Making Documentary About and With Trans Women

On January 30 2022, In-Docs and INTAN (Yayasan Inklusi Trans Perempuan Indonesia) held a film screening and discussion with three documentaries on trans women. The titles are Woman without Vagina (2019), Baby Girl (2021), and To Judge a Name (2021).

Rebecca Nyuei (Hivos) as the moderator guided the discussion with Merlyn Sopjan (author and Director of INTAN), Anggun Pradesha (filmmaker and Vice Director of INTAN), dr. Alegra Wolter (doctor and trans women activist), and Ms. Cunenk (influencer and the protagonist of Baby Girl). The discussion reflected on how the films ponder on trans women’s identity, mental health, and their social inclusion in Indonesian society.

We highlighted several talking points in the discussion that touched upon the narrative, representation, and ethics of telling stories about Indonesian trans women. Read our summary below if your documentary has trans women as its core theme.

You can also watch the full discussion in this video.

1. Ask, and Ask Some More

There’s no other way to dig deeper on this issue than to ask the trans women individually or to their communities directly.

It’s not just for background research. You should ask if your film and story are aligned with their current needs of narrative.

Anggun added that this research should be done properly. Good intentions are not enough.

“Just because you’ve spoken to one or two trans women doesn’t mean you know enough about them. Don’t be so full of yourself. We all have biases to check. You can set up FGDs or just have a long chat with many of them, individually and as a community, so you get an input on their perspective and their own narrative,” she said.

2. Representation Matters

The long history of the portrayal of transgenders in films is bleak and ugly. There are too many films that position them as the butt of sexist jokes and eventually dehumanise them. In other cases, trans characters are also over-sexualised as the result of stigma that sees sex works as the only profession transgenders have.

Alegra reflected on an Indonesian film, Lovely Man, “the narrative that frames transgender as a profession is not accurate. Transgender is an identity, not a profession or job description.”

Transgenders’ lives are more complex than all of the above. They have other aspects as a person. We can see the example from our speakers, not only are they activists and openly identifying as transgenders, they are also non-profit managers, authors, filmmakers, and even doctors.

3. Build a Proper Narrative

Alegra added that negative narratives in film and TV series reduce how transgenders view themselves. In particular, how storytellers tend to use pity-porn perspective of how struggling transgenders are.

“This is not the kind of perspective to show continuously. This view limits and shrinks the understanding on how transgender community should view themselves,” she said.

We should strive for this kind of narrative to become the reality. We can try to portray the complex daily lives and interaction of transgenders in society, as well as their happy moments in accepting their identity.

“Our mundane life as a person in a society should also be normalised. I also hope to see more gleeful moments such as being called “Bu” (miss), using the women’s toilet for the first time, or wearing the first bra. Those are all gender euphoria, a condition where a transgender accepts and finds comfort in their identity,” Alegra added.

4. Involve Them Meaningfully

Filmmakers of non-trans identity can also tell a story about transgender. Especially in documentaries, you might be the best person to be trusted by the trans protagonist if you already have a deep personal connection with the protagonist. You might be their family member, partner, or close friend.

But, you don’t film just to extract stories. You still need to be empathetic with the protagonist, more so when you are not from the trans community.

“Only trans women know themselves the best. So, ethically, especially in documentary filmmaking, you have to involve trans women as the main protagonists to make sure the stories being told are from their perspectives,” said Merlyn.

Even better if you can create a team consisting mostly of trans filmmakers. Anggun Pradesha as one of the emerging Indonesian trans filmmakers is just an email away. Send us an email, and we are happy to connect you with her if you’d like to work with her 🙂

It’s hard to like something if you’re not familiar with it. Get to know them first, then spread the love!

You can support INTAN’s works in empowering Indonesian trans women by donating in below page.

Impact Screening is a forum hosted by In-Docs in collaboration with community partners which aims to screen and discuss topics that are related to six documentaries from Indonesia Distanced Stories. This program is supported by British Council Indoonesia.

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