Review: 'Instructions For Survival' a Tale of Courage and Commitment for a Trans Man and His Family

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Monday June 14, 2021

'Instructions For Survival'
'Instructions For Survival'  (Source:Frameline45)

Director Yana Ugrekelidze's documentary "Instructions for Survival" follows Sasha and his wife Mari as they contend with extreme anti-LGBTQ sentiment in the country of Georgia.

Neither the law or social attitudes make it easy for non-cisgender and non-heterosexual people in that country. The film's first images drive the point home, showing an enraged mob carrying a sign emblazoned with an anti-LGTBQ slogan, hurling insults ("You bring shame upon us!"), and attacking a vehicle. The energy of the moment is insane, abusive, and terrifying.

Sasha'a everyday life is somewhat calmer, but not much more tranquil. He has to rely on a network of transgender Georgians in order to find testosterone in order to keep to his regimen after the local pharmacy suddenly stops selling it. Faced with the impending expiration of his ID card - which lists his gender as female - he has to hope he can rely on the inattention, or the sympathy, of clerks and bureaucrats. All the while, the situation in the country is only growing worse; a TV debate brings into focus just how keen and corrosive the anti-GTBQ hatred is when a smirking man tells a woman advocating for human rights that the case of a transgender women whop was "doused in gasoline and set on fire" was not an example of anti-trans violence. "Only your loyal supporters have called it a discrimination against the LGTBQ community," he declares, while declining to offer any alternative for how to understand the hideous crime.

"You try to live carefully and quietly," Sasha narratives. "In the evening you return to your world, where you know who you are. But the tension never lets up. The next morning you have to prepare to lie again."

The lies are necessary, however - as was the departure, by both Sasha and Mari, from their own neighborhood in Tbilisi after Mari's grandmother began telling everyone that Mari and Sasha were together. Mari laments the situation, telling the camera how "my relatives are chasing me, wanting to kill me" for her marriage to a transgender man.

Luckily, the two have Sasha'a aunt to help them. They live with Aunt Zhanna for a time while working on a plan to leave the country - a difficult and expensive process made harder by the fact that Sasha finds it increasingly hard to get work. Desperate for funds, the couple turn to surrogacy - another emotionally devastating chapter in their lives, as Mari deals with her maternal instincts and the need to let the baby go right after birth.

The film has more resonance for American audiences than people living in a so-called "exceptional" country might be comfortable with. It's a reasonable, and perhaps inevitable, question: If America is as exceptional and devoted to individual liberty (and the notion of people being created equal) as it claims, then why is it increasingly the case that states like Georgia are becoming as needlessly, irrationally hateful as the nation with which Georgia shares its name?

A much kinder nation - perhaps truly exceptional in this regard - is Belgium, where Sasha and Mari hope to create a new life, and where Sasha can complete his gender transition. That's another chapter in the couple's life, and you can't help wishing them the best; their courage ad commitment is palpable, and it's admirable. It's only a shame that they, and we, live in a world where commitment and strength of character all too frequently count for less than prejudice does.

"Instructions for Survival" plays at Frameline45 starting June 14.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.