Coming out and breaking through: The Philippine queer cinema roundtable

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Director Samantha Lee on her debut film, "Baka Bukas": "I wanted to make something hopeful for people ... it’s important to come to terms with who you are, I feel. And, if this film helps people — which, it has. Every day, my inbox is full of people coming out to me … Why can’t we have a film that shows the happy side of being a lesbian in the Philippines?" Photo courtesy of BAKA BUKAS/STAR CINEMA

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Queer cinema in the Philippines is going through some kind of resurgence. Although LGBTQ stories have always had a constant presence in local film — a number of iconic LGBTQ classics enjoyed mainstream success from the late 70's to the early 90's — the number of local pink movies released per year had dwindled dramatically. It wasn’t until the introduction of digital cinema that Cris Pablo (“Doubt,” “Metlogs,” “Chub Chaser”) and other independent film directors — such as Brillante Mendoza — began populating select screens with queer content.

For a while, queer cinema was tagged as highly sexual and provocative, juxtaposing images of naked men with city squalor. Over the last decade, though, the breadth of queer themes explored in film continued to expand. There were more stories of coming out, of friendship dynamics and family ties, of unrequited love and zombies in drag.

Soon, audiences began clamoring for more. The success of independent films like “Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros” and “Zombadings 1: Patayin sa Shokot si Remington” spurred major studios to come out with offerings of their own. A number of their efforts — particularly those featuring Vice Ganda — broke box office records.

Just last year, more than 20 local films featuring queer characters and storylines were released. The drought in queer content, it seems, has ended. For many within the LGBTQ community, this can be considered a triumph. What better way is there to foster more understanding of LGBTQs than to tell their stories?

And yet, there are still legitimate concerns of whether the stories being told onscreen give fair representation to the community as a whole. The LGBTQ experience, after all, is not limited to strict and finite forms of expression. Although there seems to be a gradual uptick in movies featuring the varied experiences of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender women and men, it isn’t quite enough. LGBTQs still long for more.

CNN Philippines Life invited some filmmakers and members of the LGBTQ community for a roundtable session on the current state of local queer cinema and its audience. On the panel are directors Jade Castro (“Zombadings”); Baby Ruth Villarama, (“Sunday Beauty Queen,” “Jazz in Love”); Samantha Lee (“Baka Bukas”) — who is also CNN Philippines Life’s multimedia director —; and LGBTQ advocates Loreen Ordoño, Metro Manila Pride coordinator; fiction writer and NGO worker Lakan Umali; and writer Stefan Punongbayan.

For the queer or LGBTQ guys, did you ever see yourselves in the films that you watched?

Lakan Umali: Actually no, and that caused a lot of internal conflict in me. ‘Yung mga artista-only exposure that I’ve had to LGBT in film and media was, like, ‘yung funny bakla na sidekick in films na stereotype na, growing up I was like “I’m not funny!” The only exposure I’ve had to gay narratives on film were always sad: either the couple dies at the end, or the guy leaves the guy for another woman.

Growing up, I kind of internalized that kind of narrative, so in my head, I was like, okay, if I’m in a relationship, either I’m gonna die … in the end, or he’s gonna leave me for another girl. It was only recently like, in what I read, in what I watched, that, hey there’s a possibility for happy gay narratives that don’t fall into the homophobic, transphobic, LGBT phobic stereotypes. I had to unlearn as much as I’ve learned.

Was it the same for you guys?

Samantha Lee: Definitely. I think the reason why it took me so long to come out [was] because I didn’t see myself in the lesbians that I was seeing in media. In my mind, if that image wasn’t me, then surely I must not be a lesbian kasi hindi naman ako ganon. It was only recently … I guess social media had a lot to do [with it] because you get to see a lot of other types of lesbians, gay guys … and that was when I came to terms to really who I was.

Loreen Ordoño: There wasn’t really any representation of who I am as a lesbian in any film, in any TV series at all. In local TV series nga, the lesbian is always, boyish, fat, always a butch lesbian, konduktor, a tricycle driver … puro ganon na, first of all, we don’t look alike, so how can there be just one type that you keep on showing on every film that I see.

I think the very first lesbian film I watched was “Imagine Me and You.” I was surprised kasi hiniram ko lang siya sa Video City. The image on the cover was a guy in the middle and there were two girls [on either side of him] tapos sila yung magka-holding hands. So like, hmm, girl. And then I watched it. It was nice because that was a lesbian [movie] that I could relate to. She had long hair, her girlfriend had long hair, the girlfriend had a husband before … so I could identify with that.

