Of myths and goddesses: Trans visibility in Mindanao cinema

Ram Botero's Pamalugu (In Limbo) heralds the trans voice in Mindanao cinema

Trans woman filmmaker Ram Botero directed Pamalugu (In Limbo), in 2019. In the film, a trans woman, a poet, and an activist contemplate on the lives they’ve left behind as they embark on a journey to an indigenous Filipino reimagination of hell. Eloquent in its examination of gender and class struggles using mythology as a framework, the film ushers a new voice in Mindanao cinema, enriching the cinematic narratives and expressions of the region. Botero reflects on her experience making her first film and her struggle to be heard.

"According to fragments of myths that have survived, the creation was conceived by the goddess Ikapati. One day, she saw her husband Bathala wandering lonely around the cosmos. To amuse him, Ikapati gave Bathala clay from which he fashioned a ball that became the earth. Then from it he created rivers, oceans, mountains, and forests. Pleased by her husband's creation, Ikapati hanged the ball up in the sky so they could both marvel at its grandeur. Ikapati was an important deity to the Tagalogs. The goddess of agriculture, she was worshipped as the great provider. She was also the Mother Goddess who kept her children from harm and healed when they were sick. And, most importantly, she was a transgender goddess.

Before we carelessly dismiss such stories as product of human fancy, The Filipino anthropologist F. Landa Jocano suggests that myths fulfill one of the most important functions in society – they serve as a means through which people can logically present fundamental concepts of life and systematically express the sentiments to which they attach those concepts. This reading on mythology is proposed by Jung as archetypes or the model figure roles incarnated as characters in myths. These archetypes are part of our collective consciousness that inform us the moment we are born into this world of meaningful symbols. The myth of Ikapati is evident of how our ancestors in pre-colonial Philippines celebrate gender variants. The science writer Deborah Rudacille emphasizes that gender-crossing is ubiquitous in cultures; the genitalia, as it is, is not a certain distinguisher of gender.

When the Spaniards came, they couldn’t understand such concept. They insisted their violent colonialist worldview. They controlled how we think, vilified our myths and lores, turned babaylans (priestesses) and shamans into frightening witches, and massacred them. They tried to suppress transgender people and removed us from our rightful place in history. We have been made to believe that transgender people and genderqueers are spawns of the devil, an abomination of nature. But we have always been part of this country’s history. Always. The American anthropologist Stuart Schlegel was initially perplexed when he met a mentefuwaley libun (transgender woman) from the Teduray community; she was a celebrated zither player. When he insisted that she was a man, members of the community corrected him and firmly asserted that she was no less of a woman than other cisgender women members of their community.

While the story of Ikapati is contested as inaccurate, such is the nature of myth. It is malleable. It transforms depending on who tells the story. This begs these questions: Who is telling the story? Who is the story for? What is the purpose of telling the story? In these questions lie the true power of storytelling. These are the questions that filmmakers or any storyteller, for that matter, must confront.
There have been several films about transgender people in the Philippines whose narratives suffered under cisgender filmmakers or cisgender actors playing transgender roles, save for a few such as Lav Diaz's Norte: End of History, with a stunning portrayal of Moira Lang as an intellectual, and Arnel Mardoquio's Alma-ata with queer women in lead roles including a transgender woman babaylan. This is where my motivation stems from – as an artist and as a transgender woman – in wielding filmmaking to tell stories from our perspective.

As a transgender woman, my struggles have guided me in understanding the construct of my oppression. I have suffered the consequences of the misrepresentation of transgender people in films. For instance, casting cis men in transgender women roles reinforces the narrative of deception that transgender women are men dressing up as women; it’s the same narrative Jennifer Laude’s murderer invoked.

When I wrote the script for our short film Pamalugu, I initially wanted it to be a memoir. I peppered it with my lived experiences, my struggles, and the struggle of other transgender women. But I also realized that there’s a need to discuss how one’s experiences on gender are affected by class. In the height of the controversial case of Gretchen Diez, who was denied access to the women’s toilet, the first transgender elected member of the House of Representatives, Geraldine Roman, intervened. The latter chastised the utility personnel who harassed Gretchen, even threatening her to try and prevent her from using the women’s toilet. What Roman failed to realize is that her class and political stature protect her from the violence transgender women like Gretchen are subjected to and how poorly the current, colonized society understands gender constructs.

The Black Revolutionary Angela Davis, in her moving speech against bourgeois feminism, stresses that the hallmark of the current feminism is intersectionality. She adds that revolutionary hope resides precisely among those women who have been abandoned by history and who are now standing up and making their demands heard. Our short film, Pamalugu attempts to discuss and visualize the intersectional approach of different struggles of minorities often considered by society to be hellbound.

The gender struggle may seem to be fraught and long – the debate on gender, representation, and appropriation is convoluted. But I could never be any happier to live in a moment where we are redefining our ideas of culture, gender, and colonial narratives. We are the dreams of our ancestors. In 612 B.C., Sappho wrote: You may forget but let me tell you this: someone in some future time will think of us."

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