When I pulled into the parking lot outside the Regal Metropolitan 14 theaters—one of three venues screening the 100 films that make up the 13th annual Cine Las Americas film festival—I was afraid I had come to the wrong place. Sure, it was 5:30 on a Thursday afternoon—hardly prime movie-going time—but the parking lot was just about empty, and there was no indication that any kind of special event was taking place.
I had come to watch the U.S. debut of Ser y no Ser (To Be and Not To Be), a documentary chronicling the life of Raúl García Santinelli, a man born in the southern Mexican city of Mérida in 1954 with the body of a female.
Raúl was raised as a girl, but identified strongly as a male and made the decision in his late teens to undergo a gender reassignment surgery, sparking a religious and ethical debate in his community and among the doctors at Stanford University’s School of Medicine, where the operations were eventually performed.
There was only one other person in the theater when I took my seat, and only about three others arrived before the film started. (The 5:40 screening of Date Night saw a much better attendance.) The feature was prefaced by Amateur, a strange and fascinating short film whose elusive storytelling and artful camerawork were a jarring contrast to the main event.
Ser y no Ser left much to be desired on a technical level: the camerawork was distractingly poor and the storytelling was awkward (a narrator would have been a big help)—but the story was there, and it was powerful. Even if the film failed as a work of entertainment, it was profoundly thought-provoking.
In the on-camera interviews that make up most of the film, Raúl’s friends and relatives highlight the bewildering cruelty faced by those, such as Raúl, who are born with a psychological gender that does not match their physical gender.
“Pre-judgement is a lack of information,” says one friend, in what is perhaps the central insight of the film. “His story is a difficult one to tell, and when a story is difficult to tell—when there are a lot of facts—people opt for the superficial.”
And there are few topics that face a greater lack of information and substantive discussion in our culture than gender and sexuality. Those close to Raúl tell of his desire to “do his duty”—behave like a woman—for the sake of his parents. A man who dated Raúl during his teenage years (when he was still known as Guadalupe) recalls “virile kisses,” “like being kissed by a woman, but in a very aggressive way.”
Others wondered if little Guadalupe was merely a tomboy, or a lesbian. When Raúl decided to undergo the operations that would allow his physical gender to match what he felt, many in his community decided that his “true” gender could never be changed. “Women are the mental opposite of men,” Raúl’s father-in-law remembers one person saying. “You can change sex—you can give someone a dick, but I’d ignore it.” When Raúl died of a stroke at age 49, one family member who was in mourning for him remembers being told that he should just be happy Raúl was dead.
Much of the cruelty that Raúl faced was at least partially rooted in the strong Catholic faith of his community. Another central theme of the film is the theological implications of Raúl’s story, from the Jesuit surgeon, Dr. Donald R. Laub, who performed Raúl’s sex-change operations only after obtaining permission from his bishop (who granted it after consulting Pope Paul VI), to Raúl’s priest who articulated a vision of Catholic compassion that embraced Raúl in his struggle rather than condemning him.
For all its technical shortcomings, this was a film that will stick with me much longer than Date Night (although I enjoyed it, too). Few people showed up to see this one—and they missed out.