By the standards of a war-based documentary, Jordan Bryon and Monica Villamizar’s Transition rarely features violence. Steering clear of carnage, it instead focuses on Bryon hanging out with Taliban soldiers, spending time within their homes, their training sessions, and their strongholds throughout Afghanistan. He’s making a film for the New York Times while going through the process of gender transition, the backdrop of the Taliban’s takeover simmering around him. The resulting documentary teeters on this complicated situation: the understanding that if the Taliban soldiers learn Bryon’s secrets, they’ll likely kill him.
Bryon and Villamizar direct without much fuss, opting to use a majority of the former’s footage as their main source for framing. There aren’t any talking heads or long-winded interviews, no Q&A sessions with Bryon discussing his time in Afghanistan. It’s the life of a war documentarian over the course of his transition neither expanding into a treatise on world politics nor even the Taliban’s regime. It’s about a single, solitary man and the threat he avoided every day.
Bryon’s courage should be a sticking point, the most obvious takeaway. He stayed in Afghanistan during almost the entirety of his transition, risking his life for the impact of journalism. His work often entailed friendships with Taliban leaders. He bonded with them, cracking jokes, holding their guns, texting and calling them like any friends would do. There’s an ethical quandary to be discussed about the actual impact of Transition outside Bryon’s own nerves of steel.
Still, the footage he captures is immense: the regularity of the soldiers’ lives, the ease in which Bryon ingratiates himself into their social circle, the acceptance they give him unknowing of the process he’s going through. Transition contains tension due to circumstance. The filmmakers don’t need to add any extra flair or style. As the fear only ratchets as Bryon’s surgery grows near, chances of discovery rise with every minute he spends alongside the Taliban, and as such the viewer’s worry increases. Bryon’s safety becomes the paramount concern, even though the status of his well-being can be surmised simply by the film’s existence.
Transition doesn’t work without Bryon’s willing participation. He’s more than a worthy documentary subject, a man chronicling a hostile takeover while dealing with his own internal, massive life changes. But he rarely falters, only showing moments of weakness when alone or surrounded by his cameraman and solitary friend. His support system is small, mighty. It’s impossible not to root for him on this physical and emotional journey, and the film plays into that heart. It knows the incredibility of its real-life protagonist, and in return Bryon gives himself over to the film. He allows the camera to follow him wherever he goes, experience whatever he experiences, resting on his face and his body amidst all the changes.
There’s something to be said about the specific scope of Bryon and Villamizar’s film, about the lighter aura surrounding these men who embrace and worship violence––specifically murder. The directors are telling a fixed story with a clear ending, whatever the continued factions rising and falling in Afghanistan. Bryon deserves the focus, yet the film never paints any broader strokes. Transition works because of that one person, but it cannot climb any further under these limitations.
Transition premiered at the Tribeca Festival.