An Evening with the Imposters. Directed by Raymond Helkio. Toronto: The Reading Salon, 2011. 45 minutes.
Photos of Angie. Directed by Alan Dominguez. Denver: Loco Lane Filmworks, 2010. 55 minutes.
Tales of the Waria. Directed by Kathy Huang. Blooming Grove, NY: New Day Films, 2011. 56 minutes.
The three films reviewed here are very different in terms of subject matter, storytelling, intention, and scope. What they have in common is that each focuses on gender-variant subjects, from drag queens in Canada to a trans woman in the United States, to warias in Indonesia. Because each of these identities deserves attention, respect, and differentiation from other ways of living and experiencing gender, I consider each film independently, and attend the distinct pedagogical possibilities of each.
An Evening with the Impostors follows a troupe of drag queens from Toronto as they go on tour to the small town of Port Hope.1 The film traces one day leading up to the performance, and the narrative arc is created by the question of how the show will be received (a question that is never conclusively answered) and the mysterious nature of the show's finale. This is not, for the most part, a clear or satisfactory narrative. The performers are compelling, in and out of drag, but the film fails to establish through lines for their stories.
In addition to the loose narrative, the quality of the filming seems haphazard, creating bizarre effects with stage lighting and often making it difficult to see and/or hear what is going on. This appears to be an aesthetic choice of filmmaker Raymond Helkio, but students may find it distracting.
The drag show provides some narrative shape, and I found the segments of this performance more engaging than their packaging. The much-anticipated finale—in which Ala Mode (Ala Alsafi) slowly undoes her dress, reveals a flat chest and male-appearing body, and washes off her makeup while performing Beyoncé's “If I Were a Boy”—has a lot to offer sustained pedagogical attention. Why is the transformation of Ala Mode’s performatively feminine body into a presentationally masculine body so powerful to audiences? In the context of this particular song, inseparably homoerotic and heteronormative in its sexual and social fantasies, who is the person on stage and what is being revealed to the audience?
Portions of this film, especially clips from the Impostors’ show, would be fruitful for close analysis in the context of studying drag, or gender and performance more generally, but I would find the movie as a whole frustrating to show in class because of the way in which it was filmed.
Photos of Angie is both a legal and a personal story about the aftermath of the murder of Angie Zapata, a Latina trans woman from Colorado, and the trial of Allen Andrade, the man who killed her. The central narrative question is a legal one: will Andrade become the first person convicted of a hate crime in murdering a trans person? Addressing this question, the film is necessarily focused on violence against a trans woman, but that violence is not voyeuristically re-enacted or displayed. Instead, testimony about Angie’s life from family entwines with the story of Andrade's trial and the legal precedent the prosecution was attempting to set. The persistent presence of Angie’s personal story makes it clear that this judicial effort is working to humanize a person precisely in the context where she has been most dehumanized.
In the United States and in many other places, trans women of color are disproportionately visible as victims of violence. Unavoidably, while telling a true and important story, Photos of Angie also perpetuates this mode of victimized visibility. The film seems aware of this problem, and works hard to mitigate it. Most of the images shown of Angie are selfies, and when Angie’s photo is displayed during an awards show as part of advocacy for justice after her death, the moment is framed as a fulfillment of Angie’s dream to be on television. Thus, the “photos” of the title prioritize Angie’s vision of herself and imply a continuity of her presence after death.
When Free Cece becomes available for distribution, I expect it will be an excellent companion to Photos of Angie for any course grappling with issues of gender and the law.2 This documentary focuses on Cece McDonald, a Black trans woman imprisoned for killing a man in self-defense and then released in 2014 after an international movement on her behalf. The National Center for Transgender Equality (http://www.transequality.org/) also has many resources created by and for trans women activists and lawyers. No matter the context of the course, I would not show this film in isolation from material by and/or about still-living trans women.
When Chinese-American filmmaker Kathy Huang began researching Tales of the Waria, she expected to focus on tension between the prominence of Islam in Indonesia and the open presence of gender-variant people. But Tiara Tiar Bachtiar, one of the film’s subjects who also became one of its producers, says in the film, “Being a waria is God’s will,” essentially dismissing this tension between gender variation and religion. Moreover, Huang found that warias she met were unenthusiastic about her proposed topic and urged her to focus instead on warias searching for love as a search non-warias share and as a less tragic framework for being waria.3 Also shaping the film’s focus is the meaning of “waria”: Huang initially identified the waria as transgender women but found it to be a distinct gender category in Indonesian communities.
The resulting film follows four wariasfrom Makassar, Indonesia: Mama Ria, Tiara, Suharni, and Firman. In addition to romantic love, we see other forms of love made both more and less possible in the context of the gender expressions available to warias and everyone else around them.
Tales of the Waria engages in an uneasy dance with Western expectations of what gender variance could mean in Indonesia. The film mostly allows self-identified warias to define what it means to be waria, and it also offers a (non-exclusive) vision of femininity that is centered around sexual desire for and from men. Therefore, the film could be interpreted as harmfully bolstering heterosexist ideas of gender essentialism, and questioning those ideas would be an important part of classroom discussion. At the same time, I caution against imagining this heteronormativity and prioritizing of male desire as specific to Indonesia (and, more generally, Asia) that can be a product of an orientalist imagination.4 This also would be important to address directly in the classroom, highlighting that the idea that femininity, however it is defined, is more “constructed” and less “real” than masculinity is used to devalue and evacuate the self-claimed identities of women in many places and culture.5 With this context, students can think about and discuss how to honor the ways in which women in many cultures and places define themselves, while opening possibilities for more and more forms of womanhood and feminine expression, rather than quickly imposing pre-formed views of which gendered behaviors and practices can be liberating and constraining.
Huang’s project blog helps illuminate the assumptions that inform Tales of the Waria, some of which she worked against and others that are still visible in the film (http://www.thewaria.com/blog). As such, it is an excellent companion to the film pedagogically and a good place to start thinking about how a filmmaker’s perspective and positionality always shape the films s/he creates. I recommend accompanying this film with other sources such as Tom Boellstorff's book on Indonesian genders and sexualities, and Ben Murtagh's work on queer identities in Indonesian cinema.6 Some context like this could help unsettle assumptions about what gender identities can and cannot mean—in terms of the waria, and also in terms of gender identities with which students are likely to be more familiar.
1 Chris Dupuis, “Pretty in Port Hope: On the Road with Four Toronto Drag Legends,” DailyXtra, May 31, 2014.
2 Free Cece! dir. Jacqueline Gares.
3 Kathy Huang, “Tales of the Waria: Inside Indonesia’s Third-Gender Community,” Huffington Post, May 26, 2012.
4 No cultural category is as precise or self-explanatory as we often imagine, but as many people in the film use “Western” to refer to European and American cultures, I will do the same here.
5 A good place to start unpacking how femininity is devalued is with Julia Serano, Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, 2nd ed. (Berkeley: Seal Press, 2016). On the use of “realness” as a way of attacking trans women, see Janet Mock, Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love, and so Much More (New York: Atria, 2014).
6 See, e.g., Tom Boellstorff, The Gay Archipelago: Sexuality and Nation in Indonesia (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005) and Ben Murtagh, Genders and Sexualities in Indonesian Cinema: Constructing Gay, Lesbi, and Waria Identities on Screen (New York: Routledge, 2013).