‘Tales of the Waria:’ A Conversation with Director Kathy Huang

"Tales of the Waria." (Photo: Kathy Huang)

What is life like for the transgender community in the world’s largest Muslim country, Indonesia? This month Cinema Asian America on Xfinity on Demand presents Kathy Huang’s award-winning documentary, “Tales of The Waria,” a compelling and intimate exploration of this question.

“Waria”, shot in the scenic coastal region of South Sulawesi, follow the lives of four waria (from the words wanita, meaning woman, and pria, meaning man): female in outward appearance, but actually biological men who believe they were born with a woman’s soul, and who are not interested in a sex change because of Islam’s teachings. Interweaving the stories of several warias who make extraordinary sacrifices for love, Huang’s feature debut film creates a moving and unexpected portrait of a community that dares to live differently from the norm, despite what consequences may await them.

The Beijing-based Huang discussed her motivation for making this documentary:


You use love and relationships as the key framework through which you explore the Waria community in Indonesia. Why? What did this perspective offer?

KH: The warias were actually the ones who suggested using the theme of love. They were tired of seeing themselves in the media portrayed as buffoons, sexual deviants, alienated individuals without family or friends. They wanted people to understand their inner lives and their actual day-to-day concerns. I thought it was a brilliant idea and we ran with it.

“Tales of the Waria” is a collaborative project, one that you made with the creative partnership of several of your subjects. Can you discuss this approach, and the nature of your collaboration?

KH: There’s nothing that makes me feel more uncomfortable than watching a film where the filmmaker has clearly gone in to “expose” a community. The subjects have no say in how they’re depicted and become caricatures of themselves. As an outsider, it was important to me to involve a community like the warias– who are already so exploited in the media– in every stage of filmmaking. They were story consultants and members of the production crew, and gave feedback on different cuts of the film. I think the final result was more intimate and honest as a result. It was also a lot more fun to shoot this way!

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You’ve said that you were drawn to making a film about the Waria because of their very visible presence in a country with fairly strict understandings of gender roles. Through the making of this film, what kind of new understandings did you come to about their position in Indonesian society? Is it they who are exceptional, or Indonesia, or, perhaps did you find that neither were, and that their lives mirror those of transgendered communities around the world?

KH: Back in the 1600s, before Islam even made its way to Indonesia, there was a tradition of cross-dressing priests on the island of Sulawesi. This tradition has helped the warias find more of an acceptance in modern day Indonesia. Everyone knows a waria personally or at least knows what “waria” means (as opposed to “gay” which can still befuddle some Indonesians). One of the biggest celebrities in Indonesia– on the scale of Oprah— is a waria by the name of Dorce.

This doesn’t mean, however, that the warias are universally accepted. Religious extremists like the FPI make it their business to cause trouble for the waria community. Warias continue to be disadvantaged in areas of education, health care, and job opportunities. And though warias can make it big in entertainment or become the breadwinners of their families, parents rarely rejoice when they learn that their son is a waria. To be a waria is to live a life of contradictions.

How did you select the main subjects of the film, including Suharni, Firman, Mama Ria and Tiara?

KH: Some of the subjects were obvious choices. Mami Ria’s relationship with police officer Ansar was the envy of the whole waria community. Firman’s abandonment of his waria lifestyle to marry a woman– though an exception to the rule– was also a side of waria life that I thought was important to portray. Suharni was great in that she had a boyfriend who was extremely loving and had no issues being filmed. Tiara was a member of the production team who ended up being in the film only after my third year in Indonesia. She was a dynamo and provided what she likes to call the film’s “glamour.”

What are you working on now?

KH: I’m working on a documentary about immigrants in China. More to follow…

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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