In the quietly revelatory short film “For Nonna Anna,” tenderness passes between generations as gently as sweeping stray hair behind a loved one’s ear. The short, directed by trans femme filmmaker Luis De Filippis, premiered at TIFF before receiving a Special Jury Prize at Sundance and now arrives online as a Vimeo Staff Pick Premiere. “For Nonna Anna” follows a trans girl as the drudgery of caring for her elderly Italian grandmother unearths her earliest memories of acceptance. The film stars Maya Henry in her first screen role opposite ballet dancer Jacqueline Tarne (who recently passed away). The story is close to the filmmaker’s heart.
“My grandmother was illiterate, spoke almost no English and was a devout Catholic, yet, her house was my safe space,” De Filippis told IndieWire by email. “She encouraged my early exploration of gender; beyond her walls I knew shame, within them, I knew love and acceptance. Similarly, this story follows the relationship between a trans girl and her Italian grandmother.”
De Filippis proudly employs what she refers to as “a fierce female gaze.” With this single qualifying adjective, she takes the concept originated by Laura Mulvey and popularized by Jill Soloway a step further. It’s a concept often discussed but rarely defined or exemplified; a canon still being created. For De Filippis, the female gaze is more about feeling than visuals.
“For me the female gaze is not so much how something looks, but rather how something feels. Does it feel exploitative or empowering? Does it feel like characters are doing something for the audience or themselves?,” she said. On a more granular level, De Filippis used diegetic sound so as not to manipulate the viewer into certain feelings. “The camera work is also almost always at level with the characters, we’re never higher or lower than they are and thus, never judging.”
Courtesy of the filmmaker
In the stunning final scene of “For Nonna Anna,” Chris (Henry) undresses in front of Nonna in order to get her to take a shower. After refusing to unbutton her blouse, Nonna looks Chris up and down, and a brief moment of recognition passes over her, soothing her distress. It’s a wrenching moment, and one that couldn’t be completed without the nudity. As both actresses stand nude, each woman reflected in the other’s gaze, the camera does not exploit nor expose.
“Both women are in a very vulnerable place, yet the camera doesn’t employ a voyeuristic or leering lens. It isn’t judging or focusing on any specific part of their bodies, instead we are simply watching the scene unfold at a pace that is comfortable for both women,” said the filmmaker. “We watch from afar, by keeping the shot wide we give them the space they deserve and are entitled to.”
Onscreen depictions of trans bodies are often fraught with anxiety; even the most sensitive cis male gaze can feel exploitative. Last year, Lukas Dhont’s Cannes sensation “Girl” caused a stir by depicting bodily harm and focusing too heavily on its protagonist’s body. Coming from De Filippis, who is trans herself, “For Nonna Anna” offers a bold new vision of how to portray trans bodies onscreen, even at their most vulnerable. For De Filippis, the solution is not in hiding trans bodies, but lovingly celebrating them in all of their glory.
“I don’t believe that we should shy away from showing trans bodies on screen, to do so implies that there is something wrong with our bodies,” she wrote. “Instead I think we need to examine the gaze with which our bodies are being viewed. In FOR NONNA ANNA the women are nude not because they’re being coerced, they’re not naked for anyone’s benefit but their own. It’s important that we show trans people in love with their bodies, and proud of who they are.”
Watch “For Nonna Anna,” by Luis De Filippis, below.