A micro-portrait of a family grappling with gender identity in Hungary: “Colors of Tobi” at the Samizdat Festival of Central and Eastern European Film4 min read
Watching Colors of Tobi was a pleasant surprise. Knowing the difficult situation the LGBTQ+ population faces in Central Europe, I had expected a movie that would leave me even more disillusioned and embittered. Yet, Colors of Tobi shows us that hope and acceptance can come in different forms and from different places. Through the story of a Hungarian teenager, the movie tackles not only issues of identity and acceptance, but shows us a penetrating picture of contemporary Hungary with all its complexities.
Colors of Tobi is a Hungarian documentary from 2021 that craftily weaves together many pressing themes. Through the story of Tobi, who is 17 at the beginning of the movie, the movie takes us on a journey through the intimate spheres of a Hungarian family grappling with Tobi’s gender identity. At first, the work of the Hungarian director Alexa Bakony can be characterised as a coming-of-age documentary, but as the movie progresses, it becomes much more than that. While Tobi’s gender transition in Hungary is the central motif, the film delves into issues of class and rural-urban dynamics, and challenges our preconceived ideas of what Hungary is like.
Bakony describes the movie as “a family drama but it has some humour in it.” To this, I would add that it is also an unobtrusive social critique. It invites the audience to reassess some of the widespread assumptions about the situation of trans people in Hungary (and by extension, in other countries in the region). While on the broader political level, the far-right traditionalist forces influence the direction of political decisions and often result in the worsening of the already horrible situation of LGBTQ+ people, everyday life on the ground does not directly mirror the overarching political tendencies.
Colors of Tobi is a documentary; however, thanks to its cinematography, there are moments when it feels like a feature drama. The director is absent from the screen and the film does not rely on interviewing its protagonists; rather it shows the family in its most intimate sphere and lets the individual members organically shape the story. This intentional withdrawal of a strong directorial presence on the screen makes Colors of Tobi distinct from the type of documentaries where the director actively intervenes in the direction of the story. Perhaps some might find this approach slow and the resulting movie a bit diffuse. For me, it was the best way to tell such a complex and sensitive story while maintaining the integrity and voices of all its protagonists.
The movie is a very sensitive depiction of Tobi’s transition within an uncharacteristically supportive family. The film portrays the difficulties Tobi’s parents go through and how they, especially the mother, struggle with some parts of the process in spite of their best intentions. For me, the documentary’s greatest strength is in the space it creates for Tobi’s parents. It shows how they honestly try to grapple with the new gender-related concepts Tobi introduces to their everyday lives, especially since it is often difficult to place the identity and lived experience of a queer trans person within their preexistent conceptual framework and understanding of society.
As Tobi’s interactions with their mother show, tension does not always come from a place of judgement or ill will. It is often a result of a simple lack of meaningful reference points. This is shown in a remarkable sequence where Tobi comes out as ‘non-binary’ and the mother says that she was happy to accept Tobi as a son because that only meant accepting that she moved from one clear category to another, but that to properly understand the in-betweenness of non-binary identity is a much more demanding task for them.
All in all, Colors of Tobi is a movie that might appear simple at first glance, but actually contains a multitude of extremely sensitive and timely subjects — it is definitely worth watching. For a Western audience that often falls prey to the tendency to view Hungary as a monolithic space where LGBTQ+ people suffer on all fronts, it is a welcome micro-portrait that shows the heterogeneity of individual experiences and lived struggles.
Colors of Tobi will be screened on 13 September at the CCA Glasgow. Find full event details here.