KELET originally premiered at DocPoint 2020. It was featured in our “films to see” listing in January, but I sadly missed the premiere at that time. It was now featured at Visions Du Réel 2020.

It took me days after watching KELET to figure out what I wanted to say. I kept asking myself the same question: do we really need a white CIS-man to talk about this? Compared to Kelet, I am awash with unearned privilege and found myself constantly reminded of that during its one hour runtime. I felt like a child trying to catch a glimpse through a window that is just out of my reach, with KELET as the hands lifting me so I can see more clearly.

I realized it is necessary to write about this wonderful film because it’s so vital that people like myself go out and see it.

Kelet is a POC trans woman living in Helsinki, Finland. At the start of the story — which was filmed between 2017 and 2019 — she hasn’t spoken to her parents in years. They still live in Manchester and haven’t taken well to the revelation of who their daughter is. So Kelet goes about her daily life in pursuit of her dream: to one day be on the cover of Vogue magazine. 

KELET is not a documentary about hardship. It’s a portrait of life on the verge of realization. Outside of the stage, Kelet describes herself as someone still searching for themselves. Her dreams of moving to New York at 20 have not come to pass, yet she doesn’t wallow in it. For someone still young, Kelet possesses a remarkable understanding of the world around her and the gatekeeping still in her way. On the stage she is a radiant star in the making; self-assured and statuesque. Watching her stride on the runway forces one to ask the question: why isn’t she on the grand stage? What truly is preventing it other than prejudice?

Directed by journalist Susani Mahadura, KELET doesn’t provide answers for this, nor does it seek to ask that question either. That’s not what this story is for. Kelet is, whether she wants to or not, an emerging icon. Someone for others to look up to and realize they’re not alone.

It wouldn’t make sense to dwell on the mainstream influence that already dictates many aspects of her life. This, I realized, is an important decision which is necessary for viewers like myself to confront. As a majority we ask instantly what our part in this is, when we already enforce the norm. It is such a smart and eloquent move to focus entirely on Kelet, her friends, and her world in the LGBTQ+ community. We’re privileged to experience it.

Mahaduran’s camera is honest and unflinching as well. Kelet, Lola, and Lydia are often in various states of dressing and make-up, allowing for the audience to see them in both in and out of stage performance mode. It’s these mundane parts, where Lola and Kelet trade barbs with one another, that I found most illuminating. It feels backwards to say out loud, but necessary too, how important it is to see trans people just be people. Logically everyone knows this to be true, but because we don’t have that normalization yet in any media, such a reminder is necessary. Their language sparks as they mix Finnish and English together so fluidly you can’t tell where one ends and the other begins. I couldn’t always place what the certain intonation of “bitch” meant, but it didn’t matter. Their energy is infectious.

The documentary is also very funny in an understated, dry fashion. Most notably in the scene where Kelet goes to get her name changed. It’s a nondescript office, the kind of bureaucracy Finns are born into. Changing your identity costs 25 Euros. She’s asked for a reason for choosing such a unique moniker, one that doesn’t appear in the Finnish national registry anywhere. “I’ll just make something up.” Kelet shrugs. One can’t help but draw a parallel between how easy it is to change your name, which is how society knows you, and how that social construct is no different than your gender. Yet changing the latter to be who you are leaves you ostracized, or worse. 

Imperceptibly Mahadouran sneaks in the simple realization: we are who we are, and it’s hypocritical for society to dictate that only parts of it are acceptable.