Documentary filmmaker Baby Ruth Villarama: "Na-appreciate ko ‘yung sexuality and beauty ng relationships outside the norm, kasi how do you define and redefine a family? Kailangan bang mother father with two babies? Why can’t there be gay couples or lesbian couples with cats or dogs or adopted children." Photo by ALYANA CABRAL

Jade Castro: I’ve always liked movies but looking back, when I was very young, I identified with a lot of heroes, hero types na mga batang characters but not their sexual identities. There was only Roderick Paulate sa T.V. pero walang identification in terms of sexuality … because bihira siyang sexual — meron pero hindi lang siya tumatak kasi bata pa ako. Pero nagkakagusto siya [sa lalake like sa] … “Bala at Lipstick” … pero naalala natin siya as a funny guy and a butt-kicking guy.

Baby Ruth Villarama: Ako naman, looking from the outside, na-appreciate ko naman ‘yung sexuality and beauty ng relationships outside the norm, kasi how do you define and redefine a family? Kailangan bang mother father with two babies? Why can’t there be gay couples or lesbian couples with cats or dogs or adopted children. Sa akin, I want to normalize those things. Kasi it’s happening everywhere. Hindi ko alam kung meron akong sexual awakening or whatever, pero na-a-appreciate ko lang ‘yung beauty nun.

One of the films na na-appreciate ko is “Blue is the Warmest Color.” Gandang-ganda ako sa experience na, “Wow this is how making love looks like!” Kasi ang nakikita lang talaga natin na … [Everyone laughs] … Ang ganda niya. Para sa akin, why can’t we appreciate this kind of love? Ibigay natin sa kanila yan, in this country we’re so repressed. Our society is repressing people in so many levels. So para sa akin, I want to normalize these things.

You guys mentioned films that made a mark on you so what were those queer films?

Jade Castro: Isa kasi sa favorites ko, kapag tinatanong ako about sa paborito kong gay films, is “Beautiful Thing,” and I saw it [at] an age na lampas na ako sa age ng mga bida. 'Yung tagline ng poster niya is [“An urban fairy tale”], ‘yung fairy is ‘yung pun ng fairy [na term for gay men], pero fairy tale kasi romance siya. And to me it really was a fairy tale, kasi hindi siya mangyayari sa akin, 'yung idea na, ideal growing up na nahanap mo 'yung love of your life at a very young age, and you discovered your sexuality together. So tumatak siya in the sense that even though it’s not my reality, it’s a fantasy that I like.

Lakan Umali: One of the most recent ones, I watched a few years ago, “Muli.” It’s starring Sid Lucero and he plays this Baguio hotelkeeper and it charts his romance with this married man over the decades. It starts [in the Martial Law era] and ends around 2010. It had a really beautiful ending, I think where the man’s wife dies, and then he meets up with him again and they end up dancing in the hotel together and that’s when the film cuts [to end].

I always have to reflect on where I’m coming from, what my biases are, and when I'm telling something, am I coming from a position of power or am I coming from a position of privilege? Or am I trying to actually contribute something?

On one hand, it was really beautiful on how it actually showed, like, a gay romance that didn’t end in tragedy, while at the same time it was recognizing the reality na even though you want to be together, that you’re both comfortable with your sexuality, there are still outside circumstances that you can’t control that will keep you from being together. I like that it managed to balance that social honesty with having a narrative that is empowering, especially watching it as someone who’s gay.

Baby Ruth Villarama: Ako with “Maximo Oliveros.” It broke the stereotype. I mean, not because you’re here [referring to Jade] but very recent lang naman 'yung exposure ko sa independent cinema ... And then 'yung “Maximo Oliveros” talaga yung nagta-trabaho pa ako sa mainstream noon, and noong napanood ko siya, parang nabali talaga yung perception ng mga tao about [gay films kasi], normally kapag bading ka binubugbog ka ng tatay mo, pero doon hindi eh. Well-loved siya sa [ng family niya].

Stefan Punongbayan:Nung college ako, [napanood ko] ‘yung “Boy Culture” kay Q. Allan Brocka. Tungkol siya sa isang call boy yata, na na-meet niya ‘yung isang guy na naging kliyente niya na matanda na, nagkaroon din ng gay lover noong kabataan niya, tapos wala silang ginawa kundi mag-usap lang talaga. Bakit ‘yun tumatak sa akin? Kasi ‘yun ‘yung time na malibog pa talaga ako. [Everyone laughs]. Pero dun pa lang na-explore yung sexuality ko nung panahon na ‘yun, medyo late bloomer ako — nung college lang. In a sense, naging empowering siya kasi ‘yun ‘yung time na nagpupupunta ako sa Government, nung meron pa, sa Makati, so … pero hindi ko pa nare-recognize yung intersexuality noon dati.

Kung sa local naman, bukod sa "Maximo," ‘yung isang film ni Cris Pablo dati … ‘yung “Bathhouse.” Ang challenging niyang panoorin kasi disjointed siya. Challenging siya in a way na pine-present niya sa audience na ito sila, kadiri sila, gritty sila pero kailangan mo tanggapin kasi valid ‘yung mga narratives na ‘yan.

