Filmed over the course of three years, Tristan Aitchison’s documentary-style film is a heartening reminder that no amount of darkness in the world can overshadow the human spirit. Prejudice, discrimination and hatred do not have to lead to loss of innocence and bitterness. This is what Sidney & Friends sublimely showcases in its exquisite seventy-five minutes – a riveting, but peaceful and vulnerable account of what it means to be transgender and intersex in the crude social climate of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi.
When his own family disowns him and tries to murder him for being intersex, Sidney escapes to the largest city of Kenya with the desire of beginning a new life. Although he is the only one to know of his condition since birth, he never manages to truly fit in with the procrustean demands placed upon him by his social surroundings. His real identity is slowly revealed to those around him as he never enjoys fulfilling the traditional role of a woman in the community, but always puts heart and soul into “masculine” activities like playing sports or herding cattle. As his family becames more and more aware of his sexual identity, belittling, isolation and abuse start. Accused of being under the spell of hellish creatures that want to turn him into a man, Sidney is stripped in public, castigated by those closest to him, and beaten repeatedly in the most gruesome of ways.
Sidney’s life takes a completely different turn when he moves to Nairobi and meets a group of like-minded transgender people. Soon being able to make friends and finally belong, the young man begins exploring his sexuality, understanding himself better and, most importantly, healing from years of physical and emotional abuse. Now intent on sharing his story, Sidney confesses his life struggles in Aitchison’s alarming guerilla film. With no budget but compelling and heart-wrenching stories to tell, the documentary was well-received by critics and promises to continue the saga of delving into the topic of homosexuality in the context of a cultural melting pot.
Aitchison is one of the first directors to shed light on the inhuman treatment of LGBT individuals and the callous brutality that occurs within Kenyan families. No amount of words is enough to accurately describe Sidney’s experience, and imagination can only go so far when it comes to the darkness of the human mind. The atrocious abuse that the young man had to live through is not only still ongoing amongst Kenya’s population, but it is also utterly ignored – not only by the natives, but also by the Western world. This type of abhorrent behavior thrives in silence, which is why Aitchison’s documentary is long overdue and an unequivocal must-see for anyone who claims to care about both gay and human rights.
The director’s sensibility and compassion transpires throughout the entire film, and the people interviewed are given the chance to tell their story in full, without shame and restriction. With each testimony the viewer is brought closer and closer to the macabre, concrete reality of transphobia and the devastating effects it has, not only on its victims, but also on society as a whole. As the film carries on, it becomes clear that intersexuality and being transgender are still highly misunderstood subjects in Kenya. Sidney’s account of how he was accused of being possessed by demons and how his own family chastised him and wanted him dead is chilling to the bone. These are issues that need to be discussed, and Aitchison is amongst the first to grant them the spotlight and consideration they deserve.
Although the events depicted throughout Aitchison’s documentary are shocking and traumatic, they are balanced with moments of calmness, warmth, clarity and peace. Despite its taboo main subject, dark topics and hard-to-stomach accounts, Sidney & Friends is, in the words of the director, “the sort of film you want to give a hug to”. It is direct in its message, gentle in its execution, deeply empathetic to the struggles of the LGBTQ community and an essential addition to this year’s BFI Flare edition.