It’s no secret that war reporters are often adrenaline junkies with an astronomically high risk tolerance, but Jordan Byron takes the cake. A documentary filmmaker based in Afghanistan, Byron was inducted into a Taliban unit after the fall of Kabul while working on a film for The New York Times. A chilling prospect for anyone, much less a white Australian “infidel,” as one source calls it.
But there’s another little detail that puts Byron at particular risk: she’s trans. The 39-year-old journalist also filmed himself during the risky assignment, capturing his unique predicament in “Transition,” a startling documentary that blends the geopolitical with the personal.
As Byron takes steps to medically transition while living in the Middle East, his relationship with gender evolves against the backdrop of a strictly gendered society. The pressure to pass becomes a life-and-death situation (as it is for many trans people), a struggle made starkly visible by the extreme circumstances. Surprisingly, the film never buckles under the weight of its dire surroundings. This seems almost entirely due to Byron’s good-natured humor (he’s Australian, after all) and lucid self-reflection. Unsentimental and distinctly understated, ‘Transition’ focuses on its stunning central premise, letting the remarkable story speak for itself.
The film was directed by Byron and produced by Monica Villamizar. Both share directorial credit, a collaboration that seems to have maintained a degree of neutrality while preserving personal edge. Scenes of Byron traversing various checkpoints and Taliban firefights are interspersed with more intimate settings, such as when he receives his first shot of testosterone from an underground doctor while lying prone on a conference table. He speaks not exactly to the camera, but often to an invisible audience, recounting his changing moods from his Kabul apartment.
She explains her basic experience of gender dysphoria, without going into it further. He always felt deeply uncomfortable in his body, which he went through for 39 years before finally deciding to go medically. His high-stakes career in the Middle East seems to have distracted from his personal anguish, while also providing a surprising cover of relief.
“Those things don’t follow me here. Afghanistan welcomed me,” she says. With his short hair and men’s clothing, Afghans take him literally, accepting him as a man.
Conversations with his partner Kiana Hayeri, an Iranian photojournalist, reveal that Byron is a bit cavalier about the risks. She is deeply concerned about the Taliban’s whereabouts, reminding him of the danger of anyone finding out he’s trans. “I’m absolutely playing with the fire going on in these villages,” she admits. “It’s possible they’ll kill me.”
The village scenes are the film’s most intense, and the lull of Kabul life between visits is a relief. Accompanied by his partner and translator Teddy, the two engage in surprisingly frank and engaging conversation. The most fascinating revelations come from a young soldier, or Talib, named Mirwais. Mirwais has a particular fascination with Byron, even he at one point calling him “kind of handsome”.
At certain moments, it almost seems as though Mirwais knows there is something different about Byron, even if he can’t figure it out. Even though he sees him as an infidel, he’s surprised how much he likes Byron. Byron is “open-minded” and “non-judgmental”, qualities that could easily be used to describe Mirwais. When a Taliban mocked Byron for his meager beard, Byron recalls Mirwais saying, “There is more to being a man than having a beard. Manhood comes from within.
Next, Byron will travel to Tehran to undergo major surgery, and then home to Australia to see his mother, who is jovial and supportive. He is happy to get a call from Mirwais and teaches his mother to say “Salaam”. After she hangs up, he explains that it was huge for Mirwais to even talk to her mother, as it is forbidden under Sharia law to even hear a woman’s voice. A seasoned professional with a deep respect for Muslim religious beliefs and cultural customs, he fears the film “so publicly betrays them.”
“Transition” doesn’t delve too deeply into its ambiguities. The film was produced by Mathew Heineman, the Oscar-nominated director of “Cartel Land.” Not only is access critical, but human stories are more nuanced than the mainstream media can imagine. When Byron’s sympathy for Taliban fighters begins to border on naïve, Kiana is there to remind him that she can no longer walk the streets due to the harassment. The deeply sexual society that provides Byron a liberating cover continues to terrorize women and girls. The film makes evident the experience of being caught between a rock and a hard place, a boldly incisive metaphor for the trans experience.
“Transition” premiered at the 2023 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution in the United States.