Directed by Yana Ugrekhelidze (“Armed Lullaby”), the documentary “Instructions for Survival” follows Alexander, a transgender man, and his wife Mari through her surrogate pregnancy, which she has undertaken to earn the funds necessary for them to leave their home country of Georgia. Alexander’s gender identity makes it difficult for him to access testosterone, find a job and receive proper medical care in a country dominated by conservative Orthodox Christianity.
The film opens with archival footage of an anti-gay demonstration in the streets of Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital city. In the footage, the demonstration quickly turns into a riot. A large crowd surrounds city buses and attempts to smash their windows. People climb on top of cars, throw things and shove camera people. Some of the chaos and aggression likely owes itself to mob mentality, but the crowd is still united under the common banners of violent homophobia and transphobia. The footage strikes an affecting chord of fear and establishes the danger of the culture in which Alexander and Mari live, but the rest of the film fails to follow through on the urgency of its first few minutes.
Alexander and Mari’s life together is quiet by necessity, but the depictions of their everyday happenings often slip into the mundane. They are seen having dinner with Mari’s young brothers, riding the subway and getting ready for a party together in long, lingering shots. These quaint vignettes fail to support what is set up to be the film’s thesis — a harrowing case study of a trans man forced to hide in a violently oppressive environment — but they succeed in capturing and centering a much more compelling aspect of the documentary: Alexander and Mari’s relationship.
In an especially intimate moment, the couple lay in bed together, discussing the future of the unborn child Mari is carrying, to whom she has already formed a strong emotional attachment. They are not self-conscious with each other despite the presence of a camera capturing their every word and expression. During moments like this, the documentary feels more like a narrative piece. The frankness of Alexander and Mari’s conversations and the comfort they demonstrate together on screen is refreshing, and both serve to underscore the quiet but palpable love between them.
Where the more personal elements of Alexander’s life bring intimacy and depth to the film, the societal and political aspects feel only skimmed over in comparison. The struggles he has faced with his family life, his experiences with the health care system in Georgia, his search for employment and so on — they are told rather than shown. Through voiceover, he mentions that he had been medically discriminated against while in the army, and in a discussion with a doctor, he mentions a group of trans people in Tbilisi who would help each other access the medication necessary to facilitate hormone replacement therapy on their own.
These small allusions to other parts of Alexander’s experience as a trans person could be impactful additions to the story if elaborated upon, but they’re left as offhand comments and their potential to generate more profound commentary is unfulfilled.
“Instructions for Survival” suggests immediacy and danger in its title and prologue. However, it struggles to link these themes to what it chooses to depict in its central subject’s life and experiences. Despite painting a touching portrait of a couple who are willing to go to great lengths to protect one another, the film fails to make good on its stated purpose.
Daily Arts Writer Katrina Stebbins can be reached at email@example.com.