An Update – Documentary on the Fakaleitis of Tonga

- Brian Favorite, RPCV

Editors note:

Three years ago Brian Favorite, then a recent RPCV from Tonga, wrote a compelling article for our website about his experience with the transgender Fakaleitis of Tonga, Tongan boys raised as girls, many of whom chose to dress and live as women for the rest of their lives. Other Polynesian cultures have similar transgender members of their communities. His article includes a YouTube video he had taken of some of the Fakaleiti friends, including footage of the Miss Galaxy contest, which is a yearly beauty and talent pageant held to raise money and awareness for the Fakaleitis of Tonga.

 It was Brian’s aim to produce a documentary about his new friends, Like a Lady, the Fakaleitis of Tonga. Tonga is a very Christian and conservative society and has mixed feelings about the Fakaleitis. They live and work openly in the islands, but we would describe most of them as living at the lower end of the social ladder. Brian now brings us up to date on the making of his documentary and his return to Tonga for more interviews and footage.

It has been quite a journey with Like a Lady and I am halfway to completion.  I was warned by documentary professionals (with a playful smirk) when I first considered taking on this project, that it could take up to ten years to complete a documentary by a first time director. Inside I scoffed at them saying to myself… not me! I have years of experience in production in LA and beyond and can quickly figure out the ins and outs of such an endeavor. Opps!

Let’s begin where I left off in the summer of 2008. Since then, I did return to Tonga with a cameraperson and completed 60 hours of interviews and footage of the subjects doing everyday activities giving an idea to the viewer of what Tonga is like for the 15 Fakaleitis I interviewed.  What a challenging adventure it was. We were pretty much intruding upon a group of folks at all hours of the day and night, who were spread over miles of land and sea, and culturally not inclined to value the importance of keeping a schedule. I purposely planned the shoot for five weeks during July and August of 2008 when the coronation of the new King and the 15th annual Miss Galaxy Pageant were to take place. There was also scheduled a reunion of sorts for any and all alumni of PC Tonga with as many as 25 RPCVs returning to Tonga for the festivities. It was a very exciting and proud time for me to be there with a camera in Tonga and the video footage shows it.

After a long and exhausting five weeks with the various mishaps and drama in front and behind the camera, I came back to Chicago where I was living at the time to take on the daunting task of fundraising for the completion of the project. I had raised sufficient monies before leaving for Tonga to complete the production part of the film including flight costs, equipment costs, rental, insurance and expenses while there. I was now at a point where I needed to fund the editing cost, which is in the ballpark of $48K for a professional picture and sound editors, etc. and much more than what the production cost me.

While in Tonga, my strategy was to shoot as many of the Fakaleitis who were willing to be on camera, then after the first week narrowing down which subjects were most available and committed and who spoke from their hearts. In the second week it was becoming more clear as to who among the Fakaleitis were invested in being in the documentary and from there, I had to figure out a story arc for each of them with an eventual and gradual conclusion to their storyline. Much of the work was propelled with faith hoping I was there at the right time and place. I hoped when I set up a camera, amazing things would occur. They did.

My plan was to shoot like crazy, eventually come home to the editing room, organize what I had and work in cooperation with a professional editor to piece together four diverse, compelling, thought-provoking stories from four Fakaleitis, picking the Fakaleitis with the strongest story arcs out of the fifteen I followed. This did happen. I was delighted to have much to choose from and it was clear I had my four. Mergina is a city girl who runs her own hair salon and goes out to the bars most nights. Joey, the queen bee of the Fakaleitis, organized the Miss Galaxy Pageant and helped design and decorate the King’s banquet preceding the coronation ceremony and is the founder of the Tonga Lady Association. ‘Epi Pola competed in the Miss Galaxy Pageant and is studying to be a tourist representative for Tonga Tourism. Hapakoki lives way out in a small village and works in a small resort preparing food while dreaming of marrying his Kiwi boyfriend while planning his eventual move to New Zealand where their marriage would be legal. Possibly other Fakaleitis will be in the final documentary in some form yet to be determined.

