer in any way, right? So I think that’s also the message of the film partly.

Totally. I can’t wait to show this to members of my family and other friends of mine, because I know there’s so many of them that are going to see parts of themselves and parts of each other and that kaleidoscopic nature, fractal-ness of being trans is so beautiful to see put into a film. And it’s so rarely seen so yeah, I’m really excited for the UK release of this.

Thank you so much. Thank you so much for reporting on the film and for the interview.

This film is absolutely worth the watch and is available to watch in cinemas across the UK from 5th July. My full review is available here and more information is available at