Screening in competition tonight at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles is Mohammed to Maya, a documentary chronicling a year in the life of a 42-year-old devout Muslim as she undergoes gender reassignment surgery. Even in the relatively permissive West it’s difficult to imagine the difficulties of making such a transition, but it’s almost inconceivable this case.
When we first meet Maya, she’s already gone through therapy and hormone treatments and she’s 48 hours away from the surgery in Bangkok, Thailand that will finally transform her physically from male to female and align her body more closely with her mind. Though she charges forward with seeming confidence, it’s clear early on Maya has no road map for reconciling her decision with her strong religious beliefs nor has she any idea if her family will understand and accept her or if they will cast her out. She faces not only a change in her gender and all that entails, but she risks losing hold of the emotional foundations of her very identity.
It’s difficult to judge a documentary so personal and intimate as this one is. In an age where everyone gets to be a celebrity and TV is filled with shows revolving around the personal lives of complete strangers, a documentary like Mohammed to Maya treads a very fine line between illumination and exploitation. Whether it’s a filmmaker exploiting a subject or a subject exploiting him or herself for audience gratification, it’s difficult not to approach such a sensational-seeming story with a measure of doubt or skepticism. I thought about this long after the film ended and I finally decided that, though it is highly dramatic and moving, Mohammed to Maya avoids crossing that line. Director Jeff Roy takes a neutral but intimate fly-on-the-wall approach allowing Maya to tell her own story as she progresses through the greatest challenges of her life. As a subject, Maya is smart and funny and courageous and it’s often difficult to watch what she experiences, but what emerges is a story that should be inspiring or heartening to anyone facing difficult life choices, whether they’re the same as Maya’s or not. Human beings are remarkable for their ability to adapt to circumstances, and in a way Maya’s story is an extreme example of that.
I don’t know if it would have made a difference, but I found I wanted to know more of Maya’s story, more of what made her tick and more of what her experiences were growing up. She tells stories of an abusive father and she shows us pictures from her past, yet she remains always a little bit mysterious. I’d have liked more biography and maybe even interviews with people who know her.
The film also ends a bit frustratingly without a sense of resolution, yet this may well be by design. Maya’s journey isn’t one with a clear beginning, middle and end. Her physical reassignment is just one step in a very long and difficult process. In many ways her story is just beginning and the unsettling feeling that lingers is that you don’t know whether her tortuous (and torturous) path is going to lead her to happiness or not.