Each of the four stories would run twelve to fifteen minutes in length and inter-cut each other, so to fill the anticipated required broadcast time frame of 58:40 minutes (for commercial breaks) or an hour-long television broadcast time slot.

I continued my research for funding, applying to the foundations and institutions aiding the completion of independent low-budget documentary work and was told time and again, your film is compelling but this is a very depressed and a competitive time for independent film production funding, but please go ahead and still apply. You may be a reader who is savvy to the art of writing a good grant, who can understand the magnitude of time and effort it takes to crank out one of those babies. It is time-consuming, committed work. Most include a summary of the film with a one-line description, a detailed spent and projected budget down to the dollar, a survey of your anticipated audience demographic and why they would be interested in this subject. Why this subject matter is important for us to fund? Why did you take on this project? Who are you and who is your crew (bios of everyone)? Include a video sampling of what you shot or anticipate shooting and other work you have done. Now imagine having various grants being due at the same time (each asking for this information in different formats) and you can understand the challenge of keeping your focus and energy level intact while moving forward in the face of rejections while your regular life commitments, including a full time job (I was working six part time jobs when I returned from Tonga.) I realize this sounds like a pity party, my point being, it truly is hard work and on many an occasion I had to rustle up my determination and commitment to see this through to some sort of completion.

So now with all this footage and an idea of how to compile it, I realized after writing a few grant proposals; there was something lacking in the story. I wasn’t clear as to how I envisioned the film. This lead to my waning interest in the project. I came to a halt, but I felt I needed to let the project “breath”, as well as for myself as well.

Then a fellow filmmaker suggested I contact the amazing story consultant Karen Everett, a lesbian filmmaker and professor of documentary at UC Berkeley, who suggested I include my story of being in the Peace Corps and openly gay but who was asked to go back in the closet while in service, at least for the first six months. This would make the story overall more accessible. The Fakaleitis journeys were now through an American Peace Corps eyes. My story also is the thread to pull their stories together. Karen’s input turned everything around.

I did not intend to have my story included in the film, so I was at a loss for any footage of me in Tonga. Finding visuals to accompany my narration, I pulled together my Peace Corps photos, and sent out a request to fellow volunteers to send me photos to include in the documentary, Luckily I also made a short video of myself narrating a tour of my village after one year of service. More was needed. I had an animator friend incorporate visuals to my narration and storyline. Tess Martin and I agreed that an animated “puppet” of her design, of me, should look nondescript, invisible. A clear, plastic figure of me gives the analogy of my feeling ‘see-through’, not complete as a person since so much of who I am had to be kept secret from my fellow villagers. Our collaboration helped get my momentum moving again. When my project feels fired up, I ride that wave of productivity and push myself as hard as I can to complete as much as possible before that wave moves out again.

Check out Tess and my collaboration:

LIKE A LADY: THE FAKALEITIS OF TONGA trailer with animation by Tess Martin

At this juncture in the project, I have slowed down on the grant writing (the rejections wore me down) and have decided to apply for a master’s degree at the San Francisco State University using this documentary as my thesis project. My hope is that documentary theory and writing classes will require me to dig deeper within myself to pull out a richer narration. Before I went into the Peace Corps and served my assignment, I would not have dreamed years later I would be producing a documentary on a transgender community in the South Pacific. Funny how the Peace Corp cannot only affect the 27 months of your tour, but inspire you to continue work that first came to you while being there.

You can reach Brian Favorite at bjfavorite@yahoo.com for questions or ideas about film grants, raising funds, and comments.

About LGBT RPCV
We are an organization of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people and others who are Peace Corps volunteer alumni, current volunteers, former and current staff members and friends. Founded in Washington D.C. in 1991, we have several hundred members throughout the country and around the world who have served in Peace Corps since its beginning in 1961. We're made up of a national steering committee, together with regional chapters. We are an active affiliate member of the National Peace Corps Association.

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