Loreen Ordoño: For me, I think “If These Walls Could Talk 2.” There are three stories and ‘yung first is 'yung dalawang old lesbians who’ve managed to live this life, tumanda na sila, and when the other got sick, biglang hindi siya pwede sa hospital and all that stuff. I only started [watching] lesbian films seven years ago when I had a steady girlfriend. So I wanted to learn more about these kinds of relationships. And it’s one of the first things that I watched. It was such a wakeup call. Na “Wait, so if we share a house, if we’ve lived together for 40 years biglang I can’t sign any papers in the hospital kung may mangyari sayo?”

Samantha Lee: For me I think, I wouldn’t say it changed my life. Pero there was this movie called “The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love.” And I think it’s the opposite of the effect that “If These Walls Could Talk” could have on you. It was about two young girls in the South, in a really, really small town in the South. One was black and one was white. Pero the premise wasn’t serious, like ... happy, kilig, moments lang? I watched this as an adult, so it gave me a sense na, ah, if I came out younger, maybe I would have had that patago sa school experiences.

Loreen Ordoño of Metro Manila Pride: "I want my kid to see that this is what coming out is, 'This is what it feels like for people like your mom.' It's important to have all these different kinds of narratives kasi, there is a younger generation who has no idea, no idea at all about any of this." Photo by ALYANA CABRAL

Do you think there are problems with access to local films like this?

Jade Castro: Definitely.

Baby Ruth Villarama: I guess the industry is still very conservative tackling and presenting these narratives to the audience. If there’s a way to downplay it, dadaanan lang… I think we tried to have a Pink Festival last year, then they removed it. So I think a lot of people supported that festival. People went. My uncle, who [makes gay films] … meron siyang alias, Lucas Mercado. He’s the cousin of my dad. He had this retrospective film midnight screening sa UP, full house. [With tickets priced at] ₱400. Ang daming tao! So there’s a market for this kind of content.

Jade Castro: Ako, I think walang kinalaman sa content. I think the problem of distribution of LGBTQ cinema is the problem of distribution of all cinemas. So you have the same problem when it comes to regional films, the same kind of problem when it comes to minorities. Wala lang silang power.

There’s a system that’s rigged against independent filmmakers. It’s easier to watch films made by the major studios, the cinemas, the mall theaters, magkaka-partner sila. But it’s a lot harder to find those films na hindi kasama sa oligarchy. And nagkataon lang kasi queer cinema hindi siya ginagawa talaga ng bigger studios until recently, until the Vice Ganda boom ... I guess the gay comedy boom … until then ‘di talaga nila [halos] ginagawa, and even with that, ‘yung ibang narratives wala.

Baby Ruth Villarama: How do you feel about the Vice Ganda [movies] and the gay comedies? Do you enjoy [or] promote it?

Jade Castro: I like exactly three Vice Ganda movies. And don’t like the rest. I hate “Praybeyt Benjamin.” I like “This Guy’s In Love With You Mare.”

Baby Ruth Villarama: How about “The Third Party”? Has anyone seen that?

Jade Castro: Hindi ko masyadong gusto, it was boring. Na-appreciate ko yung effort nila na ma-explain what bisexual is. I’m just happy there’s a Pinoy with major stars who play bisexuals. And meron sa isang eksena na he tries to explain to his partner. Happy ako na may ganung scene. But then you have this kind of movie in 2016. We should have seen this movie in the ‘90s. That’s why I was bored. But I wouldn’t mind it existing if there was a young person somewhere who watched it and found a connection to it, identified with it.

I think the explanation naman was for the straight people watching it. Natuwa ako dun sa dolls. That was literally explaining to a child what a bisexual is.

Sam, in your film, the character was pitching a show to the producers, and they were shooting down the idea of LGBT storylines. Have you experienced that?

Samantha Lee: Yes. ‘Yung lines ng clients ng scenes are actually lines that real life people have actually said to me. Even when they asked to change the gender that has actually happened to me.

Jade Castro: I don’t think I’ve ever been rejected pitching LGBT content because I’ve never tried. When we’ve made “Maxi” and “Zombadings,” alam naming ayaw naming gawin within the studio system. Tapos syempre nung lumabas ‘yung “Maxi,” Star Cinema was … sana sa amin niyo na lang ginawa, kasi hit siya, diba. At the back of our heads, kung kayo gagawa niyan, iiba-ibahin niyo, iba 'yung casting, iba na ‘yung lahat. So alam na namin.

Jade you mentioned that, in terms of these films, it’s not the subject matter, but it’s the system itself…

Jade Castro: I think mas number one yun.

So even ‘yung run niya sa cinemas, is it more of the system or subject matter din?

Baby Ruth Villarama: No it’s the system. It’s really the system.

Jade Castro:Yung pag napu-pull out, ganun? It’s the system.

Samantha Lee: Binabasa ko lahat ng comments sa “Baka Bukas” social media. ‘Yung favorite comment ko is nung nag-announce kami ng nationwide screening list. “Nationwide pa kayo, di naman siya showing ...” sa wherever they are.

