“Donna”: Intimate Interviews Celebrate Trans Triumphs—On Screen
Jay Bedwani’s Brilliant Docu-Pic Unfolds San Francisco Story
by Robert M. Gardner
Director Jay Bedwani’s new documentary, Donna, subtly follows the growing self-acceptance of Donna Personna, San Francisco trans cabaret singer. The story centers on Donna’s involvement in a play about the 1966 Compton Cafeteria drag uprising, an event that brings up unsettling memories for Donna.
The Compton trans and drag uprising pitted members of the transgender community against the San Francisco Police. Bedwani’s film memorializes those brave drag artists who took a unique stand against abuse and brought hope to so many.
Donna Personna, formerly known as Gustavo Villareal, works on the play about the Compton revolt. She tells her story, frankly, dropping all pretense, speaking directly to Bedwani and to us. The director draws out Personna’s story with sincerity and kindness. We get the impression that Personna has been waiting to unlock her secrets to a sensitive confidante.
Bedwani and Donna take a road trip to Southern California where, after twenty years of estrangement, Donna reunites with her sister Gloria. They take Highway 1 along the Pacific coastline. Bedwani uses the beautiful vistas of the coast to balance to the stark story of Donna’s life. Although she initially admits to being scared and apprehensive about the upcoming reunion, their loving reunion takes us to the heart of the film—intimacy, repair, and compassion.
That Donna should allow Bedwani to accompany her to this very awkward meeting speaks volumes about their rapport. Bedwani discreetly records the touching reunion as the two sisters relive old memories.
As they drive back to the Bay, Donna tells Bedwani that she does not care that her sister calls her Gus. Although she recognizes that “they are from different planets,” Donna rejoices that Gloria has finally seen her authentic self. It also causes Donna to lament that she was not more forthcoming in the 60s, during the Compton uprising. Now, she exudes bravery and pride at showing who she is.
As Bedwani documents the making of the play about the riot, his unrehearsed footage becomes a window into the transgender world. Bedwani not only shows us trans people as actors or as performers, but as people living ordinary lives. Some are still getting comfortable in their own skins—a bit awkwardly as they maneuver the straight world. But others, like Donna, have blossomed as they realize their authentic selves.
Our first impression of Donna reveals a rough exterior— a tough personality rather than someone soft and feminine. But the documentary reveals the depth and charm of a larger-than-life person. Bedwani’s warmth and understanding help Donna to unveil her vulnerabilities.
It’s heartwarming to hear how Donna developed from a shy young woman to the proud transgender who speaks with the Mayor, who has courage to live a new life. Bedwani’s Donna displays the essence of a finding a new life.
Aired at last year’s Frameline Festival, Donna has garnered many nominations and has been shown at festivals all over the world. You can see it soon at The Roxie. Playing on Saturday, April 8, in San Francisco, at the Clarion Center. A wonderful and uplifting film.
Donna, directed by Jay Bedwani, music by Antoine Bédard, produced by Truth Department. Screenings: Film festival circuit and VOD (Video on demand) in 2023. Info: JayBedwani.com
Cast: Donna Personna, Shane Zaldivar, Mark Nassar, Collette LeGrand, and Gloria Villareal.
Banner photo: Donna Personna. Photo by Jay Bedwani
Upcoming showing at the Clarion Center, S.F., on Saturday, April 8, at 4 pm.