STOP10: Xeph Suarez on queer voices in 'Astri and Tambulah'

Director Xeph Suarez’s short film Si Astri maka si Tambulah (Astri and Tambulah) has a somewhat ethereal quality to it, in which characters navigate the barriers placed by village mores, fluttering to their own preferred eventualities without the hysterics typical of family drama. A certain graceful dance with accented arm movements called the Palangay, performed by the lead character Astri at the beginning personifies this delicate treatment of social taboo by Xeph.

Si Astri maka si Tambulah tells the story of a transgender Astri who is in love with Tambulah, a cisgender male, but driven by village (Badjao) traditions to fulfill her duty to marry a girl by her family arrangements. Adding to the irony is the fact that Astri, who has been earning coins from her Palangay 'busking' with the help of Tambulah on makeshift tin container 'drums', is channeling these earnings towards the wedding dowry, rather reluctantly of course. As the deadline creeps forward and pressure mounts, Tambulah suddenly goes missing. The rest is a clever twist and a closure that straddles peace and helplessness.

While the film serves to highlight a certain struggle, and a real one at that since it is based on the realities of forced marriages of gays and transwomen in Xeph's own native community, it does not veer in the direction of politicising the struggle. There is a certain ''live and let live' undertone about the narrative. Though an oddity, the rest of the villagers are not fighting Astri's androgyny and Astri has company queer company from a group of equally slender friends. Perhaps what we see in the film is just a mirror of the village realities. Or perhaps it is Xeph's light touch on a sensitive topic that has no answers to the many questions it raises. As Astri deals with her surprise at the end and we try to make sense of it, Xeph closes the window on this story through coercing us into a certain hypnosis, from the slithery movements of the Palangay and the enchanting clinking sounds of the accompanying percussions. Life and traditions live on the village.

Si Astri maka si Tambulah had its world premiere at QCinema International Film Festival and has travelled to film festivals such as the 48th Tampere Film Festival, the Cambodia International Film Festival, the Odense Film Festival and many others. Winning Best Director for Shorts at Cinemalaya was perhaps a perfect homecoming for Xeph and the film. Here is our interview with Xeph.

Jeremy(J): Is Astri and Tambulah based on a true story? What inspired the film?
Xeph (X): Astri and Tambulah is based from actual experiences of gays and transwomen in a Badjao community in my hometown, Zamboanga City. I was shooting a documentary in their community when I met Astri and her friends. We talked and from that encounter, I learned about their stories and struggles.
J: LGBT films seem a dime a dozen in the Philippines, what made you want to tell this particular LGBT story?
X: It's a story of the queer experience in a community that is rarely portrayed in the media. I really want to provide new faces in the struggle of the LGBTQ+ community.
J: How many short films have you made? What types of films do you usually like to make? Or what kinds of stories do you like to tell?
X: Astri is my 3rd short film. I like telling stories about my experiences in my hometown. It's mostly about peace and conflict, and gender.
J: You are an alumnus of ASEAN-ROK Film Leaders Incubator (FLY), an annual
filmmaking workshop organized by Busan Film Commission. How has your experiences with international film labs like FLY, helped shape your career?
X: FLY has inspired me to stay in the film industry. FLY has also taught me how to make local stories that I can bring to international platforms.
J: What sort of support or relationships do you build with such film workshops and labs? Do they last long?
X: Workshops and labs are really important because you get to meet new people in the industry who you can collaborate with. Some of the people I've met in workshops have been really helpful in my career.
J: Are you working on developing any feature films at the moment? Mind sharing a little on what it’s about?
X: I'm still brewing concepts and stories but it's really a dream to make a feature about the queer experiences of the tri-people in Southern Philippines.
J: What are some of your favourite Filipino films of all time?
X: They are: Lino Brocka's Maynila sa Kuko ng Liwanang, and queer films like Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros and Ang Huling Cha-cha ni Anita.

Interview and photos by Jeremy Sing

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