FRINGE! ’20 — ‘Always Amber’ is a Beautiful Depiction of Non-Binary Life in Sweden

A still from documentary 'Always Amber'. Amber is shown in close-up in the bathroom mirror. They have a head covered in bleach and are in the process of brushing bleach on their eyebrows. They have elaborate gold and brown eyeshadow on and black lipstick, with a piercing in their cupid's bow.
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In a year where optimism has been particularly hard to manifest, documentary Always Amber is a beacon of hope about the power of friendship that can form in resistance to exclusion from the outside world. 

The first feature by Swedish filmmakers Hannah Reinikainen and Lia Kim Hietala, the film follows the life of seventeen-year-old non-binary Amber Mastracci as they navigate first loves, fall-outs and their final years of high school. Combining Snapchat footage, home-movies and digital film, Reinikainen and Hietala reject conventional narrative in favour of a unique and joyful documentary, whose all-over-the-place-ness reflects the carefree confusion of Amber’s perpetually changing haircuts. 

Filmed over two years, the film’s action takes place in flashback, bookended by an appointment at a gender clinic in Stockholm, in which Amber is seeking a gender dysphoria diagnosis. The diagnosis will make them eligible for a mastectomy, an important step in being able to detach themself from the judgements of others. Refreshingly, Amber’s visits to the gender clinic don’t define the film’s trajectory, instead only contextualising Amber’s life in the real-world, alluding to the difficulties which they face growing up genderqueer in Sweden. 

The most touching moments are born out of Amber’s relationship with their mother, who they have grown close to following the death of Amber’s father in their early teenage years. Unlike a lot of films about genderqueer young people, Amber’s identity is not something that their mother needs time to process. Instead, she is perpetually loving, no matter the situation—from scrubbing Amber’s father’s grave clean to the catharsis of swigging cheap boxed wine together at Amber’s high-school graduation. 

A still from documentary 'Always Amber'. Amber is shown sat in a bath with their friend, bubbles are almost up the the pair's necks. The image is very white and peaceful.
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Always Amber pays almost no heed to hate from the outside world. Instead, we remain plunged deep in the delicate trivialities of Amber’s life. The bathroom is the centre of the film: it’s where the film begins, with home-movie footage of a young Amber dancing in the tub; it’s also where teenage Amber shaves their head, dyes their eyebrows, pierces their lips and where Amber bathes with their friends and partners. It’s a safe space in which Amber is able to change their appearance, a place that allows them to feel comfortable in their own skin and comfortable with the people who they invite into their life. 

Although friends and lovers come and go from Amber’s life, we remain with them, their shaky hand-held footage a reminder of the intimate look that we have been given into this teenager’s formative years. Handing the camera over to Amber gives them agency in the filming process and when Olivera comes into Amber’s life and the pair fall effortlessly in love with each other, it’s Amber who has the power to stop filming and close the door to the audience. 

Always Amber is a beautiful depiction of how finding a person to understand you can help the at-times insurmountable challenge of self-acceptance. As Amber comes to accept their own validity as a person, their need to change their physical appearance becomes less urgent. 

The rush with which Amber has always felt the need to grow up slows as they realise that maybe their appearance isn’t the problem, and that it’s the world around them that needs to change, “How much should I change myself just because society isn’t changing fast enough?”

Always Amber screened at the virtual edition of Fringe! Queer Film & Arts Fest on November 11th

by Katya Spiers

Katya (she/her) is a History of Art & French student at the University of Bristol and the Digital Film & TV Editor at Epigram. Her favourite films include CarolFaces Places, and Sweet Bean, but most importantly Paddington 2. She also has a soft spot for anything written by Nora Ephron. You can follow her on Twitter at @katya8263718

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