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Ich bin Anastasia

Anastasia Biefang was the first Oberleutnant in the German army (I’m a bit unsure about translating military ranks but says that makes her a first lieutenant). Thomas Ladenburger’s documentary follows her parallel transitions – in military rank, gender and married status.

I must admit to being wrong-footed by the film that I saw. I presumed that a culture as macho as the military would reject Anastasia out of hand. Instead she encounters a lot of ignorance, but the result of this ignorance is not that she is shunned or persecuted, rather that people genuinely seem to want to know more.

For example, when Anastasia tells her boss about her coming wedding, he asks after her future husband. Calmly but firmly Anastasia explains that she isn’t marrying a man. Her boss is initially confused, but quickly gets used to the idea. Similarly Anastasia’s fellow soldiers are a little worried that her presence will bring some unwanted attention to the brigade, but seem generally fine with her trans status.

Now this may in part be down to the director selectively choosing his interviews, but something does seem to be changing in even the most backward parts of society. To emphasize this point, Christiane Meiners is wheeled out. Meiners was the first trans woman in the German military, and was offered much less support than Anastasia.

Of course, nor everyone is happy with the developments. We are shown a range of transphobic online comments, including from the AfD homepage, but in general people are supportive, and the support grows as a function of how well people know Anastasia.

This may be in part down to Anastasia’s personality – both genial and eloquent, Anastasia breezes through life, whether she’s responding to online hate or hitting a piñata shaped like a penis at one of her transition parties. She gives good interview and is prepared to take on difficult subjects.

For instance, the elephant in the room. Why would a member of an oppressed minority want to join Germany’s military machine? She explains thoughtfully that in an ideal world she would be against war, but we have the world we’ve been given, so she thinks the army is necessary. Cut to: practise manoeuvres of troops about to be sent to Afghanistan where “we” will be able to protect “them”.

This may be not a politically comfortable answer, but it is artistically interesting. We may not agree with Anastasia’s analysis (I certainly don’t) but we are confronted with the need to explain how an army whose raison d’etre is a mixture of paternalism and hostility towards darker skinned people is able to accommodate Anastasia, who is clearly one of the good guys.

Similarly, we get the feeling that Anastasia’s need to go to Afghanistan is not universally shared. She is interviewed alongside her new wife Samanta. As Anastasia bangs on about duty, her new wife blanches. Its not clear whether this is because of pacifism or a desire not to lose her new husband, but it adds a sense of tension to their melancholy skype chats.

A good documentary challenges you and introduces you to people you’d like to know better. On this basis, Ich bin Anastasia is very good indeed. The relationship between Anastasia and Samanta flows naturally and lovingly, and they seem to be really decent people. Shame about the killing people, but if equal rights mean anything, they mean the right for people like Anastasia to follow her dreams.

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