Yana Ugrekhelidze’s debut feature documentary Instructions for Survival opens with harrowing footage of an anti-LGBTQ mob on the streets of Georgia surrounding and attacking a minibus. The incident happened in May 2013 as a small number of LGBTQ Georgians gathered to mark the annual International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia and were met with around 2000 counter-demonstrators. With this hostile environment for LGBTQ+ folks established, in the nation’s capital of Tbilisi we meet a young trans man, Alex, and his partner Marie. “You try to live carefully and quietly, but you’re sitting on a bomb that could explode any day” says Alex, who is careful to keep his trans identity private from his neighbours and the wider community for fear of violence. With his ID card stating his gender as assigned at birth, Alex is unable to secure any legal work, which results in Marie agreeing to become a surrogate mother to raise enough money for the couple to leave the country, concerned for their safety if they remain.
With no support from the country’s healthcare system, Alex reveals that he used “Dr Google” to get information about transitioning and sourced testosterone from connections in the local trans community. He observes that there’s little tolerance for anyone like him who doesn’t appear to adhere to accepted societal norms in the country, while Marie who is a cis woman, has faced familial rejection, and been stigmatized for having a trans partner. Disowned by her own mother, it’s particularly poignant to see Marie form a strong attachment to her unborn child and her heartbreak at having to give the baby up.
Ugrekhelidze takes a fly-on-the-wall approach to immerse us in the lives of this loving couple. There’s nothing extraordinary about them apart from the way they are viewed in their own country. As they go about their daily business, sit at the kitchen table for their meals, cuddle up in bed, one questions what exactly that mob we saw at the beginning of the film, and the attitudes it represents, fears about a couple like Alex and Marie quietly living their lives and not affecting anyone around them. We do see the couple get some loving and meaningful support, but it is clear that they need to leave for their own safety and to be able to breathe freely. As with Flee which recently premiered at Sundance, Instructions for Survival powerfully humanises the statistics and headlines about migrants seeking asylum with its deeply personal, moving and ultimately hopeful narrative.
By James Kleinmann
Instructions For Survival premiered at the 71st Berlin International Film Festival.