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Sunflowers

Eine Filmbesprechung von Andrew Matzner

Sunflowers (University of CA Extension Center for Media and Independent Learing; 1997; 51 min.) opens with filmmaker Shawn Hainsworth's voice-over. He explains how as a visitor to the Philippines, he had originally been surprised by the high level of acceptance transgendered women (bakla) seemed to enjoy in their local communities. In order to explore more deeply the place of mtf transgenderism in Philippine society, Shawn decided to make a documentary about "Sunflowers", the name of a group of bakla who are well-known throughout their province for performing an annual Christian festival in elaborate drag.

This reasonably well-shot ethnographic film is propelled by a loose narrative drive. During the first half Shawn takes pains to provide a social context for his audience by featuring numerous interviews with bakla, as well as with members of their families and other community members. The second portion focuses more on Sunflower's preparations for the Santa Cruzan festival, and climaxes with the event itself, an enormously popular affair that attracts hundreds of spectators from all over the province.

One of the strengths of this documentary is that it does not shy away from presenting the ambiguity which informs community attitudes toward bakla. Shawn learns that what appears on the surface to be a remarkable tolerance towards transgenderism (from an American standpoint) does not necessarily translate into full-scale acceptance.

For example, on the one hand bakla have a wide variety of employment opportunities open to them. That is, transgendered women aren't ghettoized into particular professions. The bakla whom Shawn interviewed included a teacher, an elementary school principal, a doctor, a beautician, and a bank clerk.

Yet the Philippines is a devoutly Catholic country, and "sodomy" (a term denoting sexual deviance that refers to, among other things, cross-dressing and homosexuality) is a sin. As a fisherman states (in the local language), "You know why we don't like gays [bakla]? Because it is prohibited by God to be a gay [bakla] or lesbian." He goes on to say, "If, for example, I had a brother who was gay [bakla], the first thing I would do is try to make him a he-man. But if there's nothing I can do, that's OK. It depends." Shawn asks the middle-aged fisherman if he would accept a bakla relative. "Yes, I would accept him. After all, I had done everything I could and he still didn't change. I should just let him be if that's what he wants." One may see from the fisherman's statements how acceptance is not a clear-cut issue.

While Sunflowers is an extremely valuable document because of Shawn's interviews, there does remain one problematic aspect which colors the film. Shawn conducted his interviews in his informants' native language, as well as in English. During the non-English interviews (like the one with the fisherman above), English subtitles run across the bottom of the screen. Shawn consistently translates the word "bakla" to mean "gay". This is curious, because the individuals who identify themselves as "bakla" do not only include gender-normative and effeminate gay men. They also include people like Cefie, who claims, "My heart, my feelings, are really a woman's". And Yolly, who says, "My feelings are like those of a real woman, even more than a woman." Shawn neither explains nor explores the different identities which the term "bakla" can refer to. Thus, it becomes difficult to understand the meaning which "gay" has taken on in the Philippine context, as when Yolly states, "If you are gay here in the Philippines, you consider yourself as a real girl. . .So, you are attracted to real men, not to gays."

While Shawn's burying of transsexual issues under the "gay" rubric is one of the film's weaker points, Sunflowers nonetheless succeeds as an in-depth and illuminating documentary, mainly due to its emphasis on allowing bakla and other community members to speak for themselves.