DER’s Outreach Coordinator Michaela Koller recently sat down with DER filmmakers Ruth Gumnit, Marguerite Salmon, and Jeanne Hallacy to discuss their latest films, VISIBLE SILENCE and THIS KIND OF LOVE. Both films offer important windows into the LGBTQ and larger human rights movements in Thailand and Myanmar.
Michaela Koller (MK): I am really interested in the origins of these films and how you found yourself interested in their topics, as well as your personal investments in these stories.
Marguerite (MS): Visible Silence (it had many titles) came to be when Ruth was traveling a lot to Thailand for her last film and needed to learn survival ties so she could eat and get around. She found a teacher here who serendipitously happened to be a Thai tomboy. This person was doing her dissertation topic on tomboys and ladies and we became fast friends. And so ourselves, or the tie in with ourselves, is that we are a butch/femme couple. We have for our lifetime been drawn to issues involving gender, sexuality, and human rights and so we joined forces with our friend and started the film.
MK: And how about you Jean?
Jean Hallacy (JH):Â This Kind of Love emerged from a different origin in the sense that it wasnât necessarily intended to be an LGBTQ-focused film, but was more about the overarching human rights crisis in Burma and Myoâs presence as a leader within that. I had been a long time friend of his. We met in the jungle when he was still in the armed resistance, the student army fighting the Burmese regime, and he always struck me as someone who had tremendous charisma and a very unique take on how he was going to be an agent of change in his country. Because we were friends when he was ousted from the student army as a result of his sexual identification, I was astounded and kind of mourned with him through it because it was a real blow to him. These are the people he literally put his life down next to, slept with and fought with, and they couldnât accept his sexual orientation. This was mind-blowing to me and I could see that there was a devastation in his soul. He had to reconsider if he was going to then fight the regime if the comrades that he had embraced originally were people that couldnât accept the fact that he was an openly gay man. That was when he decided to form his own organization.
We stayed in touch and I had always said to him âOh my gosh, your story, you know we have got to make a film about you one day!â. Just by chance, he messaged me when he was in Bangkok and said: âIâm here, do you want to meet up?â. I texted him back and said âWhat are you doing here?â and he said âI just got a letter of invitation to go home to Burmaâ, so I called him instead of texting him and I said, âWherever you are, I am coming to meet you right now.â So the very first frames of footage that were shot of this film were actually captured on a flip phone. I couldnât believe he got this invitation to go home after all these years and I realized what the emotional symbolism of that would be on many levels– and I said thatâs it. This is going to be the time, weâre finally going to make this film.
MK: Thatâs really incredible. Can you speak a bit to the idea of LGBTQ pride and how it was expressed in your films?
Marguerite Salmon and Ruth Gumnit
Ruth Gumnit (RG): Well, what I would say that pride is a very important concept in the United States, but I am not sure it translates directly to Thailand at all. But for ourselves, the whole LGBT filmmaking/film festival movement was very important to us. Weâve been active members of Frameline, the San Francisco International LGBT community film festival since its early days: going to it, watching it, living there as a film student. It was like I took the week off and did nothing but be there. The healing property of seeing yourself reflected in film; we know from first-hand experience how important that is.
In the US, coming out is often equated with leaving oneâs family and joining the queer community and that doesnât translate to Asia at all. A lot of people here could move somewhere; they could put 3,000 miles between themselves and their families. In Asia, you canât survive if that is going to happen; it is very very difficult to do that. What we found is that talking about pride isnât always as important to everybody. At the beginning of our film, Tang, kind of our big guru who formed a lot of the earlier lesbian and gay groups in Thailand, said that in Thailand you can be or do whatever you want as long as you donât talk about it. Thatâs a challenge and it still exists, although I think things are changing of course.
The fundamental thing is you donât want to embarrass your family, you want to stay with your family. It is very important what your family thinks of you and you donât want to hurt them. We have friends whose parents have said âDonât embarrass meâ when they wanted to be included in the project. Of course, this isnât representative of everybody. We also made the film from the point-of-view of our co-producer who formed this project with us that Marguerite talked about earlier. Her dissertation was about the idea that after you tell your story and someone hears your story, everyone is changed. That is the concept behind the filmÂ â we really wanted women to tell their stories from their own point of view. That is, the idea that it is a storytelling that the teller and the listener would have a transformation.
