The lives of transgender women are difficult and lined with the often incomprehension of society. “Shunned”, a revealing documentary about transgender women in the Philippines, shows how much harder it can be for these women outside the U.S. Art Film File asked “Shunned” director Janice Villarosa about her personal experience in bringing this documentary and the voices of these women, to life.
This year, the Palm Beach International Film Festival, held between March 26th through April 2nd offered a wide array of undiscovered directorial talents. One of them was Shunned, a documentary directed by L.A. based filmmaker Janice Villarosa which portrays the hardship of transgender women in the Philippines, solidly astounded audiences with its heartbreaking honesty. The all too known explosion in the media about reality television star Bruce Jenner and his difficult journey through his transition from male to female, helped place the previously avoided topic center stage, but Villarosa who is originally from the Philippines, says that her interest in these women’s stories started way before the issue was in the spotlight at all. “I was in the Philippines studying filmmaking and I saw there were a lot of transgender women there” Villarosa commented to Art Film File. “Even though there were a lot of transgender women, even with pageants focusing on them, I felt for the most part, they were just being tolerated. I still saw a lot of discrimination surrounding them. Now with Laverne Cox and TV shows that are showing transgender women, people start being more exposed and aware. Regarding the public’s attention towards the Jenner story, she commented “I applaud anyone, including Bruce Jenner, who shares his or her story in public since it is so personal. My cast especially did that, revealing so much of themselves with the sole mindset that they would help others who are going through discrimination. They hope that their stories will inspire others to be strong”.
Villarosa went on further to explain that while she was in the Philippines during the filming process, she had to work on her own perception towards transgender women. “I was in the Philippines for almost three years so I decided to learn all I could and focus on the person(s) and the community itself. I believe that the first step to not discriminating, is to enlighten ourselves and imagine ourselves in their shoes”. Art Film File asked the exceptionally eloquent director, why transgender women in the Philippines as a topic for her documentary? Why not instead transgender women in the U.S? Surely there must be a good number of people undergoing gender reassignment surgery here. Why not focus on them? “Even though the film focused on Philippines transgender women, their issues are universal” Villarosa is quick to point out. “All over the world, they are being discriminated against. Even the countries you think are more accepting. Even in Los Angeles, where you would think is a very progressive place since it is the entertainment capital, four transgender women were killed last year”.
Data Source: Human Rights Campaign/ Infographic: Art Film File
Villarosa is not wrong. According to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) website, that at least seven transgender women have been murdered so far in 2015. HRC additionally states that: “the crimes are usually gruesome and have mostly gone unsolved”. The gruesome nature of the crimes involve, strangulation, burning and beatings. Violence towards transgender women seems to be escalating, remarkably so much that the HRC is calling it a national crisis. Denied safety nets, healthcare, and adequate police protection only adds to the concern regarding transgender women not only in the U.S. but also in other countries.
In regards to the challenges she faced in making “Shunned”, Villarosa is candid when speaking about her background, which she describes as conservative. “Taking this under my wings was also a whole new territory for me. I was knocked down countless times but I had it in my mind, that no matter what, I would keep standing. They may not realize it, but my cast kept me going. I made a promise to them, to the community to use me as their voice and I had to fulfill that promise”.
When asked if there was a personal story of the women portrayed in her film that particularly affected her, Villarosa explained that the stories of each and every one of them resonated with her. “Can you just imagine being on the streets, going about your daily routine and then someone decides to shoot you and other people like you just for their own enjoyment? Or be used and harassed everyday and even be consistently violated starting at age 12? It’s heartbreaking! She went on to say that her mission in advocating for transgender women is just beginning. Her goal is to have the film seen by as many people as possible, to bring the stories of these women close to home in the hope that the bullying and discrimination against the transgender community will once and for all, come to an end. Villarosa ends the interview by saying: “All you want in life is to be happy being who you truly are. To be discriminated and bullied everyday of your life… It’s heartbreaking. I hope this film and community awareness will help change that”.