Production Talk - 'Daughters of God' by Anna Karenina Tolentino, Chai Jac-Quinn, Ng Yiling and Lai Kahei

Thirunankais is a name by which a group of Indian transsexuals in Malaysia identify themselves with, a Tamil word which means Daughters of God. They are regulars at the temple on the days of prayers, but at night, they roam the streets as prostitutes. Through a temple which they have built for a Hindu goddess, despite their gender preference and profession, the transsexuals have gained the acceptance of the people living in the surrounding neighbourhood. It has become an unlikely place where they could be themselves, free from the judgement they normally face in the Indian society.

Set against the backdrop of several festivals in the temple, including one that only happens every 10 years, the story of two transsexuals unfolds. Anusha, who has cut her wrists as many timesas she was heartbroken and Varsha, an undergraduate working as a prostitute, in order to pay for her last semester in school.

We speak with Anna about the making of this documentary, which was screened at Filament 2011, a screening of final year project dramas & documentaries produced by students of the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information.

How did an all female non Tamil speaking crew decide to embark on this project?What was the motivation to pursue the faces behind these “Daughters of God”?

The gap between the topics that we started from and how our documentary turned out is quite big haha. In the beginning, each of us in the group suggested a topic we were each passionate about (babies being disposed in Malaysia, patient refusal in hospitals in the Philippines, male escorts in Singapore were some of the ideas that we had). However, none of those ideas actually took off.

It was through an article in a men's magazine about voluntary castration in America, that got us started. All of us suddenly got interested. I mean, what would drive men to do that? We just found the idea extreme and compelling at the same time. We thought hey, maybe we could do a men's version of The Vagina Monologues (and call it The Dick Dialogues haha- but then we got scared that we might not be able to pull it off). So we're back with just the idea of castration. We just cast the net wide to search for people here (Singapore or Malaysia) who might have done it for whatever reason. And by sheer luck, we found the Thirunankais (transgenders who call themselves the daughters of god).

It was more of a slow discovery, sifting what could work from one idea to another. We did not intentionally seek to make a documentary about the Thirunankais, we just somehow arrived at it. What got us going though was the mix of issues they have to live with. The issue of religion, their gender preference and the surprising acceptance that the people of the small town extend to them and their profession- all of these- formed an unlikely but interesting mix of ideas that we thought would make for interesting viewing.

How did your loved ones react to this “adventure” in Klang Malaysia? Were there any memorable experiences that you’d like to share?

Safety was definitely a big concern. We were all girls, and no one could actually speak Tamil. We were lucky to be under the care of one of the Thirunankais who works in Singapore, so she guided us there. Most people would stay away from them because of the inherent stigma of their gender in the Indian society, but they really took care of us, not letting us be left alone because the street where they live is known for gang fights. We also have a Malaysian in our group, she's one of our producers, so during the subsequent trips, we managed to come ourselves without being guided. Also, Some of our groupmates and translators had to selectively omit details when asking permission from their parents, just so that they could come for the trip (hope they're not reading this haha)

What everyone in our group will definitely not forget for a long time would be shooting the prostitution sequence. It was a big gamble shooting it, because we actually did not get a chance to tell them that we will be filming them while they are soliciting. And at that point, we have not done our interviews (we were planning to do it the next day). We wanted to go down right there and there to tell them but the cars started arriving and there were already groups of men loitering near them, so we decided to stay in the car. We were sure we would absolutely regret not shooting, so we just said- lets just go for it! We were so nervous about being caught, scared that we'd lose access to our subjects because of what we're doing but the surrealness and danger translated into exhilaration- we just could not believe we were there to witness something like that. The funny thing was on the other side of our car, there were two dogs doing the deed (which we also shot and put into the film), so you could say that added to the experience.

Another thing would be seeing newly operated "boobs". During one of our visits to their apartment, one of them just happened to come back from an operation. Our translator was talking to her in Tamil so all of us did not understand what was going on, and then she just suddenly parted her blouse to reveal her new breasts, complete with fresh stitches underneath. It was amazing how comfortable they were with us, and us with them for that to happen, much like maybe what goes on during an all girls slumber party.

