The screening of Free CeCe!, as part of the Scottish Queer International Film Festival, represented a cry of political defiance by a marginalised minority. People were gathered in Glasgow’s CCA not so much to view a film, but to address transphobia, racism and expose the horrors of the American prison system. Almost all but myself were there in representation of an organisation, prompting me to feel like I had stumbled into an awareness event – a political rally rather than a film screening. The film itself told the story of CeCe, a transgender woman of colour imprisoned in a male prison on murder allegations after a fatal stabbing, and the overwhelming campaign in her support – the ‘Free CeCe!’ movement.
The importance of this documentary was clear, in exposing the grey areas of western justice systems and championing the voices of trans women of colour. CeCe and her story was powerful if nothing else. She was constantly referred to as a phoenix, a ‘survivor’ in the face of so many transphobic hate crimes and murders. That is why it is difficult to criticise the experience of this film, the conversations it brought up far surpassed seeing the experience as only a screening.
But seeing the documentary as a piece of film alone, it just wasn’t very good. The documentary was badly edited, leading to a lot of confusion and a jerky narrative; the music was too loud in the edit, in comparison to the voices; and the subtitles were often incorrect and obscured the names of the people speaking. I found myself willing it to end, as I was struggling to follow the path of the documentary, and this lack of focus within the film prompted me to lose mine as a viewer.
The film seemed not to know what it wanted to be. Was it an exposé of the American prison system? A retelling of CeCe’s story and its importance? A history of political campaigns to support transgender people? It left me with many moral questions: the justification of carrying weapons and “protecting yourself” was presented in a very troubling way, such as in a rally where a woman shouted to a crowd to carry scissors and to ‘use your nails’ to fight back, almost seeming to call on more violence in response to transphobia which, as the film already addressed, kills people. In this way, it complicated the issue for me as a viewer. I could see what they were going for, but I still found the way in which things were described as morally questionable.
For trans representation alone, and as an exposition of the terrible system of oppression we live under, the experience was a triumph. But as a film, as something that was presented to me, it was a disappointment. Free CeCe! wasn’t what I know it could have been, or what it deserved to be.
[Imogen Hay – @imogenislay]