A Trans Journalist With the Taliban in Transition

Austinite Monica Villamizar on Jordan Bryon's truth in wartime

Australian journalist Jordan Bryon (left) and his Afghan colleague, Teddy (right), were embedded with the Taliban during their 2021 assault on Kabul: a dangerous task made more so by the fact that Bryon was transitioning at the time. Their story is told in Transition, the new documentary directed by Bryon and Austin-born journalist Monica Villamizar, out now from Gravitas Ventures. (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures/AGC Studios)

Afghanistan has fallen from the headlines, but Jordan Bryon has worked hard to keep its story in the news. However, he didn’t expect to be a conflict journalist. In fact, he said, “I actively avoided covering the war.”

Instead, Bryon spent years telling the story of the nation’s people, whether they be women and men trying to survive a new era of oppression or Afghan Taliban terrorists using their guns to bring about their "holy peace." But now the Australian documentarian’s own story is being told in Transition: not simply the story of being a reporter embedded with the Taliban but a reporter who was transitioning while breaking bread with religious extremists who would likely kill him if they ever found out.

It was filmmaker Monica Villamizar who convinced Bryon to tell his story in their new documentary, which is available now on digital from Gravitas Ventures. Unlike Bryon, she wears the title “conflict journalist” as a badge of honor. The Austin-born Emmy-winning freelance broadcast journalist has covered hotspots in Iraq, Egypt, Mali, and Haiti, and was actually covering the ISIS offensive in Afghanistan while Bryon was reporting on the home front. She explained that part of the allure of war zone reporting is practical: “It’s less competitive,” she said, “and there are a lot less people in the field.” Yet, more than that, “I think it’s very gratifying to tell stories from where no one’s going.”

“I built my career, my networks, my professional career, my bank account off the misery of Afghanistan, so it was time for me to give back.”
The popular image is that Afghanistan is just one long, omnipresent battlefield: but Bryon said the reality is that "there’s still normal life going on.” That’s how he could not be a conflict journalist even while the war continued. “Other than suicide bombings and attacks on the cities we lived in, it was kind of ‘over there,’ he noted, and it was only when the front lines started reaching into Kabul in 2021 that it became unavoidable.

The question now became whether Bryon stayed or left, but for him it was no question at all. It was a moral obligation. “I built my career, my networks, my professional career, my bank account off the misery of Afghanistan, so it was time for me to give back and do my job when shit was hitting the fan.”

As Afghan journalists started to evacuate their homeland, Bryon and other foreign reporters realized that the Taliban might be more open to talking to the international press. That turned out to be true – except for that “the Taliban” part. Or rather, more specifically, the idea that there is a Taliban. It’s not a grande armée ruled from the top but a coalition of forces that can vary wildly even down to the unit level. Bryon was lucky enough to meet with a unit whose commander more interested in getting his message out, and more amenable to working with the international press. “Everyone wants to leave a legacy or a mark,” Villamizar said, adding that there’s always the overwhelming fear of being the tree that falls in the forest that nobody hears. “Talking to the media and making their story heard is a way of validation, is a way of existing in the world.”

However, Villamizar observed that not all international journalists have the same experience. “If you’re American or English, its definitely more important than being a Gazan journalist. It’s the passport that has value.”

That unexpected openness to Westerners is something Bryon had experienced before, in Jordan and Palestine, and put it down partially to “the colonial overhang” that gives foreigners surprising levels of access (plus, he noted, as someone “small and smiley and nonthreatening,” people open up to him). While its roots are repellant to him, as a white Australian he realized that he “could used that privilege for something good.”

Yet access was not unfettered. While this unit was more open than many of their more radical brethren, “even with these guys we didn’t get inside their personal homes,” said Bryon. “That’s where their wives are, that’s where their daughters are, that’s where their sisters and mothers are. The place we stayed was the Taliban headquarters in their village.”

Moreover, Bryon was very aware that no passport could protect him if the Taliban found out he was transitioning. There’s a nerve-wracking scene in which he had to work out whether he leaves the country for top surgery via the men’s or women’s lines at passport control; and every time the Taliban joked about his lack of a beard he would respond that he was taking medicine for that. He called that an example of an answer to “certain questions they had that were not complete lies.”

It became a question of journalistic ethics: that he sought a level of forthrightness from the Talibs that he could not possibly offer in return without risking his life or the life of Teddy, his Afghan cameraman. For Bryon, that sums up “the difference between honesty and authenticity. Because I wouldn’t say that neither Teddy nor I were inauthentic for our entire time of living with them. We were always our authentic selves, but obviously we did not ever mention anything about the transgender thing.”

Transition is available now on digital from Gravitas Ventures.

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Transition, Monica Villamizar, Jordan Bryon, Gravitas Ventures

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