There are forces at work, they are scared that this new wave of stories will emerge and dominate the market. They haven’t really figured out how to control it.

Jade Castro: Kasi most provincial cinemas apat lang 'yung sinehan. And they’d rather give those cinemas to their partners, the Hollywood films or the big major studios.

Samantha Lee: That’s why nagco-comment sila, o sino may kopya nito, pa-link naman. Half of me nahu-hurt pero half of me parang, ‘di naman siya nakaabot dyan, so parang … gusto mong ibigay.

Baby Ruth Villarama: Even in my own hometown in Baliwag, ‘yung mismong mayor na namin ang nag-request to show “Sunday Beauty Queen.” And then my friend who owns a school, naka-schedule na 'yung mga estudyante niya na ipapadala. Wala, they rejected it. They said the only way we can book is if we block a screening. And then na-prove na ang dami. And we said, now, can we open the cinemas? No pa rin. Balik kay “Enteng.” You know that there are forces at work, they are scared that this new wave of stories will emerge and dominate the market. They haven’t really figured out how to control it.

Jade Castro: Ang naiintindihan kong logic is, pinoprotektahan nila yung partners nila. Like, for example, Star Cinema. Kasi this company provides them with year-long content. Kaya kailangan nilang protektahan ‘yung relationship. Even though flop ‘yung film nila today, they still want ‘yung upcoming hit ng company na 'yan. Kaya gumagawa sila ng way na irespeto nila ‘yung relationship. And nagsa-suffer 'yung iba.

Baby Ruth Villarama: It’s frustrating. I feel bad also kasi nag-aral ako sa UK ng film marketing and distribution for a year. The system there is totally different from what we have here. There, they’re really helping each other, there’s a system called the FDA, Film Distributor’s Association, then the ICO, the Independent Cinema Office. Etong dalawang to, nag-uusap 'yan, and then the cinema association — ikaw indie ka, limited release ka — kung baga tina-timingan nila kasi they want the cinemas, the industry to really earn. They are always seeking balance. Dito hindi eh. Hatakan.

Loreen Ordoño: But do they even consider the LGBT community a market?

Jade Castro and Baby Ruth Villarama: Yes.

Jade Castro:Yun nga ‘yung problema eh, it’s not tested. We don’t really know. Like outside cinema, is there a market nga ba? Like pink peso, totoo ba ‘yun? ‘Di pa siya nate-test sa movies eh. Pero baka sa products, may data to show there’s an actual LGBTQ market.

Baby Ruth Villarama: Yeah! Interestingly there’s this online platform. It started in Thailand, they started to program Asian films, napansin nila na puro gay films ‘yung pinapanood. ‘Yung biggest chunk nung market share ng nanonood ng gay films is from the Middle East. 'Di mo akalain.

Samantha Lee: Going back to the issue of distribution. I think right after the Cinema One [film festival] run of “Baka Bukas,” that was like six days … five days after I got a call from an online streaming platform, asking if I want to stream “Baka Bukas.” But for me, it’s just by principle na I just wanted that visual of two girls kissing in a 40-foot screen to be seen by the entire country.

But if I wasn’t holding on to that dream, I’d be like yeah, let’s stream it na. Because I would have reached more people by now than if I waited out for months for a nationwide screening. Maybe, as a community, or as filmmakers who are making these kinds of films, that’s a different avenue of distribution that we should be looking into.

Jade Castro: I think it’s also because, for LGBTQs growing up, they don’t find it sa mga sinehan. They became used to looking for it on the internet. Which is why the audience is there.

Speaking of audiences on the internet, I’m gonna put you on the spot, Sam. Your movie has gotten mixed reactions from the community, like some of them really love it because they see themselves in it, others, not so nice. They say it doesn’t represent ‘yung mga butch, or not privileged. How did you process the whole thing?

Samantha Lee: It’s a bit of a double edged sword. I think I really wanted to make the film for people like me, a younger version of myself. I think people who are criticizing the film are already people who are out. They kind of forget what it feels like to be in the closet, figuring yourself out.

I wanted to make something hopeful for people, kasi it’s not naman all … Okay, granted, there are underrepresented sectors of society. Granted, “Baka Bukas” doesn’t represent them. But at the same time, it’s important to come to terms with who you are, I feel. And, if this film helps people — which, it has. Every day, my inbox is full of people coming out to me … Why can’t we have a film that shows the happy side of being a lesbian in the Philippines?

Baby Ruth Villarama: So true.

Samantha Lee: If you just keep seeing the problematic side, more likely than not, you’re just going to keep hiding yourself, and I know there are like bigger issues to address, but how do you address that as a community that’s hiding?

First, you need to self-actualize, and to come to terms with who you are, and then come out, and then be proud, and then when you get to that point, that’s the only time when you can start fighting for your rights. Diba?