MK: Yes, absolutely. Itâs easy to get so caught up in our own worlds and forget that identity politics can be so different from one person to the next. Jean, what did you experience with pride in your films and Myo?
JH: I have really approached the years of my work through the human rights framework, so my orientation is focused on looking at those who rise to provide windows of inspiration by amplifying their stories for other people to see. It doesnât necessarily mean that it equates to one supporting Burma itself or topic X, Y, or Z, but rather that it would inspire a person to find things in their own life that they find difficult to confront or to be agents of change in their own communities. Myo literally fled with his life on the line, was in the jungle hiding, and people decided to spurn him because he is openly gay. And so, I felt compelled to make sure that he was recognized as a pioneer of this human rights movement in his community. He was working tirelessly to awaken his countrymen and women and really be able to give some safe space for the LGBTQ communities, particularly those that are more marginalized within any society.
I think even in the United States, people that are trans are on the fringes of a lot of LGBTQ rights movements which were not always very inclusive of them. It is no exception in Burma that being gay is different from being trans. So when Myo brought these issues to the national court, it was a landmark case: one that said that the transgression of the rights of the transgender women in our film was something that could not be tolerated under the countryâs human rights law. I thought this was fantastic. What I love about the film is that we took great care to balance it: it wasnât explicitly about an LGBTQ activist. As Myo says himself, âI am a human rights activist who happens to be gayâ. That, of course, as a human rights activist one should not even question anotherâs sexuality. This is the approach that he lives by and we try to reflect that in the film.
MK: Definitely, I think those efforts really shine through, and itâs wonderful that they do because both films really feature some incredible people. Iâd love to talk we about the expressions of community that youâve encountered through this process of filmmaking. Jean, you were just talking about Myo and his relationship with the student army–you know, him going off and giving his life to these people and having them turn their backs on him. Can you give us an idea of what that was like for him?
JH: It wasnât only the fact that he was thrown from his community but that the love of his life was killed. Myoâs partner felt a lot of guilt as result of his own masculinity as a soldier being challenged. His partner eventually laid down his life, which was a very traumatic event for Myo, and he was on the brink of complete emotional collapse at the time. He was nominated to go do a fellowship at Columbia University and I encouraged him to go. I said, âGet out, get out the country, extricate yourself from all of this and have a different perspectiveâ. It was upon his return from that fellowship that he had the fortitude to found his own human rights organization in Burma, which is now going stronger than ever.
Jeanne Hallacy and Aung Myo Min
I personally wondered, how is it possible that the movement that proclaims itself to be working toward democracy and human rights would be denying this most fundamental right? After I allowed my initial dismay and anger to settle I realized that it wasnât something we could necessarily blame the community for. So then, it became a question of how do you approach that? That is really what Myoâs organization, Equality Myanmar, has done. He is very much in demand as a human rights educator across the country, and all of his workshops integrate the importance of LGBTQ understanding. That is the way to do it, not necessarily getting angry that people act a certain way but understanding the origins of that lack of understanding.
MK: Yeah, absolutely. I think we often forget the positions of privilege that we are in to be able to openly have such important social commentary. Ruth and Marguerite, I am really interested in hearing about the lesbian group, Anjaree, featured in your film. What were your perceptions of the group? How did it impact the community?
RG: Tang was actually one of the founders of Anjaree, she is just a force of nature. Other people in the film were early members of the group as well, even though we didnât necessarily present them as such. The group was the product of the first time somebody came forward and said they were going to do something that is visible. She [Tang] said she pretty much had to be the face of it as nobody else was willing to.
