Flavio Alves’ debut feature, The Garden Left Behind, tells the story of Tina (Carlie Guevara), a young Mexican trans woman, who works as a New York cab driver and who is seeing a psychologist, a delightfully crusty but kindly Ed Asner, to ascertain her suitability for transition.
Crimes against trans people in America – especially Hispanic and black trans women – are running at an all time high, and much of the action is suffused with an unnerving sense of menace. Who is the slightly creepy guy watching Tina from across the street? Tina is anxious, we are anxious…but as it happens he’s a totally decent guy hoping to buy the car which Tina is selling to help fund her transition. Phew.
And what about Chris (Anthony Abdo), the convenience store guy? Is his nervousness in front of Tina simply a consequence of shyness? Is he transphobic? Does he fancy her? For most of us, selling a car or picking up groceries from our local shop are not activities generally accompanied by fear of violence, but it is a credit to Alves’ direction, Robert Pycer’s understated score and, most notably, Carlie Guevara’s camera-savvy performance that we too experience the anxiety and apprehension that so many trans people feel when going about their day-to-day lives.
Our anxiety is not misplaced, and the second act kicks off with news of the death – or murder – of Rosie, one of Tina’s social circle of trans women, in police custody. The friends become activists, campaigning for justice for Rosie, adding a generality to what has so far been a highly personal story. Some of the film’s feel good moments come when Tina and her friends are organising their campaign with the customary “us against the world” montage. And yet I would have preferred Alves’ to trust the universality of Tina’s story and its ability to make the audience angry at the injustices visited upon trans people rather than feeling the need to bring a “cause” into play. Remember folks, the personal is political.
The late Pulitzer prize-winning critic Roger Ebert famously described cinema as an “empathy machine”, and The Garden Left Behind skilfully places the audience in the shoes of the protagonist, making the final few scenes all the more hard-hitting and impactful.
I don’t doubt that The Garden Left Behind will be seen by anyone with an interest in the struggles of and sickening prejudice faced by trans people, particularly those from minority communities. Yet preaching to the choir can only go so far; I sincerely hope that those unfamiliar with trans issues will open their minds far enough to watch it: they will learn something.
The Garden Left Behind is available to stream on Bohemia Euphoria, and to rent or buy on Amazon and iTunes.
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