So, I mean, all their criticisms are noted … with thanks [laughs]. But I think the most hurtful thing that people have said was that I didn’t do enough, pero parang … what is enough, diba? I gave a year of my life to make this film. I put myself out there. I wasn’t out to my grandma. I wasn’t out to the rest of my family. I came out, para lang I can stand behind this story and show kids na, you know, hey, it’s okay to be who you are, and there’s a bright side to all the warnings that your parents have given you, or you know, that your priest tells you not to be. Parang there’s this shiny, happy, aspirational side that you can look forward to when you come to terms with who you are.

Loreen Ordoño: Yeah, but like what she said, that’s true. The first local film that I watched na lesbian was “Ang Huling Cha-cha Ni Anita.” I loved it, I loved it so much. But, honestly, I could not relate to it. Unang-una, I did not come out when I was young. Pangalawa, my mom wasn’t like that. I wasn’t forced to wear sagala. I wasn’t forced to join a sagala, kasi nga, I’m a feminine lesbian, so there are a lot of aspects of “Ang Huling Cha-cha ni Anita” na hindi ako naka-relate, but I loved it.

When I watched “Baka Bukas,” I could relate to it. I fell in love with my best friend, and I experienced that … I was discriminated at work. I was told … while they were picking who are going to be promoted … they said, “We want someone like Loreen, but without the girlfriend thing.” So parang, “Kuya? Ano?” This was a film I could relate to, and it was light, it was so … happy.

"[I wish to] see a film na, a very religious gay person who finds acceptance in the religion," says fiction writer and LGBTQ rights advocate Lakan Umali. "Because for the longest time, religion, our Christianity hasn't been used to justify oppression against LGBT." Photo by ALYANA CABRAL

A lot of policing went on online. Like, this is what the film should be. What do you guys think are the valid criticisms about the representation in indie films?

Stefan Punongbayan:Yung sa akin kasi, hindi tungkol sa film, kundi tungkol sa discussion ng representation talaga sa queer cinema.

Medyo, ano eh, medyo conflicted ako talaga. On one hand, talagang ito na ‘yung limits ng medium eh. ‘Di naman 'to Lav Diaz film na [eight hours] na maipapasok mo na lahat. But para sa akin, we should at least try, lalo na mag-include ng iba pang narratives, diba? Pero ano pa ba? Ano pa bang tungkol doon?

Lakan Umali: Ako naman, ‘yung focus ko, hindi naman on the film itself. Kasi I felt wala naman akong karapatan to say anything about [“Baka Bukas”] because I haven’t watched it, pero ‘yung arguments ko, mostly on the reviewing of film and criticizing a film. [We] tried to locate the film in the larger tradition of films that they saw, and how it compared to it? And I think, while — honestly, the internet has such a toxic vibe sometimes, a lot of valid arguments can get buried ...

I’m not a filmmaker. I write and I also write fiction, and ‘yung issue ko rin when I started writing was I’m gay, and I wanted to find a representation of myself in the things I read but at the same time, I try to recognize that I’m from the upper middle class, na parang … on one hand, I see so little pro-poor portrayals of people in literature and film, and I wanted to do make a body of work. Pero may karapatan ba ako to make a story like that because I’m not from the lower class?

Yung naisip ko is kind of like a negotiation? Like, as an artist — actually, not even as an artist, as a person — I always have to reflect on where I’m coming from, what my biases are, and when I'm telling something, am I coming from a position of power or am I coming from a position of privilege? Or am I trying to actually contribute something?

What do you think should the goal of LGBT cinema be anyway? Is it to push normalcy? Is it to tell more stories? Is it to change minds?

Baby Ruth Villarama: When you say cinema, it’s really very powerful, in a sense, like you can influence minds, you know, in the negative or positive. So sa akin, you just have to decide as a filmmaker, which direction you want to go. Do you want to empower the LGBT community? Do you want to educate or enlighten the hypocrites or the people the likes of Manny Pacquiao, who is so Biblical in defining our LGBT brothers and sisters?

This great power of cinema, you just have to choose which responsibility you want to take, you know? It’s a celebration of life. Cinema is a celebration of emotions, joys, pains, struggles.

Samantha Lee: If you’re talking about goals … it’s good to have representation of different kinds of LGBT people onscreen, because when you see yourself onscreen, or when other people see you onscreen, it validates your existence in the real world, and then when your existence is validated in that way, it’s easier, for example, for laws to be passed. Because, in their minds, subconsciously, “I saw that trailer of lesbians while I was watching ‘Bandila’ the other day." So parang automatically, like, your tita will think, subconsciously, "Oh, I guess, it’s being more accepted now,” because they’re seeing this in their media.

I think the problem of distribution of LGBTQ cinema is the problem of distribution of all cinemas. So you have the same problem when it comes to regional films, the same kind of problem when it comes to minorities. Wala lang silang power.

