Meet Donna

Jay Bedwani on his stunning documentary portrait of Donna Personna: trans activist, performer and San Fran legend
By Bailey Slater | Film+TV | 12 July 2022
Photographer Jay Bedwani

It was a chance meeting that would ultimately guide Jay Bedwani to his breakthrough directorial debut. Poolside, under the scorching San Francisco sun, the Cardiff-based filmmaker remembers taking an interest in one of the shindig’s more glamorous guests, who he was later introduced to by a friend.

This was Donna Personna, a trans activist-cum-community legend-cum-total legend to those on the area’s flourishing dive bar drag circuit. Though she didn’t quite match up to Bedwani’s height, even in her colossal heels, the impression she made on him with her killer one-liners and unashamedly flirty banter couldn’t have been bigger. Bedwani, at the time, was in the throws of post-graduate enlightenment, having just finished an MA where he honed in on themes of migration and identity, finding solace in showing the ways and places those around him built to create a sense of belonging. 

After being asked to shoot his new muse for a local indie title, which then turned into a short documentary that would win the 2013 Iris Prize, Bedwani would spend the next near-decade plunging deeper into Personna’s life, meeting estranged family members, recounting lost lovers and even going behind the scenes of her consulting work for a play about the infamous Compton’s Cafeteria Riots, one of the first recorded instances of trans liberation that predates Stonewall via sex-worker activism. Pieced together through diary entries and freeing boardwalk jaunts, Donna thus snowballed into a tender portrait of a late-blooming star who all but refuses to march to anyone else’s drumbeat but their own.

Bailey Slater: I want to start at the beginning and talk about your love of filmmaking. When did you first pick up a camera and realise this was the path for you?
Jay Bedwani: So it actually did start with Donna. Almost ten years ago I met her in San Francisco and we got on great. I found her really fascinating and she asked me to take some photos of her for a local indie magazine – because I was a photographer back then – so I did. She just kept saying all these really great things, had all these great terms, [was] quite opinionated and really funny. I had just, for the first time ever, flipped my SLR over to film, and would record her every time I met her, and then I made that into a little short doc, ten minutes or so, that got into the festival circuit. And I’m like, “Oh, I much prefer this to photography,” which I always liked but all my friends were photographers, and they were all really good. I always felt like I wasn’t quite there and it was a struggle. So when I did the film, it just felt so organic and I really enjoyed it – that’s when I started. I carried on making some shorts, and I always thought that the first feature doc I did, I wanted to be about Donna – if there was a story. And when things kind of came up for her, I jumped on it.

BS: After hearing her story, what resonated the most with you and made you want to share it with the world?
JB: I think it’s her quiet determination to make her life better. And those around her. You know, she’s quite realistic about who she is and what she can do, but she still goes for it. In the film, she says, “I’ve lip-synced over 300 times, but I’ve never been any good at it.” And I just love that because I’m shit at loads of things, but there’s a [real] freedom in just doing things because you love them. It’s really nice because she persists and things work out. There are things she’s great at, and it’s really nice that people can see that. So there’s that side of things, the performance side and her ambitions, but then I really love the way she talks about her family, who had become distant. She never really blames people, she just understands and slowly wants to make things better. For me, that was far more interesting than someone who’s slamming doors. It was this gentle striving which I really wanted to share.

BS: I love that you touched on her family, because what struck me throughout was the role that faith played in her story. Could you talk to me a little more about that?
JB: Well, she grew up with a Baptist father, a Preacher, and it really meant she had to hide a lot of who she was. She had to do it, otherwise her father wouldn’t be able to preach to his congregation at that time. Those obstacles, religion and faith, I grew up with that a little bit. I was in the choir and we’d go to church every Sunday, and it really can make things more difficult when you’re trying to be who you are. I didn’t come out until my early twenties, maybe that was part of it, you know? But also, I respect people’s religion and their faith, so it’s really difficult.

BS: You mentioned in an interview with the Iris Prize – which you won in 2013 with My Mother, the short that would ultimately inspire Donna – there were some technical limitations to creating your work. How did you manage to bridge those gaps this time around?
JB: Did I say that? That’s funny – still got them! I mean, that was nine years ago, and like lots of indie filmmakers, you mostly do stuff yourself because otherwise it’s too expensive. So I think lots of practice, but there’s still a lot of footage out there that’s pretty shaky and we couldn’t use. But mostly, I really grew to love cinematography and different cameras and became a bit of a geek about it. I also had some help in San Francisco and worked with a couple of cinematographers there who taught me a few things and did a few shots together. Although audio is always difficult. I always like to try and do it myself so there’s not an extra sound person in the room – especially with Donna because she likes to flirt. I knew it could only really be the two of us. She’s totally over me being there, but anyone else you bring in, she kind of performs a bit. So it was important it was just the two of us.

