Transgender filmmaker Tanwarin Sukkhapisit, whose film was screened at the Osian Cinefan Festival in New Delhi, talks about the gender issue, her life and work.
One of the much-talked about films at the Osian Cinefan Festival (July 27 to August 5) in New Delhi, is by a transgender filmmaker from Thailand, Tanwarin Sukkhapisit. She is also one of the most talked-about artists in the Thai film industry today.
Tanwarin’s film, ‘It Gets Better’ (screened on July 28 in New Delhi) has won appreciation at festivals in Cape Town (South Africa) and Udine (Italy), and will soon go to festivals in Hawaii, Copenhagen and Sao Paulo.
The significant fact for the director is that the film won the Audience Award when it premiered at an important film festival in the Thai beach-town of Huahin. “I was crying so much on stage !” said Tanwarin, during an interview in Bangkok recently and prior to her trip to India for the Osian Cinefan Festival.
Tanwarin’s 2010 film, ‘Insects in the Backyard’ had been banned in Thailand, because it has explicit sexual content, especially in connection with the ‘other’ gender.
She refused to agree to ‘cuts’ in the film, so it was never screened publicly in Thailand, although it was shown at nearly 30 film festivals around the world.
Although her latest film also centres round the ‘other’ gender issue, the focus here is more on emotions and feelings, leading to a moving, thought-provoking movie about love.
There are three love-stories, each dealing with a ‘straight’ person getting attracted to someone from the ‘other’ gender.
“My point is that if you can go to bed with a transgender or fall in love with them, why do you discriminate against them?” asked Tanwarin.
Her credibility as a filmmaker can be gauged by the fact that the movie has a top Thai actress, Penpak Sirikul, playing the role of a transgender woman.
One of the tales shows a handsome youngster falling in love with a transvestite, and in another, a young boy gets attracted to a monk, a taboo subject in Thailand. Tanwarin’s sensitive handling allowed the film to get a public release, with a 15+ rating, which was definitely a moment of triumph for the director.
Another achievement was when she got elected recently as president of the Thai Film Directors Association.
“We all admire her a lot,” said Thitipan Raksasat, one of Tanwarin’s best friends, and co-founder (with her) of Amfine Production Co. He added, “Tanwarin was obviously elected, because all the Thai directors know how she can fight for what she believes in.”
But Tanwarin hardly looked a fighter, with her gentle smile and soft-spoken words. Wearing a shirt that said ‘I am Beautiful’, the pioneering transgender filmmaker recounted her arresting life story.
Tanwarin was born a boy, Chumpol Thongtab, in a big family in Korat, in the south of Thailand. She said that the people of that region are open-minded about gays and transgenders, and she encountered them in school and college, including many from the Muslim community. Her college at Khonkaen University was especially noted for its sense of freedom, and so there were many cross-dressers and drag-queen shows. Tanwarin did a graduate’s course in Mass Communication, together with English and French courses, as she enjoyed studying languages. Her secret passion for acting led her to produce, direct and act in a play at college, which created waves, especially as she played the female lead.
Wanting to pursue acting, Tanwarin went to Bangkok to audition for a theatre role, but was unsuccessful.
She went back to Korat and became a teacher, a job she did for nearly seven years. Soon after that she got the chance to audition for the TV role of a katoey (transgender), which she bagged. But the show was soon pulled off air, as the authorities felt that katoey stories were not a ‘good influence’ on TV audiences.
After that Tanwarin spotted an advertisement about the Thai Short Film Festival, which has been responsible for the discovery of many of today’s top Thai filmmakers.
She made a short film, ‘The Ring’, with a small handycam camera. It not only won an award, but went on to be named ‘One of the 100 Thai Short films that everyone should see.’
“I finally discovered what I always wanted to do!” exclaimed Tanwarin, who went on to make two more arresting short films. These were selected for the top Short Film Festival in the world, The Clermond Ferrard Festival in France. She was euphoric about her first overseas trip, especially when she went in full female regalia – “I felt like Ms Thailand!” But things were not easy, when she got back – “It’s not easy for any indie filmmaker !”
As she wanted to remain in Bangkok, the award winning filmmaker worked as a waiter in a beer - garden for nearly 10 years! Then came her first feature, ‘Insects in the Backyard’, in which she played the lead.Made with her own funds, the story is about a transgender father who brings up his son and daughter afterhis wife’s death and how they both take to prostitution.
“I spoke of all the characters that I met on the roads, the bars and everywhere,” said Tanwarin. She tried unsuccessfully to get the ban on this film lifted. After that she worked as a make-up artist and acting coach for many indie films. She also directed a commercial movie, for the top Sahamongkol production house. This experience contributed to her expanding vision, when she made ‘Its Gets Better.’ Tanwarin pointed out that the title was influenced by the well known international organisation, It Gets Better, that fights for ‘gay’ rights. The director was excited about the screening of her film in India.
But she confessed that she was also nervous. “ … I don’t know how gays and transgenders are received there. However, I’m told that there are many changes in India now,” she stated.
The director informed that she was pleasantly surprised by her Indian Visa Application Form, as three ‘sexes’ were mentioned in it - ‘Male / Female / Transgender.’
“I do believe that we have more than two genders,” said Tanwarin, with a smile. “ I’m not a man or woman - I’m a transgender.”
On issues such as marriage and family, the director said candidly,“ Even though I believe in love, it doesn't mean that… having a family will always work for everyone, as it involves a lot of responsibilities.”
She added, “Today ,I can say that I love men, but who knows tomorrow I might change! I am open to all possibilities, because we are only human - we love.”