Jade Castro: It’s really very simple for me. Speaking as a filmmaker, the goal of LGBT cinema is the goal of any cinema na gagawin ko or anybody, it’s for me to be honest. For me, ganun siya kasimple, wala nang iba. Sure, cinema could educate. Sure, cinema could change the world. But we’re not going to burden the artist with the job of an educator, kung hindi siya educator. The filmmaker should present something honest.

And this is not my original idea, it took me a while to learn this. I read Vito Russo’s “The Celluloid Closet.” It’s a very important book for me. He said that diversity cannot be the goal of one work. In fact, it could be dishonest if you try to put in … For example, ‘yung goal mo is maipakita ang positive ng pagiging bakla, that could be a trap, na positive lang. Kasi, it could be dishonest. In the same way, ‘yung negative lang. It could be dishonest. So, para kay Vito Russo, diversity is the job of many works together.

Loreen Ordoño: Well, honestly, I feel like there’s enough space for all of these different narratives. For all of these representations. There’s plenty of fucking space, kasi there’s a lack of real LGBT films, real stories of LGBT people.

In 2016, for Metro Manila Pride, one of our projects was the Queerception. It was a partnership with Fringe Manila. It was a multi-arts festival. We held it at Pineapple Lab. We had LGBT films, short films, and then we had art, and then we had music. When we did a call [for contributions], surprisingly, there are a lot. There are a lot of short films, and then we had to cut down pa kasi we only had four hours. So why aren’t we seeing [any of] it? Why is it so hard to access?

Jade Castro: Oo. If the LGBT community had access to ganun karaming works, I think we’ll hear different complaints, eh, sa “Baka Bukas.” We’ll be hearing differently. Kasi they have these other representations na nakita nila. And they will see “Baka Bukas” as the thing that it is, no? A specific experience. Hindi ka na na-burden nung gusto pa nilang ibang nakita, kasi they could see it in other narratives. [Note: Jade served as creative consultant for the film.]

That’s what people are saying, that it’s a missed opportunity to tell a more socially-relevant story.

Stefan Punongbayan: Panahon na ba talaga na kailangan na nating mag-impose ng duties sa LGBT filmmakers?

As an audience, you feel entitled na rin na mag-demand ng something better, diba? Pero kung tutuusin talaga, it would be nice — lalo na sa panahon ngayon na nakakakuha ng traction ang Anti-Discrimination Bill — na magkakaroon ng konting komentaryo ‘yung filmmaker.

[On the other hand,] may risk nga talaga … as a filmmaker, ‘yung alam mo lang na kwento, you can only speak for yourself talaga. You run the risk of tokenizing kung sakaling maging masyado kang inclusive, ganyan, pero mag-rereflect din naman ‘yun sa ginagawa mo, kung lalabas ka sa comfort zone mo, kung lalabas ka sa bubble mo.

There’s a lot of people from the LGBT community who keep asking why straight people always get cast for LGBT roles. Why not LGBT actors?

Lakan Umali: Kami ‘yung nagtatanong, eh. [laughs]

Stefan Punongbayan: Parang ‘yung issue sa “The Danish Girl,” diba? Para siyang “whitewashing,” but in terms of gender naman. Wala ba talagang transgender na actors dito? Para sa akin kasi ang pagiging homosexual or transgender, hindi naman siya character study, eh. Pati mas magiging nuanced ‘yung portrayal kung totoong bakla o bisexual, transgender ‘yung i-ca-cast ninyo.

Samantha Lee: Pero, for me — and this is gonna vary depending on the filmmakers — you need to ask what the goal of your film is. The goal of [“Baka Bukas”] talaga was for as much people as possible to see it. I wanted a lot of people, gay or straight, to normalize and see how lesbians are. And in order to do that, I wanted to cast really famous actresses. The fact that Jasmine Curtis-Smith is playing a lesbian, an actress who has so much endorsements from big companies, that’s already part of the advocacy.

Jade Castro: May legitimizing effect kasi na kilala ng mga tao ‘yung someone who will portray the LGBTQ character, so if that straight celebrity could embrace it, then why can't we? Parang may ganun siyang legitimizing effect.

Loreen Ordoño: Well actually, part ako ng mga tao na nagsasabi na, this is a film about lesbians, or this is a film about gay people, this is a film about transgender women, wala talaga kayong mahanap at all? Why don't we legitimize these people by casting them in these roles?

[But] one of the things that reconciled me with the film, with "Baka Bukas" is, the director is out. Apart from that, you had a lot of women on your team, which is also one of the things na na-reconcile ko with "Die Beautiful." Kasi, parang, you didn't cast a transgender woman?

Stefan Punongbayan: Bakit hindi si Kevin Balot?

Loreen Ordoño: Exactly. Bakit hindi si Kevin Balot? Pero she was in the film. Ganun ‘yung thinking namin na parang, it's a beauty pageant for trans women, for gay people, tapos hindi trans woman ‘yung lead mo in real life? But ang na-reconcile ko with "Die Beautiful" is, I was told that the [crew] was mostly part of the LGBTQ community.

