Regretters is a about two men, Mikael and Orlando, who both made one of the most dramatic, life altering, and final decisions conceivable–to undergo sexual reassignment surgery–and then changed their minds.
With a run time of sixty minutes and a format of a single stage setting (with some newsreel and home movies spliced in), Regretters has more than enough squirm inducing moments. It challenges a viewer’s traditional, preconceived notions of sex and gender and then challenges any politically correct positions on the other side.
One reason it is able to do that is because its two participants are not typical transsexuals. Orlando, who underwent one of the first sex change operations in Sweden (in 1967) was simply gay at a time in which society would not accept him in that way. After living for many years (and even being married for 11 years) as a woman, he underwent reconstructive surgery to return to living as a man. Mikael, who reports having known others who felt trapped in the wrong body reports never having felt that way. Deeply, painfully, shy, he appears to have undertaken the surgery out of a mixture of curiosity, desperation, and a futile attempt to become the woman he could never get to fall in love with his male self. He reports “immediately” regretting the decision, speaks bitterly about the surgeons not asking him “are you sure?” before performing the operation, and was awaiting reconstructive surgery at the time of filming.
It’s a platitude that good (i.e. interesting) cases make bad law. Perhaps the documentary corollary is that exceptional people make interesting stories but ones which are hard to derive applications from. A more conservative viewer could certainly pounce on Mikael’s story to reinforce the notion that a society too eager to accommodate life altering decisions in a non-judgmental fashion can end up complicit in the damage perpetrated by confused or uncertain people. Conversely, a liberal viewer could crow over the implicit lesson in Orlando’s story: that intolerance of his gay lifestyle led him not to conform to a more socially conventional sex role but to seek an even more definitive way to express who he was and seek a life that in some way approximated his wishes.
The problem, of course, with extracting policy decisions (or suggestions) from case studies, is that people are diverse and their motivations (and self-awareness), for even something like sex-change surgery can be varied. There is something inconceivable to me about Mikael’s belief, having found that the initial surgery didn’t make him happy with who he was, that a second surgery will fix what is wrong. But we all have the It in Shining Armor–the thing we fixate on and believe will solve what is most wrong with our lives. For some it is a relationship, for others a job. For some it is a move to a new place or the completion of a project. For some it is having a baby. Conversely, the ability to segregate one bad decision or single event and make it the scapegoat for all one’s unhappiness is not limited to people with gender identity confusion. (It is perhaps telling of the world we live in that I feel it profoundly politically incorrect to label Mikael “confused” about his gender even though it is a descriptor that he freely uses himself.)
Regretters implicitly speaks to the role that media places in our understanding of (and acceptance or not) of alternative lifestyles. Both men report being influenced to seek surgery by media reports of Christine Jorgensen. Orlando speaks longingly of the sort of relationships he sees in the movies–particularly The Bridges of Madison County–as holding out an emblem of what he must emulate in order for society (and to some extent for himself) to accept that he is actually a person in love. Mikael shows open envy at pictures of Orlando’s nude, female body, lamenting that even after surgery he never had the sort of feminine figure that would be featured in a pin up magazine.
All this may make the documentary sound like a carnival freak show, and on some level my fumbled attempts to extract a message from these men’s experience may be my own way of trying to convince myself it is not. There does seem to be something empowering, if not quite liberating, in the power of the microphone, in allowing a voice to those who are so seldom heard from. If I don’t understand how fearless self-examination can live in such close proximity with grand delusion, well…perhaps that internal dichotomy is something else that is not limited to women who used to be men or men who used to be women.