Last year’s selection for the Metro Manila Film Festival 2016 (MMFF) features a lineup of never before seen wave of films in the previous years. But what seems to intrigue people most is Jun Lana Robles’s Die Beautiful, a film revolving a trans-woman’s struggles in the modern Filipino society.
Die Beautiful starred Paolo Ballesteros in a story about a transwoman who makes a living, joining beauty contests to support her adopted child. The film follows through Trisha’s changing roles before her untimely death.
The film garnered international awards recently in December for Special Jury Award for Outstanding Performance in the 21st International Film Festival of Kerala, India, and the Audience Award and Best Actor Award (Paolo Ballesteros) in the 29th Tokyo International Film Festival previously in October. Aside from this, Ballesteros also won best actor in the awards night for this year’s MMFF edition. Christian Bables, who played as Barbs, the transwoman best friend of Trisha (Ballesteros), also won best supporting actor in the awards night.
Apart from the awards reaped by Die Beautiful, it also earned a huge income during the film festival. This provides evidence that socially relevant independent films which champion quality can also be commercially viable, contending that only mainstream films produced by big studios like Star Cinema and Regal Entertainment can win the hearts of the viewers.
Last April 14, 2016, the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) decided to change the traditional MMFF by focusing its lens on substantial entries, regardless of their potential commercial value.
According to Selection Chair Nic Tiongson, the move they made this year intends to help the industry make a global mark, to “disprove the myth that quality indie films will not earn money and [that] commercial films cannot possibly have quality.”
The said festival garnered mixed reactions online, and the people who supported the cause for this year’s entry approve that quality matters over profit.
This reaction from the people has been shaped by a new set of criteria espoused by MMFF as the new standard of selecting films that will be part of the film fest. This time, among the eight films selected for this edition, it was only Vince & Kath & James that represented a big studio.
Kabisera, directed by Arturo San Agustin and Real Florido, is a socio-political film about a Filipino family dealing with people involved in extra-judicial killings and other abuses in the Philippine society. It starred FAMAS Best Actress Nora Aunor and Aliw Awards Hall of Famer Ricky Davao.
Saving Sally, directed by Avid Liongoren, is a film combining animation and live action about a comic book artist named Marty who fell in love with his best friend Sally. It starred Golden Screen Awardee Rhian Ramos and Enzo Marcos.
Seklusyon, directed by Erik Matti, revolves on the horrors priests in 1947 encounter at a secluded area for their last training. The film, which starred Rhed Bustamante, Phoebe Walker, Elora Espano, Neil Ryan Sese, Ronnie Alonte, Lou Veloso, Dominique Roque, John Vic De Guzman and JR Versales, is the only horror movie in the line-up exploring the difference and conflict between religion and spirituality.
Sunday Beauty Queen, directed by Baby Ruth Villarama, is a well-researched and engaging documentary on overseas Filipino workers, specifically Pinay domestic helpers in Hong Kong, starring real overseas Filipino workers Hazel Perdid, Maylyn Jacobo, Cherry Bretania and Leo Selomenio.
Ang Babae sa Septik Tank 2: Forever is Not Enough, directed by Marlon Rivera, is a pointed but witty commentary on the pretentious and predictable mainstream movie business in the country. The production included 33rd FAP Luna Best Actress Awardee Eugene Domingo and 2013 Carlos Palanca Awardee Chris Martinez.
Oro, directed by Alvin Yapan, is a story of a secluded Filipino community dependent on mining disrupted by a group claiming to be a representative of the government causing trouble for the residents. It starred 9th Gawad Tanglaw Best Supporting Actor Awardee Joem Bascon and Irma Adlawan, who won best actress in the recent MMFF awards night.
Vince & Kath & James, directed by Ted Boborol; starring young actors & actress Julia Barretto, Joshua Garcia and Ronnie Alonte. A rom-com teenage film that reinvents the teen movie with its fresh approach and fluid narrative.
