Things are feeling pretty dire for trans communities in the UK at the moment: while we wait for transphobic violence to be taken seriously and for an end to the political grandstanding over trans people’s access to public spaces, the waiting times for transition healthcare continue to spiral. This theme of waiting is one that continually resurfaces in Amy Pennington’s hybrid-form TOPS, screened at Islington Mill’s fifth-floor event space on a particularly chilly Thursday evening at the end of November. (Fittingly, my journey to the screening demanded considerable patience given central Manchester’s intense rush hour traffic.)
TOPS features four masculine-of-centre trans and nonbinary people – Maz, Yaz, Elliott, and Oskar – who are interviewed in their homes by Amy, the filmmaker’s early-2000s-TV-presenter persona. Thisawkward, low-rizz interviewer (a kind of Alan-Partridge-meets-Louis-Theroux) wheedles, bribes, and even trespasses their way into their interviewees’ homes in order to ask them ‘What TOP did you wanna wear after TOP surgery?’. Each of Amy’s interviews begins with a comically disastrous doorstep encounter: interviewees either fail to remember a filming appointment had been booked, leaving the film crew waiting outside, or send Amy into a minor freakout at their punctuality, in the case of charming Manchester-based artist and powerlifter Oskar Marchock. The film’s episodic interview structure gives the feel of binge-watching some long-forgotten, now ethically dubious, makeover reality TV show (the film even adopts a font reminiscent of the 1995 Top of the Pops logo). Yet the overall arc of the film follows Amy’s longing to befriend other trans and nonbinary folk, until finally they meet someone just as eager for connection as they are.
The film parodies British media’s privacy-invading approach to trans lives in TV shows like There’s Something about Miriam (2004), My Transsexual Summer (2011), Genderquake (2018), and The Making of Me (2019). There’s certainly something of the exploitative Channel 5 lifestyle makeover show about the increasingly wild amounts of money Amy offers the interviewees for their participation and in Amy’s raiding of interviewees’ wardrobes and kitchens (even making off with Yaz’s trainers). TOPS calls into question the false promise of visibility at work in such shows – the film’s focus on its interviewees’ sartorial choices rebuffs the prying gaze of cis audiences clamouring for a before-and-after style transition narrative. Even where cis viewers do stand to learn something from the film – such as the varied meanings ‘top surgery’ might hold for different transmasculine people – this was incidental rather than the film’s objective.
Refreshingly, the trans interviewees of TOPS are not research subjects but collaborators in the film’s narrative, shaping the direction of the conversations and contributing unscripted zingers. I was reminded of BBC TV sitcom Boy Meets Girl (2015-2016), which tackled the usual format of trans people’s comedy treatment by refusing to make trans lead Judy (Rebecca Root) the butt of the joke. While Boy Meets Girl often struggled to avoid morphing into an infotainment training video, TOPS never loses focus on its trans audience. Pennington’s film unabashedly showcases trans people in dialogue with each other on such wide-ranging topics as post-surgery defecation and childhood cartoon crushes. TOPS might not offer the graceful cinematography or intellectual stimulation of other recent documentaries staging conversations between trans people, like Adrián Silvestre’s Sediments (2021) or Chase Joynt’s Framing Agnes (2022). But what TOPS does present is a generous and playful look at transmasculine folks’ experiences of top surgery on their own terms.
Switching at sometimes breakneck speed between improvised skits and sincere confessional reminiscences, the film’s fluctuating tone exemplifies the conundrum at its heart: how do you evade the trap of invasive questioning in a film about such an intimate topic as top surgery? It’s a difficult tightrope to walk, a challenge Pennington meets with warmth and wit. When Maz asks Amy if the cis male boom mic operator Toby is trans, Amy replies that he ‘probably can be’. This short exchange skewers the long list of TV and film works that cast cis actors in the role of trans characters, but also presents a sly comment on the ‘transfirmative action’ of productions like Joey Soloway’s Transparent (2014-2019): having trans people in front of and behind the camera does not necessarily protect trans people, and cis people can play important (supporting) roles in making trans voices heard.
Paradoxically, TOPS’ domestic focus, showing trans people in their own homes, made me reflect on the current media emphasis placed on trans people’s access to public spaces. As the event ended, I was reminded just how few accessible and affordable spaces there are like Islington Mill in Manchester for trans and queer people to come together in creativity and joy. Amy’s eagerness to make new friends was infectious and I came away hoping for more events like this across the city.
TOPS by Amy Pennington was screened at Islington Mill, Manchester, on 30th November 2023.
Dr Sabine Sharp (they/them) is a writer based in Manchester.
This review is supported by Lover Management.