Sometime in 2011, Cecilio Asuncion noted “a number of documentaries on transgender women, and it would mostly focus on the transition phase and end with the gender reaffirmation surgery. Nobody ever covers what happens after,” he said to Outrage Magazine. Not one, he added, “dared to ask: ‘You are a woman now, what have you done with your life?’”
And so Asuncion conceptualized What’s the T?, described as “an aspirational documentary that explores the challenges, successes, and lives of five transgender women. These five women: Cassandra Cass, Nya Ampon, Rakash Armani, Vi Le, Mia Tu Mutch represent normality and abnormality, seamlessly, in their daily efforts to achieve a balance of feminine and masculine, as the day may require. These women are prime examples of reality and self-assurance in identity.”
“This film was made because now is the time. On a personal level, I wanted to do something creative for myself. But on a larger scope, I wanted to do something creative that had a point and that would make people think,” Asuncion said.
That the transgender community is a treasure trove of narratives goes without saying. In fact, “the challenge that I had was choosing the best subjects. I had met a number of transgender women who have such wonderful lives but these lives are never featured, so it was difficult to just narrow down the cast to five very diverse women,” Asuncion said.
In the end, the selection was guided by what was desired for people to take out of this film. “I simply would want people to see that transwomen are no different than everyone else. Once you get past the physical change, ideally, I would want the audience to get out of the theater, and know that what’s truly important is not what’s in between a person’s legs, but what’s in between their ears and what’s inside their rib cage,” Asuncion said.
Making an LGBT-related film is personal for Asuncion.
“I identify as a gay man, I feel that as a member of the LGBT community, even we within the community barely know anything about each other. It was a personal journey for me as well, as I immersed myself in the transgender community by going to their events, bars, restaurants and organizations. Doing a documentary on transgender women, I know that I have changed as a person, (inspired by) these women who are so resilient and inspiring.”
Asuncion, by the way, is an Atenean. He was an Ateneo “all of my life”, at least until he graduated high school, and then he moved to New York for college. “I was a production designer for TV commercials back in Manila, and I always had the passion for production,” Asuncion said.
A year ago (in 2011), Asuncion joined a film cooperative/competition called Scary Cow in San Francisco, where he pitched the short version of What’s the T?. Luckily, it was chosen as one of the winners; and “that win then allowed me to continue on to direct the full length version of What’s the T?.”
“I never saw being a Filipino filmmaker (in a Western context) as challenging. I am very proud of my background. I am also proud that the entire crew of What’s the T? has a very diverse group. We have straight people, we have lesbians, we have gay men, we have transgenders, we have White, we have Latin, we have Asian, we have African American… It truly was a collaborative effort,” Asuncion said.
Asuncion added: “I can truly say that as long as you stay true to your vision and are very supportive and appreciative of everyone who has helped you in the process to be who you are as a filmmaker then nothing should be a challenge. One should just stay true to who you are and be nice no matter what your racial background is. Sounds pretty basic, but it’s the damn truth. That’s the ‘T’!”
Asuncion won the NY Ten Outstanding Filipino American (TOFA) award for LGBT advocacy, a development that, he said, was “amazing”. “It was a great platform to speak about the fight against transphobia, and even made better by meeting other outstanding Filipinos who have done so much for the community, as well. It was great to be in Carnegie Hall to meet all these humble Filipinos who you never hear about, but have done huge things that have impacted other people’s lives.”
Other than the TOFA award, Asuncion is proud “being able to mentor Brigite Salvatore and co-write and co-produce her short film, model ciTizen. Being able to both teach and collaborate with her and Toine Valentin (the assistant director/co-writer) is something I hold dear as being able to impart some wisdom to someone is truly fantastic.”
Asuncion says there are issues that the LGBT community still has to focus on. Foremost is “equality within the LGBT umbrella – we truly have to aid each other in order for the community-at-large to truly accept us. I mean this from a personal level, go out there and develop friendships, volunteer with non-profits with other members of the community that are different from you. You’d be surprised what you learn from them and about yourself,” he said.
He sees films and filmmaking as able to deal with these issues. “Film making helps with these issues by exposure. One doesn’t need to be militant or combative when stressing a point; one can deliver a very strong point by simply showing the subjects in a film in a very non-obtrusive way,” Asuncion said.
Asuncion is currently developing his second full length documentary called Rice Queen, which will be in production by next year. As the proposed title suggests, it discusses gay Asian men and the men who love them. He is also in the feasibility stage of producing and writing a short documentary on the story of Jessa Balote, described as “the ballerina na basurera na taga-Tondo and ngayon is now with world renowned Ballet Manila”. “I just love stories that make you feel something. Really strong, inspiring stories of real people,” Asuncion said.
And what inspires him in the LGBT community? “The resilience in the LGBT community is VERY inspiring; more importantly, the sense of humor that goes hand in hand with this resilience. Seeing generations and generations of LGBT members survive and fight for equality and to allow me the liberties that I have now is amazing,” Asuncion ended.
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