Lack of transwomen representation
With the array of movies selected for the 2016 MMFF screening, the film fest’s vision to empower Filipino films in espousing substantial discussion of social issues has opened a new approach to understanding the underlying problems faced by society today.
In the case of Die Beautiful, the empowerment of representation of such marginalized people as transwomen, among other members of the LGBTQ+ community, aims to contribute to the insufficient lobbying of their problems to the mainstream society. The movie, in its pursuit to give transwomen their voice, has made the plight of many other minorities an apparent issue that should be understood by the people.
However, we could also question why a transwoman was not able to play Trisha’s role knowing that the festival champions quality. Ballesteros has since identified himself as heterosexual before, which also undermines the opportunity to provide the trans community a genuine representation.
Although the film helped create a way to discuss the important issues concerning determination of identity and respecting it, many people still mistakenly think transwomen as being men who want to wear dresses. This common stereotype is supported when men, wearing dresses, are cast to play transwomen. And this stereotype leads directly to discrimination.
In a research carried out by Trans Media Watch (TMW) in 2009, they revealed that 78% of British trans people felt that the media portrayals they saw were either inaccurate or highly inaccurate, and it’s quite clear that attitudes towards this need to change.
It is true when most of the time CIS people (those whose sense of personal identity and gender correspond with their birth sex) who portray transwomen often perform exaggerated stereotypes of femininity based on other stereotypical portrayals of transwomen. CIS actors being cast in roles as transwomen also feed to employment discrimination since there are thousands of transwomen who are incredibly capable actors, who would love to act on the big screen.
And when not enough effort is put into finding them, and when people of other genders are chosen over them, it simply keeps the sexist status quo.
But what makes the film forgiving is how it openly portrayed the traditional and unorthodox members of the society, magnifying the lens between the divide of those who accept Trisha and other LGBTQ+ individuals as functioning members of the society and those who don’t.
“Unlike in usual movies where gay men are portrayed as stupid sidekicks or laughing stocks, Jun Lana presented Paolo B.’s character, Trisha, as someone who’s courageous and has remained dignified despite the devastating incidents in her life,” former Ateneo Film Circle (AFC) External Vice Pres. Neil Sumalinog stressed.
Sumalinog believed that Die Beautiful sheds light at transwomen here in the country and her glamorous death shows that even in our darkest moments, we can still shed light and become an inspiration. What made Die Beautiful successful was its concrete portrayal of the harsh reality that envelops within the trans community.
The terror transwomen face
Statistics showed that in 2015, according to the Advocate, an American LGBT-interest magazine, there were at least 21 deaths of transgender people due to fatal violence, the most ever recorded. These victims were either killed by acquaintances, partners or strangers, and only some had been arrested and charged, while others are yet to be identified. Although some of these cases involve anti-transgender bias, some are not bias-related and still, others don’t have apparent motives.
While the details of each case differ, fatal violence disproportionately affects transgender women, and that the intersections of sexism, homophobia, and transphobia conspire to deprive them of healthcare and other necessities, and that these barriers are making them vulnerable.
Rape and consent, which was also a sensitive theme in the film, explicitly portrayed the molestation of Trisha halfway through the film. Trisha, seemingly drugged and exhausted, was ravaged by four different men consecutively including her school crush Migs (played by Albie Casino) when she was still a young student.
“Trisha’s case [should not be taken lightly]. The victim doesn’t know whether she considers that she is being raped because she might have ‘enjoyed’ it but was taken of her dignity as well,” former AFC Pres. Kristine Soria emphasized.
Soria expressed that the film was realistic and not cliché, and that it was beautifully mixed with comedy, enabling it to send out a huge message to the public.
According to Sumalinog, even though she (Trisha) was loathed by her own father, and was repeatedly violated by different men, the film didn’t focus on her grief but on how she stood up and reclaimed herself. Despite all of what she’s been through, self-respect and self-worth remained.
The fact that there are still very few films that represent the LGBTQ+ community further makes Jun Lana’s film distinct. Although the film lacked accuracy and true representation it drew the spotlight in realities we may never have seen before.