With its true-to-life representation of transgender sex workers in Manila, Gerardo Calagui’s 2017 film Those Long Haired Nights is not afraid to court controversy. Southeast Asia Globe spoke with the Filipino director about the film and the challenges facing the LGBT+ community in his homeland
Tell me a bit about the film…
The story is about three transgender women who work in the red-light district in Manila. It deals with how they live out their lives on a daily basis. It is based on a real story. [We thought it would] work better to tell the story [this way] compared to if it were fictional because we wanted to do a beautiful portrayal of the life of transgender women.… Otherwise we would just be romanticising it rather than narrating it truthfully.
What we did was go to the red-light district and look for transgender sex workers who would be willing to… share their story with us. They were apprehensive at first because they thought it was going to jeopardise their work because prostitution in the Philippines is illegal. We assured them that we were not going to do a documentary anyway – that we just needed their story so we could translate it into film. Eventually we were able to earn their confidence.
What kinds of issues does the film tackle?
It raises particular questions of how foreigners come as consumers of the services of sex workers. And then it moves us back to the history of the Philippines, particularly when we catered to American and colonial interests. So it has that level of meaning for us when most of the clients of these sex workers… are foreigners, not Filipinos themselves. We also wanted to show that transgender women experience oppression on so many levels. They are classified as third-class citizens. Most of our transgender women do not have access to regular employment, usually because of the way they dress, their manner of expression, [and] their gender identity. So what they do is resort to the sex industry, which welcomes them to make money.
What has the reaction of Filipino audiences been like?
Generally in Manila, I think it kind of opened up a conversation about the plight of transgender women, especially Asian women, because it brought to their awareness that this is another form of postcolonial oppression. It is also a very raw problem of gender identity and expression, which has economic implications. There have been many cases where a transgender worker in the interview process has been turned away.
How are transgendered people generally viewed in Filipino society?
People in the Philippines are generally open to their presence because they are a very common sight. You see them almost everywhere. They are represented in the entertainment industry, for example, and other entertainment businesses like clubs or comedy clubs. There are venues for the visibility for transgender people, so on that level I guess they are accepted, but I would protest if someone would say they are accepted in terms of integration in the form of laws or economic policies that are friendly to them.
This article was published in the July 2018 edition of Southeast Asia Globe magazine. For full access, subscribe here.