Again, the thing about Thailand is that if your family accepts you, you have a lot of freedom. Tang comes from a certain amount of privilege and her family is accepting of her so she took all of that and put her face out there. One would get the idea sometimes that she was the only lesbian in Thailand because she was the poster child of the movement. She is very well spoken and is a dedicated human rights and queer activist. In terms of community, there is a lot of NGO money that comes into the country for certain issues, and thatâs ultimately what people focus their time on so they can have a job. A lot of women are working with HIV or in reproductive rights. Lesbians, trans men, and toms and dees are probably the lowest on the list for any money coming in. So it is very difficult for there to be any professional, ongoing activism in that area… I think of a lot of it is done in people’s spare time.
MK: To go a little deeper, Iâm really interested in hearing from all three of you about topics of being trans, gender non-conforming identities, and perceptions of the gender binary present in your films. We have these ideas of masculinity present in Myoâs story, and in VISIBLE SILENCE, thereâs an individual saying âMan or woman, canât I be in the middle?â I think these ideas are all things that people are having trouble with in the US. Is the response similar in Thailand and Myanmar?
MS: Our co-producer Philly Archa has been such an amazing, smart person who played a big role in the filmÂ â she was our translator and everything. She explained the idea of âtomsâ and âdeesâ to us really, really well. So letâs open up a little space in our society for what we call âtomâ. There is room for you to be a tom, you can do some of the work that men do if it is menial and in the field, or some other kind of labor. We will pay you as if you are a woman, not as a man, and we will open up a tiny amount of space for you in our world. The same would go for a male to female trans person; we will open up very specific spaces for you in our society that have to do with beauty, entertainment, childcare, and other very small spaces. If we start there, this whole idea of âtomsâ and âdeesâ starts to make more sense because that middle is just beginning to barely break open. That you could be two feminine women or two masculine women that love each other is just a radical concept. We need to realize that gender and sexuality isnât a standard plane that is understood everywhere. I think Iâll stop at that.
MK: Thank you for that explanation. I think itâs so, so crucial as members of the LGBTQ community to try to understand these cultural frameworks, even if they initially come off as radical or totally unlike anything weâve encountered before. If we donât, thatâs when people start bashing heads and canât connect to find common ground. Jean, how about your side of things?
JH: I also live in Thailand and a lot of what Ruth and Marguerite say I have witnessed myself. The cultural mores are such that there is a prevailing sense of tolerance in the Buddhist framework of people being allowed to be without overt hatred or discrimination. However, that is very different from acceptance. Seeing a man like Myo come forward, who is receiving international human rights awards and is being invited all over the world to speak on behalf of the human rights crisis affecting his country, has shattered the notion of what a gay manâs role is supposed to be. By being who he is and doing the work he does, he is already breaking the molds of this concept.
Itâs going to take time, just as it did in this country. I think the work Myo is doing is global. Heâs moving people in this direction, like my God, the fact that we even have to discuss this is so wholly irrelevant to the countless other pressing crises we are facing across the world. Thatâs the starting point Myo is using and as I said, itâs a task and an evolution. There are more groups now, and youngsters are involved which is so inspiring. A while back, a young lesbian group on Facebook reached out to me. They have a safe space that is open for all orientations in a public market in Bangkok and they asked me to show the film and join a talk on Valentineâs Day that was called âThe Alternative Valentine Eventâ. They live streamed it and there were thousands of people on the stream.
MK: Thatâs incredible.
JH: Yeah, from all over the country. There were probably a lot of young people who were finally hearing people speak about things that were in their heart and soul that they were too afraid to come out and express themselves. I thought that was really amazing and when we showed the film in a park in January, there were 7,000 people who came and saw it. You know… right on. This is how itâs going to happen, solving all of these confines that are externally imposed on human beings. These are not things we are inherently born with, these discriminatory views. They are externally imposed on us by negative forces that have ulterior motives. But that is another topic, you know, the corporate conspiracy to usurp our souls (laughs). But I do think there is truth to that without sounding overly simplistic. I think this is how it is going to happen; itâs the youth. The women in Ruth and Margâs film are absolutely remarkable. Without exaggerating, they are trailblazers to have come forward and stood up and said the things they have said in public, to have the film identify them. This how change is made. It is made through small acts of courage that collectively create a wave.
Posted on June 25th, 2018 in News |