A Documentary on the Fakaleitis of Tonga
May 2, 2008
-Brian Favorite, RPCV, Tonga
Traditionally, fakaleitis are boys raised as girls, called upon to manage the home when no daughters are available. As they grow up they may feel more comfortable in dresses and flowers in their hair. Today’s Tongan society has mixed feelings about their place, while Christian and conservative majorities frown upon them. Most are gay and have sexual relationships with men, but cannot marry men. We would describe them as transgender.
Like many of us, I had a challenging time being gay and fitting in to a country where the word gay does not exist. The fakaleitis were my refuge and sanity. I would cling to them when I needed a break from the straight milieu of Peace Corps volunteer or village events. With inexpensive camcorder in hand, I surreptitiously shot the “girls” capturing what I could of their experiences as well as candidly interviewing them seeking to uncover interesting truths. I carried these videotapes home knowing they would be the key to something very special one day.
After service for me ended in January ‘07 and attempting to get back into television work, I was at a networking film event at Chicago Filmmakers and began talking to professional filmmakers who thought the idea of the fakaleitis so interesting, unique and most importantly, feasible as a film. That dialogue reinvigorated my desire to see a documentary project to completion.
Chicago Filmmakers, among a handful of other such organizations, gives independent film producers the opportunity to receive fiscal sponsorship (tax exempt status) for donations and lends much-needed hand holding to get projects not usually able to be made, made. Through their support I am taking the opportunity to tell my friends’ stories in a one-hour documentary coming out in 2009.
Various foundations such as Frameline, Sundance, National Geographic, Playboy, PBS set aside funds for small, individual film projects with the desire to tell stories about people without a usual means to be seen or heard from remote parts of the world. I am sending proposals to such organizations to return to Tonga with a fellow filmmaker in mid-July for one month. During that time we will canvas the Tongan islands capturing the experience of some of the fakaleitis interested in being filmed.
In addition, two very important events also occur during our time there.
His Royal Highness King Sioasi Tupou V’s coronation (after a 41-year rule left by the death of his father last year) is in early August. The fakaleitis have been given partial responsibility of various tasks for the four-day event including food preparation, decoration, entertainment and costume design. The decision of the government to entrust these important tasks to the fakaleitis at this most historical event acknowledges and commends the arduous struggle the Tongan Leiti Association has achieved for self-respect within the Tongan community.
And just days after the coronation, the Air New Zealand 15th annual Miss Galaxy Pageant commences, still considered the most viewed and talked about event in the Tongan calendar. This very lucrative extravaganza generates funds for the Association’s reputable causes: HIV prevention and awareness, gay youth concerns and the promotion of dignity for the fakaleitis of Tonga.
Both novel events are a remarkable cinematic opportunity to expose the bona fide fakaleitis at their best (and possibly worst!) during a most momentous historical time in Tonga.
While in service I captured video of village life and interviews of some fakaleitis, primarily focused around the Miss Galaxy Pageant of 2005. This has been edited into a short trailer now on youtube.com. Use the link at the end of this article to see the trailer.
I believe documentary film gives an incredible opportunity to showcase people and places not generally seen in today’s entertainment medium. As Peace Corps volunteers, we know the sensation of being out of our element and the thrill of experiencing something unknown. While currently in the middle of producing “Like a Lady: The Fakaleitis of Tonga,” that thrilling tremor of excitement is back for me again so much like my first day of training in Tonga.
For more information about the project and an opportunity to donate much needed funds as well, please also see: www.indiegogo.com/likealady. This is an independent film site for getting the word out about independent film projects.
Here’s hoping “Like a Lady” educates, entertains and uplifts.
All of you nascent film producers and film buffs can contact Brian Favorite at email@example.com.