Recently, our friends at Telegraph21 highlighted Tales of the Waria in their t21 Weekly Feature, including video clips, an exclusive filmmaker interview, and screening information. Telegraph21’s Steffie Kinglake sat down with filmmaker Kathy Huang to discuss the documentary, which premiered last night on Global Voices. The filmmaker will participate in an online social screening on Monday, June 4 at 8pm ET / 5pm PT right here.
t21: What inspired you to make Tales of the Waria?
Kathy: I first learned about warias in 2005, when I saw a newspaper photograph of a gorgeous waria who had won a beauty contest in Jakarta. I knew about the “ladyboys” of Thailand, but I had no idea that transgender people could live so openly in Indonesia, a country with the world’s largest Muslim population. Like a lot of Americans I had these notions of Islam as being oppressive and particularly unforgiving toward sexual minorities. How could a community of warias possibly exist? Three years later, unable to shake my curiosity, I decided to take some Bahasa Indonesia classes and travel to Indonesia to experience the lives of warias firsthand.
t21: What do you want viewers to take away from the film?
Kathy: Many viewers come in assuming that warias must face constant persecution within their communities. I hope that what they see in the film challenges their preconceptions. There is room in Islam, as there is in any religion, for differences in appearances, lifestyles, and sexual preferences.
t21: How did you first meet and connect with the individuals you feature in the film?
Kathy: I met a wonderful anthropologist, Tom Boellstorff, who had been working with the queer community in Indonesia for several decades. He suggested I film in Makassar— a coastal city in eastern Indonesia known for both its strong Muslim faith and historic openness toward transgender individuals—and generously shared his contacts with me. When I arrived at Makassar’s airport, I was greeted by Tiara, a dynamo of a waria who eventually became an associate producer on the film as well as one of its subjects. For two months, Tiara and I scoured Makassar and its surrounding villages for film subjects who could speak eloquently on their search for love and companionship. We conducted over 60 pre-interviews, looking for warias who could convey a spectrum of experiences.
t21: What can be learned from their experiences?
Kathy: The film’s subjects search for love and intimacy, despite whatever obstacles or heartache may lie in their paths. Theirs is not an isolated journey, but one that any human being can appreciate. Though this message of universality may seem simple, it was an important one for us to make. When I first approached warias in Makassar with the idea of shooting a film, they noted that they were tired of their portrayal in the media. They were too often depicted as buffoons or sexual deviants, alienated from general society. They suggested I focus on their search of love as a means to deepen people’s understanding of their community and recast their public image. If viewers leave the film feeling a shared connection to any of the characters, we will have achieved our goal!
t21: Were there challenges filming in Indonesia?
Kathy: The hardest part about shooting in Indonesia was learning to go with the flow. It was not what you’d call a controlled environment. I encountered torrential rains, unbelievable heat waves, constant blackouts. Language was also an issue; though I had studied standard Indonesian, my subjects spoke a rapid-fire blend of local languages and dialects, well beyond my comprehension. And then there was the Indonesian notion of jam karet (“rubber time”) that left me waiting for hours on end for my subjects. When she saw me start to twitch, Tiara loved to say, “Sabar, Kathy” (“Patience, Kathy”) and “Santai, ya?” (“Relax”). After a while, I learned to nod gamely and reach for another bottle of sweet tea.
t21: Has the film been screened in Indonesia and/or used in educational settings?
Kathy: All of the film’s subjects have seen it and given it their blessing. Sadly, though, it hasn’t yet been released widely in Indonesia. In December 2010, shortly after I finished filming, the Islamic Defender Front (FPI), an Islamic fundamentalist group typically associated with the island of Java, disrupted a waria beauty pageant in Makassar. It devastated the local waria community, who had always believed that they were immune to the bullying of these extremists. Worried about further FPI activity, my subjects requested that I hold off on showing the film in Indonesia. It’s unfortunate, but in some ways, the film has become a record of happier times, when warias were able to exist more harmoniously with those around them.We’ve had great success bringing the film to different college campuses across the United States. It’s been amazing to see students who know nothing about Indonesia, Islam, or transgender life react to the film. They’re often surprised—not just by what they see on screen, but also by how much they end up relating to the film’s subjects. The film’s ethnographic nature and its rare glimpse into a little known transgender community have also made it popular with professors of Anthropology and Gender Studies. One happy professor told me that she had been waiting for a film like Tales of the Waria to come out so that she could replace a 1985 video she had been using to teach her students about Southeast Asian sexuality.
t21: Your favorite thing about Indonesia?
Kathy: I loved the sense of community. Indonesia is one of the world’s most densely populated countries and I think it’s made Indonesians on the whole very sociable and friendly. Neighbors have learned to live in tight quarters and to abide by each other’s eccentricities. There are endless parties, ceremonies, and impromptu gatherings. Coming back to the US, where we prize our privacy and our peace and quiet, I was often startled by how alone one could feel.