Stefan Punongbayan: How does one even act gay? How does one even act trans? Ganun siya sa akin eh, pero ... I guess dun sa sagot ni Sam and Jade, what does it say about us na kailangan pang i-legitimize at saka kailangan pang i-validate ng straight actors ‘yung ating naratibo?

Jade Castro: [It's the] society.

Stefan Punongbayan: Medyo sad siya para sa akin.

What are your opinions on coming out stories in film?

Lakan Umali: There's this interesting ... I forgot the study ... [it was not just about] coming out, it was about coming out in general in the Philippine context. It compared the terms, "coming out," used by America, tapos here, the more indigenous na “pagladlad ng kapa.” [It] said that “coming out” signified a symbolic transfer from a private state to a public state, while “pagladlad ng kapa” meant that you're rendering more external what is already external. Parang ine-express mo outright what was already there.

I think it signifies the fact na ‘yung being LGBT also varies from socio-cultural contexts, like for example, in the West, which highlights more the individual privacy, sobrang malaking bagay ‘yung rendering visible parts of yourself which you kept so hidden, pero hindi ko sinasabi ka maliit yung “coming out.”

I grew up a lot around mga bakla kids ... In high school, we had this table na parang bakla lahat and none of them ever came out sa school administrators officially. ‘Yung rhetoric was parang, hindi ‘yun pwede. It's difficult to say that we came out, since in the first place, parang medyo halata na talaga [that we’re gay]. And in the second place, ‘yung pagiging LGBT, at least ng friends ko — I'm not sure if I include myself — was not just a sexual orientation but related to how they would carry themselves in public.

Baby Ruth Villarama: I don't know if this will answer your question, [but] when you asked that, it just popped into my mind: the story [of this young actress who committed suicide]. She had a hard time opening up. That's one of the reasons, because her parents, I mean, of course, they're very nice, but they're Opus Dei and they have a certain set of values. If there will be scenes that would deal with that in cinema ... I think there's a need to tackle those opening out [stories], coming out of the closet.

Filmmaker Samantha Lee: "I think the reason why it took me so long to come out [was] because I didn’t see myself in the lesbians that I was seeing in media. In my mind, if that image wasn’t me, then surely I must not be a lesbian kasi hindi naman ako ganon." Photo by ALYANA CABRAL

Are there a lot of local movies that deal with coming out?

Jade Castro:Baka Bukas” is sort of a coming out film.

Loreen Ordoño: For me personally, I want my kid to see that this is what coming out is, “This is what it feels like for people like your mom.” Kasi, I came out to her when she was two years old. So, for me, it's important to have all these different kinds of narratives kasi, there is a younger generation who has no idea, no idea at all about any of this.

Samantha Lee: Or parang ‘yung coming out na hindi controlled nung character, na na-out siya ng ibang tao, or nahuli sila doing something. It's not a self-empowered coming out.

Jade Castro: I guess, as long as may coming out in real life at may closet … Napaisip tuloy ako kung merong mga paglaladlad movies, as a concept.

Lakan Umali: I kind of saw “Maximo Oliveros” as pagladlad ng kapa.

Jade Castro: In fact, nung nag-screen kami sa I think, Brazil, may nagtanong, something about Maxi being gay ... And then may nagreklamong isa sa audience, “He's trans!”

Lakan Umali: I think that's also tied to the fact that homosexuality itself, as I understand it, it's a very, I'm not saying it's completely Western, pero ‘yung idea na parang iko-compartmentalize mo ‘yung sexuality mo without having any other effect on you as a person.

What I noticed is that most of my friends who came out, a lot of it was also class-based or Manila-based, because when you're raised in an environment that's very Western ‘yung values, you are given all these images of the perfect family, the man, woman, you have a child, you tend to ascribe to those kinds of values that erase more indigenous concepts of sexuality.

I'm really interested in your notion, that “bakla” is really different from the Western notion of it. So what do you think would be better for us? Should we ascribe to this criteria, this compartmentalizing?

Lakan Umali: For me, we have to emphasize the fact that sexuality is very diverse. Because when I was growing up, medyo na-confuse ako na, am I gay? Pero lahat ng nakita ko na gay [in media], they're funny, nagsusuot sila ng mga palda, and I don't do that, so am I really gay? Or am I just bi? Even people who are bi are erased so frequently. I mentioned a lot of it was to combat the fact that a lot of people still think na it's a natural biological thing. No friends [laughs], hindi 'to natural, this was socially constructed and created as any other aspect of humanity, of society.

Do those Western concepts affect the way we perceive our own queer cinema? Because they have a different culture. How big is Western influence on how we accept portrayal of Filipino LGBTQs in film?

