What does it mean to represent a community? A country? The world?
Several brave souls share their lives openly in Hot Docs’ international spotlight The Changing Face of Europe. The program, assembled in partnership with European Film Promotion, favours intimate windows to the world this year. Through the lives of a handful of characters, the documentaries in The Changing Face of Europe speak to a world in transition.
For example, the Slovak/Czech selection A Happy Man, which has its world premiere at Hot Docs, brings a timely character study and marriage story. Filmmaker and anthropologist Soňa G. Lutherová observes her friend Marvin as he transitions. Lutherová, who knew Marvin and his husband, Ivan, for nearly a decade before Marvin came out as transgender, deftly captures the interpersonal dynamics of a marriage during a dramatic period. Marvin becomes rejuvenated as the film progresses and his body becomes a better fit for his soul, while we observe Ivan’s inner conflict as he adapts to the idea of having a husband.
Lutherová says the test of their marriage creates avenues for viewers to recognize themselves in the couple’s story. “What is a marriage or a long-term partnership actually based on?” asks Lutherová. “What makes a family stick together? What happens in the family when it is under stress? When people are together for a long time, they change.”
A Happy Man arrives at a moment when LGBTQ rights, particularly for trans people, are under threat worldwide as conservative groups roll back progress. As the Czech-born Marvin and Slovak Ivan navigate the transition from their home in Sweden, A Happy Man explores the differing attitudes to trans rights across borders. Lutherová notes that the situation is especially dire in Slovakia due to changes in the political winds, while Slovakia and Czechia both currently force sterilization as part of the transition process.
The director observes that Sweden is more progressive and has taken measures to pay restitution to trans people who previously underwent forced sterilization, which is thankfully no longer mandatory. However, even as Marvin faces varied reactions from his Czech mother, who struggles with the situation, and his father, who accepts him, A Happy Man illustrates, on both micro and macro levels, how society struggles to let go of the status quo.
Framing the story through Marvin and Ivan’s marriage at a point of change, however, gives A Happy Man both emotional and political heft. “Conservative streams of the political spectrum are feeding on this topic. They are exploiting it to gain cheap votes,” reflects Lutherová. “What I’m hoping for is to shift the discussion about transgender people, as I think that we should depoliticize the way we talk about this subject and really focus on individual people and their struggles.”
A Happy Man leaves viewers in suspense as Marvin awakens to new possibilities and Ivan considers their new reality. “The film has an open ending because that’s how life goes for each and every one of us,” adds Lutherová. “On the other hand, if they split in a respectful way, it would still be a happy ending in the sense that they went through this process and didn’t hurt each other. They remain respectful to one another.” Through this one portrait of unwavering love, the film offers a story that should resonate around the world.
Explore more films in The Changing Face of Europe here.
Hot Docs runs April 27 – May 7.
POV is a media partner with European Film Promotion.