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Bending it the gender wayTrans World Features/IBNS
The recently concluded 22nd International Film Festival of Kerala in Thiruvananthapuram had an interesting screening programme curated under the title “Gender-Bender” with six films from USA, India, Chile-Argentina and Lithuania.
What was the focus of this special programme, one may ask. The phrase “gender-bender” is a dicey one because It’s often misunderstood, misinterpreted or misrepresented specially in cinema. It is a concept more than a physical reality that actually sustains in the real world and it is this fluidity and ambiguity that leads to misreading of the term. In dictionary parlance, ‘gender-bender’ stands for “a function at which the gender roles are reversed, or manipulated in various ways. It also refers to a person who explores the boundaries of gender roles, or outright denies their existence.”
The Gender Bender section at the festival covered all these areas and threw up a rainbow-hued prism of blurred sexual and gender identities through different stories. Besides this section, gender-bender films were also included in other screening sections such as International Competition and World Cinema. It was curated by John Badalu, an Ashoka Fellow and an Indonesian from Jakarta. He has built a platform for public discussion on homosexuality to encourage tolerance in Indonesian society. Using film as a vehicle to bring people together, John launched an annual Queer Film Festival in several major Indonesian cities.
Badalu recalls that the very first film about homosexuality, which for some reason, is understood to be synonymous with transgender and third gender persons, was The Dickinson Experimental Sound and Film (1895) directed by William Kennedy Dickinson that showed two men dancing. But the first film that reflected a sympathetic portrayal of homosexuals was Germany’s Richard Oswald’s Different from the Others. This film created a stir and was restricted for viewing only by doctors and medical researchers. The Nazis burnt all prints of the film in 1933.
Tamara, screened in World Cinema section in the festival is directed by Elia K. Schneider, an American-Venezuelian-Israeli filmmaker, writer and theatre director. It’s an adaptation from the real life story of Tamara Adrian, Venezuela’s first transgender politician. He grows up to become a successful lawyer and academic and even gets married and has children. But the desire to be honest with his feelings makes him go in for sex reassignment surgery to become Tamara. When the Venezuelan state refuses to accept this new identity, she becomes a political activist bringing her legal education and experience in her struggle for LGBT and women’s rights. She is finally elected to the Venezuelian Congress and is currently working towards proposed political reforms.
Among films in the gender-bender section was – Front Cover, an English-Mandarin film directed by Ray Yeung which evolves into a romantic drama between two men, a gay Chinese-American celebrity fashion stylist and an actor who arrives from Beijing in the US who gradually fall in love with each other but are faced with the constant struggle with the media’s discovery of the actor’s alternate sexual orientation.
Loev was the only Indian entry. Directed by Sudhanshu Saira filled with twists and turns in the relationships between and among Jai, a Wall Street deal maker who comes to Mumbai for two days of fun, Sahil, a music producer who joins him and Alex, Sahil’s boyfriend who turns up with a companion and what happens next.
Something Must Break is a Swedish film directed by Ester Martin Bergmark. It is an unusual story of two men, the androgynous Sebastian and easy-going Andreas who insists that he is not gay. But he falls in love with the self-abusive Sebastian who wants to be a woman and they elope defying social conventions. But conflicts between them make them go their different ways. The film won the Best Feature Film Award at the Chicago International Film Festival among several others .
The Spanish film Rara directed by Pepa San Martin is about the life of a 13-year-old girl who is caught between her separated parents. She lives with her mother, younger sister and her mother’s new partner, also a woman. The film offers the audience an insight into the perceptions of teenagers towards homosexuality.
Quick Change directed by Eduardo W. Roy Junior is based in the Phillipines and was filmed in real locations with a hand-held camera. It is about Doriina a middle-aged transgender. She walks the tightrope between the struggles of her own identity and her illegal business in injecting substances into the bodies of transgender girls to beautify them. To make matters worse, her husband falls in love with another transgender. The film explores the lives of the transgender community in Manila and how their survival is dependent on their looks.
Lithuanian film The Summer of Sangaile unfolds the story of coming-of-age of two young teenaged girls. Directed by Alante Kavaite, it is the story of a relationship between Sangaile who is an introvert obsessed with stunt planes and Auste, impulsive and bubbling with excitement and the two, pulled towards each other, bring effective changes in one another. The film won a plethora of awards for Best Film, Best Director and Best actress at several international film festivals.
The common strand that runs this entire batch of films is the way it sheds light on the constant struggle the protagonists go through to come to terms with their sexuality, and then to sustain the relationships they get into against social prejudice and ostracism and the constant struggle to be recognised and accepted by the so-called mainstream society.
(Shoma A. Chatterji is an award-winning film critic)