BFI Flare 2021

Colors of Tobi review – resonant story of a transgender teen’s journey

The life and family of a Hungarian teenager provide the focus of an emotional and timely documentary from director Alexa Bakony

Last year, Hungary's far-right Prime minister Victor Orban took advantage of the pandemic to pass an emergency powers law that would enable him to rule by decree. The next day he proposed a bill that would make a person’s sex legally immutable, which eventually passed into law in May. Such a bill is part of a sustained attack on the transgender and non-binary population of the country.

Filmed before the start of the pandemic, Alexa Bakony’s documentary Colors of Tobi must, unfortunately, be viewed within this context. The film follows the teenage Tobi and his family in a rural part of the country, with much of the footage dedicated to the complex relationship between Tobi and his anxious mother Éva.

Tobi starts the film as an out trans man and by the film’s end comes to see himself as non-binary. In a conversation that takes place in a bar, it becomes clear that Tobi has had many coming-out moments with his parents over the years. Far-right bigotry is explicitly shown during a Pride march early on in the film. A flag with the phrase “Sin cannot be the subject of Pride” and chants of “filthy faggots” emanate from a threatening crowd. These early glimpses of hate are a shadow that hangs over the rest of the film. Later on, Tobi mentions to a friend that he won't use male toilets because Éva is worried about what might happen.

Documentaries about transgender children run the risk of prioritising the feelings of the parents over the experiences of the kids themselves. Such an approach risks giving unwarranted credence to some parents’ ignorance while also framing the child as hopelessly naive. This was something that happened with Hilla Medalia’s Transkids, which follows four Israeli trans teenagers. Colors of Tobi avoids many of that film's problems by focusing on just Tobi and his parents. By honing in on a single family, Bakony avoids a queasy faux-anthropological approach, and is instead able to tell a more resonant story.

As the film progresses, the relationship between mother and child develops into something less two-sided. Éva doesn’t understand Tobi, and is frequently baffled by the nomenclature she must quickly familiarise herself with. She frets like any mother, yet doesn’t let that fear take over her. Meanwhile, Tobi gradually comes to realise how lucky he is to have a family whose support is unwavering, even if they do make the occasional faux pas.

Colors of Tobi is a reminder that young people should be given the necessary support to decide for themselves who they are going to be. So-called debates about trans children impact real lives, and transphobia has been steadily rising in British public life for the last five years, largely thanks to arrogant media figures. British audiences would do well to consider the story of this Hungarian family as something not so far removed from their own situation at home.

Colors of Tobi was screened as part of the BFI Flare: London LGBTIQ+ Film Festival 2021. A UK release date is yet to be announced.

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