Thursday, March 17, 2011

Different Cameras, Different Cultures

Richard Florida (author of The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It's Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life) recently published a fascinating article in The Atlantic entitled America's Great Passport Divide. While Mr. Florida was not surprised to find data suggesting that the states whose populations boasted higher levels of income, education, and diversity tended to have happier people who owned more passports, the following graphic clarified one important point. As AmericaBlog's founder, John Aravosis, so aptly wrote: "Guess which Americans don't have passports? Hint: Jesusland."

With San Francisco's film festival season in high gear, it's interesting to see how two documentaries take audiences to distant and diverse communities that would seem like totally alien territory to the folks in Jesusland. Whether so-called "real Americans" would ever expose themselves to a source of information  not linked to Fox News says a lot about why folks in Jesusland are often less educated and less worldly.

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I'm not sure how devout Conservatives would react to Kathy Huang's new documentary (which received its world premiere this week at the San Francisco Asian American International Film Festival. But I'm pretty sure that U.S. Representative Peter T. King (who, in addition to being Chairman of the United States House Committee on Homeland Security has proven himself to be an ignorant asshole and raging islamophobe) would shit his pants.

What makes Tales of the Waria so fascinating is that Indonesia (whose 17,508 islands house the world's largest population of Muslims) is, in some ways, more accepting than American society. The term "Waria" comes from two Indonesian words: "wanita" (meaning woman) and "pria" (meaning man). Although female in outward appearance, Waria are biological males who believe they were born with a woman’s soul and who, because of Islam's teachings, have no interest in undergoing gender reassignment surgery.

Filmed in the scenic coastal region of South Sulawesi,  Huang's film focuses on the lifestyles of Indonesia's third gender people: the Waria. Similar to the Two-Spirit people of Native American culture, the Waria are quite well accepted within Indonesia's Muslim society. In her director's statement, Huang writes:
"When I first read an article about the Waria in 2005, I was amazed to learn that a transgender community could exist so visibly in the world’s largest Muslim country. Unable to shake my curiosity, I took several Indonesian language courses and traveled to Indonesia in the summer of 2008 to experience the lives of the Waria firsthand. I discovered a world full of contradictions, tragedy, and heroism -- one that I knew had to be shared with larger audiences.

I invited the Waria to join me in creating a documentary on their most favorite topic of conversation: love. They were thoroughly enthusiastic. Waria elders gladly agreed to serve as advisors throughout the project. Gaya Celebes (a local health organization staffed by Waria and gay members) generously lent translators and story consultants. Several of their members also became part of the film crew.

Together, we are venturing forth on a project that promises to be an unprecedented glimpse into a little known but truly remarkable community -- a community that not only challenges our assumptions about gender, masculinity, and Islam, but also reveals our endless capacity as human beings to find, despite great hardship and disappointment, happiness and meaning in our lives. I’ve learned more than I ever expected -- about Indonesia, filmmaking, and myself."

Suharni contemplates a long separation from her boyfriend

Tales of the Waria follows four transgender Indonesian men as they search along different paths for true love.
  • Mama Ria is an older Waria who is trying (without much luck) to rekindle the flame of her 18-year relationship with a police officer whose wife adores Mama Ria and considers her to be an integral and respected member of their extended family.
  • Firman is a former Waria who (although now married and the father of two children) longs for the golden days when he danced with men, Firman welcomes any excuse to hang out with his old Waria friends.
  • Suharni has an extremely devoted and loving boyfriend but worries about whether their relationship can survive a long separation while she seeks work in a beauty parlor on another island.
  • Tiara is a drag entertainer who wonders if she can ever find real love outside of the adoration showered upon her when she performs in nightclubs.
In the following interview, Kathy Huang outlines what she would like audiences to take away from her film.

The candidness of its four stars makes Tales of the Waria especially fascinating and poignant in an age when so many Americans operate from a position of cultural blindness and crippling prejudice. It also does a superb job of demonstrating the universality of the third sex.  Here's the trailer:

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A Mongolian documentary that received its North American premiere at the festival proved to be a bit disappointing. Passion(Khusel Shunal) often seems almost schizophrenic in its attempts to showcase lost footage from an earlier era in Mongolia's film industry while filmmaker Byamba Sakhya follows  veteran director Binder Jigjid around Mongolia on Jigjid's self-imposed mission to screen his 2008 film, Human Traffic.

Written, directed, and edited by Sakhya (who is a also a talented cinematographer), Passion delivers some beautiful images of Mongolian landscapes while Jigjid -- confronted with tiny audiences wherever he attempts to screen his film -- meditates on whether today's films can be considered as art or are merely outgrowths of modern commerce.

The Ghenghis Khan Statue complex near Ulan Bator, Mongolia

Disappointed by the poor attendance for Human Traffic (a film about a woman who sold her sister's kidney), Binder spends part of the film reminiscing about his father, Jigjid Dejid, who was replaced by another director while working on the 1988 epic that became the most expensive Mongolian film ever made (Queen Mandukhal).

While Passion (which tries to explain the passion of famous Mongolian filmmakers like Jigjid Dejid) features some breathtaking vistas, the film itself is a bit of a yawn. Here's the trailer:

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