Was sensationalism the centre of attraction for this documentary? How do youthink exploring such a topic will stimulate audiences?

Initially, we thought so too. I do not blame you for asking that question, considering the mix of issues we're dealing with in this film. Solely because of the topic, people might feel curious and drawn towards watching the film.

What most people remember after seeing our film is the prostitution sequence. The hidden camera style by which it was executed, the atmosphere, and the mere fact that they are seeing something they don't usually see everyday all adds to what draws the audience in. But this sequence is just a part of our film.

Taken as a whole, we're glad that many of our audiences during the Filament screening, were able to see the complexity of the situation the Thirunankais are facing. The Thirunankais want to be seen as women, despite being born male, but they end up taking on the worst occupation a woman can present herself as- a prostitute. And this is not because they want to be sex workers- the rigidity of society and our laws have driven them to that end. Certain states in India and Pakistan are now giving national identity cards identifying them legally as third gender. This is probably because in these countries, their numbers are growing significantly. However, for the thirunankais is Malaysia, this is not likely to happen for them in the future. Why? Because being Indians, and being transgenders, they are a minority within a minority. Ethnic Indians in Malaysia only form about 7% of the population and the thirunankais are a small part of it. Laws are not likely to change for the sake of a small group of people like them.

Also, we chose to highlight their small temple in Klang because of the acceptance that the townsfolk extend to them. The surrounding community knows about their profession, can clearly see the manifestations of their choice of gender. Being residents of a small and sleepy town, one would expect what people would call "old fashioned" or "backward thinking" perhaps. However, the neighbors of the temple are able to separate their profession and their gender from who the thirunankais really are, through the respectable way they behave in the temple. And because there is a deity that the thirunankais pray to, religion actually bridges the way for "normal" people to have a connection with them.

What do you really hope to tell your viewers with this documentary? How well did you think you fared with the completed work?

We hope our audiences feel and understand the complexity of the situation the Thirunankais are in. Arguably, the superficial message some of our audiences are likely to get from watching the film would be how sad their lives are because they are prostitutes and people think badly of them just because of their gender.

But as everything in life - nothing is clear cut. There are many contrasts, ironies we touched on in the film. The thirunankais are born male, but they are not men. They want to be considered female, but in the eyes of the public, they are not women. They want to become as close as possible physically to being female- they spend a lot of hard earned money on this, but the result lands them deeper into prostitution because their new selves do not reflect what's on their identity cards. Like women, they want to be loved, but men only use them for lust. When most religions frown upon gender variances, some experts believe that hinduism actually supports this (there are deities who appear interchangeably as female. male, there are gods represented in half female, half male form etc..) But just because there are references to them, doesn't mean everyone accepts them- and yet- they were able to find peace in that small town, in the community surrounding the temple. Despite the discrimination they face, the thirunankais

We probably are able to say all this because, we made the film after all. We cannot expect our audiences, expecially those unfamiliar with the hijras/ eunuchs of India to be able to synthsize all these. Because of the limit in the duration that we need to adhere to, we are not able to fully guide the audience to understand more about our documentary subjects, the context which makes this story worth telling is probably lacking. If we had a bigger budget, a contrast between the progress in India and what is happening in countries like Malaysia would be more effective too.

That being said, we do not think that the film is a total failure. Not being able to present enough in just 25 minutes, we think it's also effective in that the audiences are left thinking, left pondering about the questions that may have been left unanswered. If this happens, then I think we have been successful in leaving a lasting impression, long after the last frame of the film has gone.

Any other topics which you wish to investigate using film as an outlet? What’snext after graduation?

We're all starting/ settling into our new found jobs, and we're hoping to send the film to as many festivals as we can. But that involves cash so we need to earn first before that can be done. We're also thinking of editing the film, in order to put in the missing context perhaps, but we don't know if we'll have the time- especially that we're all starting to work. But we'd really like to.

Sometime ago, we were discussing about the possibility of making a series of films about gender- set in different countries and cultures. I think if we had the resources- that would be really good to make and watch. It would be a treat to see the different representations of gender or the unique gender categories each culture has.
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