I will be the first to admit I know very little about the world of transgender women. (Or, for that matter, transgender men). However, my understanding of the subject expanded exponentially after seeing Janice Villarosa’s documentary “Shunned, what it takes to be a woman” at the Hawaii International Film Festival. Shot in the Philippine city of Cebu, Villarosa focuses on the lives of working class transgender women. I use transgender loosely. Some are truly “transgender” whereas others are in various stages of metamorphosis.
Villarosa, who directed, produced and edited the film, does a marvelous job of chronicling the emotional and sexual lives of these very special people in a sympathetic, non-prurient manner. (This, despite a very provocative publicity poster).
She interviewed a number of women who speak very frankly about the physical and emotional abuse that they all-too frequently contend with. (Some had been beaten up by boyfriends, street gangs or shot with pellet guns).
Sometimes being a transgender woman can be fatal. A US Marine, Private First Class Joseph Scott Pemberton, is currently in jail in the Philippines awaiting trial for the murder of Jennifer Laude, a transgender Filipino woman.
Villarosa has no hesitation delving into transgender sexuality—going so far as to show us what the anatomy looks like. Her conversations are not just confined to her “girls”. She also interviews the only physician in the Philippines who does sex change operations as well as a psychologist who treats transgender patients.
I’ll go on a limb and say that her film is ground breaking in its scope.
I had a chance to speak to Ms. Villarosa following a HIFF reception.
Q: Where do you live?
A: I currently live in Los Angeles. I grew up in the Philippines and attended school in Cebu.
A:This is my first feature. I went back to school in film making (after working as a CPA) in 2010. This is when I began working on Shunned. I decided to take up film making because I feel I have a knack for it. I didn’t shoot this film, except for some of the B roll. I worked with a DP (director of photography) to do the shooting.
Q: How did you choose the theme of transgender women for a film subject?
A: It goes back a long time. When I was four years old, in the Philippines, I met a transgender fashion designer. I was so fascinated by her. I thought she was colorful, vibrant and talented. When I got older I realized there were a lot of transgender people in the Philippines. I wasn’t quite sure how to act towards them. I had a lot of questions. I came from a very conservative family. I felt that I was “judging” them.
Q: So you felt you were being unfair?
A: Yes I was being unfair. I didn’t know anything about them. I knew that I needed to understand them and the only way I could gain a perspective was to fully immerse myself in their lives.
Q: How did you meet your future cast?
A: I filmed a transgender beauty pageant in Cebu in 2010. I was intrigued and wanted to find out more. I talked to them and asked questions. They were very hesitant at first to speak with me.
Q: Why were they hesitant?
A: First off I’m a woman. Initially there was suspicion. They didn’t know my motives. Even though they use these pageants as a platform, people still make fun of them. They weren’t sure I was going to do the same thing.
Q: You had to earn their trust?
A: Exactly. It was also tough because some of the girls did not was to be identified as transgender. It took them a while to be comfortable with me. Also I had to be comfortable asking questions. I wasn’t sure how far I could go as far as probing their lives.
Q: You really asked some of the most intimate questions about their emotional and sex lives and they answered you in what appears to be a very open and honest way.
A: Yes, that took a while.
Q: What was the biggest challenge in making this film?
A: There were a lot of things. First off, finding the girls and then building trust. I also had to change my plans as far as making the film. I was going to originally just follow one person, see how they go through the (sex change) surgery and all that. I had a really difficult time finding that person. I ended up making a totally different film. Editing was also a challenge. I had 4 terabytes of film. However, I didn’t have the money to hire an editor. Funding the film was a challenge. It took me a long time to do the story. My first cut was 2 ½ hours. I had to really step back. The film forced me to take a personal journey. The film would not be what it is if I hadn’t taken that journey. I couldn’t even discuss the film with my family. I didn’t know how they would react. I felt as if I would face a lot of backlash from them. I had to clarify to myself why I wanted to do the film.
Q: And what conclusion did you come to?
A: Everyone has to be loved. You have to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and accept them for who they are. I became very attached to them. While I was editing the film I would see them from the moment I wake up until the moment I went to sleep. Their story became very personal to me. I was able see their struggle. I could feel their pain. I had to go through that journey myself.
Q: What did you take away from this film? What did you learn from these people?
A: I could not give up on this film even though there were many times I wanted to throw it away. What they taught me was despite whatever you go through, you have to keep on living. I say that no matter how much society tried to bring them down, they keep on getting up. That’s why I could not give up as well.
Q: It seems like a lot of the people in your film take the abuse fatalistically. As if it’s their cross to bear.
A: Yes. One time we were shooting another short and unexpectedly on the street, we saw a gang of boys holding down a boy and stripping his pants off. They were dragging him across the street. We were stunned. We could not believe what we were seeing. We trained the camera on him. We caught the tail end of the incident. We talked to the kid later. He passed it off as if it were nothing and joked about it. That’s the way my girls react. They have to pass the abuse off as if it’s nothing in order to survive.
Q: You have deep compassion for transgender people.
A: Yes, it didn’t start out that way. At first I was just curious. Now I would hope to make a difference with this documentary. That’s why I called my company “Silent Voices Productions”.
Q: I noticed one of the motifs you deploy are people lying down almost in a fetal position, wrapped up in cotton—kind of like gauze. What is the image you’re portraying?
A: I’m trying to portray the image of a cocoon. People get trapped in labels they are given. Or you can get trapped in judging yourself. People get trapped in a cocoons of hateful, negative things. What I wanted to say is that you have to break out of it—even within ourselves. Before you can become a butterfly you have to shed all this self-doubt, self-hate and what society heaps on us. Ever since I was a kid I was always fascinated by caterpillars. We had a book in our house about this and it really influenced me. I gravitated towards the idea of how a caterpillar is able to change and I wanted to use that image in my film.
A: Only a few consented to the photos. That was one of the last things I did. It took a lot for me to ask them and I wasn’t sure if it was proper. It told them that as someone coming from the non-LGBT community answering the questions would be the only way I and others would understand.
Q: So what’s on for you in the future?
A: I’m working on a few projects. One of them is to produce a feature film called “The Next Page”. It’s about an eight year old boy who has cancer. It’s not just about cancer it’s about how this impacts the whole family unit. It’s about a father and son relationship as well. We’re negotiating with an Oscar-nominated actress. I’m really excited about this.
photos courtesy of Janice Villarosa and Silent Voices Productions