Baby Ruth Villarama: Good question. I'd like to think na it's not really concentrated ... The influence of Western culture itself is not concentrated on LGBTs, baka parang nagti-trickle down na lang to it, because in general, some sectors or some people [think] anything imported is better than what we have. May mga ganun, the colonial mentality of people. Sila, it affects also their definition of LGBT na rin…

Writer and LGBTQ advocate Stefan Punongbayan on the casting of LGBTQ characters: "Para sa akin kasi ang pagiging homosexual o transgender, hindi naman siya character study, eh. Pati mas magiging nuanced ‘yung portrayal kung totoong bakla o bisexual, transgender ‘yung i-ca-cast ninyo." Photo by ALYANA CABRAL

Do you guys have a wishlist for queer cinema?

Samantha Lee: I feel like, not in terms of what I want to see personally, but in terms of the way the Philippine entertainment industry treats LGBTQ scripts. Because, if you think about it, there are a lot of LGBT people working in the industry, heading the industry but at the same time, it's so hard to get a gay film made or cast. I mentioned I wanted a really famous person to be on my film, which was so hard to cast, just because, when managers see the synopsis pa lang na it's a lesbian film, they'll say no right away, because they think it's going to ruin their talent's careers if they do this film. Parang ganun ‘yung perception.

Just in general, I feel like there needs to be a more open acceptance of these kinds of stories. And I feel like that's going to trickle down eventually, maybe, possibly, to audiences and distribution, etc., but just the internal mindset of the industry I wish would change first.

Lakan Umali: I think it's tied to how people see LGBT people in general than, the profit motive is prioritized over actually giving voice or giving opportunities for LGBT artists to create media that's empowering. It's two-way street, it's the worm eating itself, na parang walang studios, let's say, where you can't make an LGBT film because it's not profitable pero they're not releasing anything, so that gives them the motive to say na hindi siya profitable. It's a cycle that repeats itself. I think that it's also an issue of all artists inside film and outside film working together to actually tell people that we exist. And meron kaming karapatan para mag-consume ng media that represents us.

Loreen Ordoño: Coming from that, I feel like we do have to as a ... ang hirap kasi talaga sabihin na as a community, because honestly....

Stefan Punongbayan: Sobrang detached ng community.

Loreen Ordoño: Sobra. It's really hard, especially for us who work at Pride, we have to marry all these different kinds of people from all different classes, from all political affiliations. It's really hard for us to say that there is a community. We feel it, we see it, but when it comes to various issues, hiwalay tayo.

Although, one of the things talaga na nafe-feel kong we need to do a lot more of is to show how powerful the pink peso is. We have to be very careful where we put our money kasi that's how these big companies see us, and then if they see how powerful the pink peso is, then maybe then they can help us with our advocacy, with showcasing more gay people in commercials, in magazines, in spreads, and stuff like that.

Although medyo conflicted din ako, kasi there is that space for exploitation that we have to really be careful of, na parang, just because some brand releases a certain gay ad, that doesn't mean that they are an LGBT ally automatically.

Lakan Umali:Yung wishlist ko is to see a film na, a very religious gay person who finds acceptance in the religion because for the longest time, religion, our Christianity hasn't been used to justify oppression against LGBT too, when if you read the Bible, it's very much a story of, not LGBT, of the poor and marginalized actually rising against the people who marginalize them.

Baby Ruth Villarama: Feeling ko lang naman kasi, queer films, gusto ko siya i-compare sa tubig, natural ‘yan na maghahanap ng path to reach the sea, so kahit anong gawin mong pagpigil dyan, it will always find its way back to the sea. Kahit anong gawin ng society, kahit anong gawin ng simbahan, as long as ... nanganganak sila eh, nandyan sila eh. You can't turn your back from them or deny them, or lagyan mo sila ng Bible quote sa harapan nila. Hindi ‘yan sakit na gumagaling. Sila ‘yan eh.

Jade Castro: Meron akong wish na, this is for the welfare of artists, gusto ko sana, hindi ko alam kung paano, it will be easier for actors to come out. It's hard for them because the studios don't want them to, their endorsements, naapektuhan ng kanilang hanapbuhay, etc. Eto mas malala I think: 'Pag may nag-out na actor, sana 'yung audiences, may positive response, kasi ‘yun ‘yung dalawang dragon na [nag-aaway] eh.

Some of my wishes, it will come true. Dumami, for example. Since it's cheaper to make films now and mas madaling kumuha ng [workforce] and equipment, anyone can theoretically [make a film]. Ngayon it's easier to get all these voices from everywhere.

Baby Ruth Villarama: Let's champion more real life LGBT [actors].

CNN Philippines Life invited some filmmakers and members of the LGBTQ community for a roundtable session on the current state of local queer cinema and its audience. On the panel are, from left, director Jade Castro (“Zombadings”), writer Stefan Punongbayan, Samantha Lee (“Baka Bukas”); Baby Ruth Villarama, (“Sunday Beauty Queen,” “Jazz in Love”); and LGBTQ advocates: fiction writer and NGO worker Lakan Umali, and Loreen Ordoño, one of the co-coordinators of Metro Manila Pride. Photo by ALYANA CABRAL