Human Rights Film Fest Review: 'Mohammed to Maya'

Mohammed to Maya
(USA, 74 min.)
Dir. Jeff Roy
Feat. Maya Jafer, Jeff Roy
“I’m a complete human being today for the first time in my life,” says Maya (née Mohammed) as she wakes up to the first day of her new life following sex reassignment surgery in Thailand. Mohammed to Maya, an extension of director Jeff Roy's award-winning short Rites of Passage, first introduces the audience to Maya as she arrives in Thailand to complete the transition for which she has been preparing both physically, mentally, and spiritually for two years. Maya is a bubbly character with a large screen presence, and her passionate account of her transformative journey fuels this insightful and heartfelt documentary.

Maya recounts her story to her Roy as he accompanies her to the hospital and documents her surgery. She explains that she was born into a devoutly religious Muslim family in India where her pious father would beat his beliefs into her, both emotionally and physically. Maya remains a deeply spiritual person nevertheless, as she relates that her connection to God is the strongest root in her life, especially since she doesn’t have the support of her family members as she transforms from the son they thought they knew to the daughter Maya knows she is inside. Roy’s focus on Maya’s spirituality is effective, as her personal struggles couple with her devotion to her faith, thus extending the prejudices and exclusion that Maya experiences from her family to larger questions that need to be confronted as culture and tradition continue to butt heads.

Mohammed to Maya covers Maya’s surgery from the hours leading up to the procedure to the months of recovery and adjustment that come after. Maya, who is in Thailand because the surgery is too expensive in America, has nobody else to communicate with other than Jeff as her nurses speak little to no English. (Her doctor speaks the language fairly well, although he’s often busy.) It’s a stroke of luck for the documentary, then, that her bedside confidant is the camera. Mohammed to Maya chronicles Maya’s gender reassignment surgery in impressive detail. Few films have given the opportunity to reveal to audiences the experience of transgendered persons as they undergo such a life-altering process. While dramatic films such as Transamerica or last year’s Laurence Anyways gave notable artistic interpretations of the journey, Mohammed to Maya offers a rare look at the actual metamorphosis.

As Maya proudly shows off her new vagina to the camera—she has a favourite term of endearment for her virginal body part that might make some readers blush—she displays an added bounce in the lively character she had before. It might be the painkillers, but the new “complete” Maya is a woman reborn. Maya, full of life and confidence, seems to be at peace spiritually. Gone are the nerves and ghosts from before.

Mohammed to Maya leaves the verdict open, though, as Maya bravely takes the film on a trip to India. It’s the first time that she will visit her family following her surgery. She looks much different than she did when the film first introduced her. The town, Maya says, also appears different, but it also seems the same. The mosque where Maya went as a young boy still stands—she cannot participate in the same rituals that she did before—and she even notes the same old man sitting on a stoop in the market. The more things change, the more they stay the same, Mohammed to Maya seems to suggest. However, the film’s open ending, which doesn’t reveal the reaction of Maya’s family to her transformation, lets viewers see that one choice to remain in the past shouldn’t prevent another from moving forward.

Mohammed to Maya therefore a universal human spirit as Maya imparts her energy and chi that guided her along this voyage. It’s a funny and intimate film experience that should change preconceptions that one may have about transgendered persons, for the physical transformation reveals to the audience how little Maya differs pre- and post-surgery. She is different anatomically; however, her spirit, her personality, and her identity remain the same.

Rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★★)
Mohammed to Maya screens at the uOttawa Human Rights Film Festival Friday, October 25th at 9:30 pm at the Alumni Auditorium at the University of Ottawa (85 University St.).
Single tickets are $5 for students and CFI members and $10 for general admission.

Also screening at the festival on Friday at 7:00 pm is Hi-Ho Mistahey! [Review]

Please note that both films screen in English with French subtitles.

 Please visit www.cfi-icf.ca for more info on films, tickets, and show times for the festival.