“She never really blames people, she just understands and slowly wants to make things better.”

Still, ‘Donna’, 2022, dir. Jay Bedwani

BS: At a time where it seems like the trans community has the most enormous target on their backs, did the current political climate influence when you wanted to get this out into the world?
JB: I really wanted to tell Donna’s story, and I knew it was important to get it out there as actually a more universal story about being your authentic self. I started it four or five years ago, and as time has gone on, you realise, especially in America, there’s been some awful things happening. Here we are now and it’s been released, and it’s probably one of the worst times for the transgender community. I didn’t go in thinking it would be so pertinent to our times, but unfortunately, I feel like it probably will be for a while.

BS: How did you find striking the balance between those moments of true freedom, like capturing the freedom of her drag queen pop-up on the boardwalk, with the historical allusions to the fight for trans liberation?
JB: I loved capturing those moments, they are really fun to film, but I think once you have them in a film, you really need to balance it out with a representation of the history of transgender activism. Like with the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot, and the ladies who stood up to police brutality. Recognising that as a first, key moment in transgender liberation, it was really important to have it in there.

BS: Did Donna have any input in the final cut at all?
JB: Not at all. She hadn’t a single frame of footage over the years, and she was really respectful of that. She didn’t really ask, maybe a couple of times. I explained I was worried it would cloud what the film was going to be about and she might kind of play up to that, which happens. So I didn’t share anything, and she was great. A friend of mine screened it to her, and I was waiting for a call after. I was so nervous, but she responded really well!

BS: Have you got a favourite Donna look from all the footage you got?
JB: I love all of her looks, but I like it when she’s kind of casual café chic. Like, she’ll turn up a bit summer-y, loose threads and her hair’s just there. And when she performs, she always surprises me. I always ask her, “Where have you been keeping that dress?” She’s got such a big wardrobe! I still don’t know where she keeps it all, she always wears something different. And she’ll always look me up and down in my jeans and t-shirt and make some kind of sassy comment, but I love it.

Still, ‘Donna’, 2022, dir. Jay Bedwani

“…her performances are legendary in the dive bars of San Francisco.”

BS: You end with Donna’s beautiful rendition of K. Michelle’s If It Ain’t Love, which hints back to an earlier quote about singing, or rather performing, being a much harder skill than lipsyncing. I think that ties up quite well with this idea of Donna learning and enacting ‘femininity’ later in life. After embarking on this huge journey, I was wondering how you’d describe what constitutes ‘femininity’ in the modern-day?
JB: I think you nailed it, that’s the kind of metaphor I was going for. I can’t speak for others, but for Donna, and we’ve talked about this, it’s actually something maternal. And that doesn’t mean having your own biological kids, it’s about caring for others, as a woman. She does that really well, because when I look at her, I do sort of think ‘mother’. That’s kind of bound up in how she looks, even if she’s on stage wearing really high heels, there’s still something that’s just maternal and quite powerful – or like when she’s giving a speech in City Hall. She looks incredible and demands so much respect, and I think it’s amazing that clothes have the power to do that.

BS: The speech was so powerful. Why do you think she’d accrued this local legend status over the years?
JB: Lots of hard work, lots of putting herself out there and being vulnerable. People always respond to that and it’s really hard to do, especially when you’re older, in your 70s. Also, her performances are legendary in the dive bars of San Francisco. She’s known for being so enthusiastic and passionate. She really cares for people and I think that comes through. So yeah, total legend.

BS: It must be insane letting this nine-year journey out into the world. What are you embarking on next?
JB: I’m working on an augmented reality documentary, which is really fun, with BFI and Story Futures Academy about Italian-Welsh immigration. And I’m also developing my second feature, which is about a wonderful 85-year-old Shakespeare professor in the Bay Area of California, and how he’s approaching his later years. So I’m filming a lot again – and really enjoying it.

Donna is released in cinemas and on Bohemia Euphoria from15th July 

Still, ‘Donna’, 2022, dir. Jay Bedwani

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