That’s what she said

A documentary film featuring three transgender women that explores the male-to-female transition within themselves and Vietnamese society.

As a force that has been gathering in momentum for the past decade, the movement to address LGBT issues in Vietnam is undergoing a historic transition. While there have been distinct signs of a thawing in the legal framework that discriminates against LGBT people in this country—even glimmers of hope that gay marriage might be on the cards at some point in the near future here—conservative attitudes still prevail both in the administration and within the Vietnamese culture itself. Faced with the potential for real change and the massive inertia of public opinion, one of the community’s highest priorities at this point remains the need to change people’s hearts and minds.

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Director Kim Khanh’s first cinematic release Hon Buom (Butterfly Soul), which had its first test screenings in December, is a somewhat hopeful attempt to accomplish exactly that change on behalf of the Vietnamese transgender community. Beautifully crafted for optimal cinematic experience, the movie is a tightly focused interview-based documentary—replete with colorful fantasy sequences representing the yearning of TG folk to realize their inner feminine beauty—that follows the stories of three women (Jessica Nguyen, Yen My and Nha An) whose transgender status poses great challenges in their personal and professional lives. The film centers on the psychological dynamics of pre- and post-op transgender mentality, the legislative barriers that they face, and the weight of the public discrimination that stands almost uniformly against them.

In contrast to 2014’s Madam Phung’s Last Journey, a reality piece by director Nguyen Thi Tham that followed a troupe of beleaguered Vietnamese transvestite fairground performers, Kim Khanh’s story contextualizes the transgender experience by investigating its impact on families, friends and social status, an effort that is substantially supported by emotional face-to-face interviews with those affected. The film has been structured organically in reaction to the material as naturally presented to the lens, resisting a programmatic approach that Khanh dismisses as what would have been an inauthentic attempt to “direct the life” of her subjects.

Production for the film was funded by PEPFAR Vietnam (The US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) as a means to shed light on the transgender community here given its singular exposure to HIV: it is the group with the statistically highest rate of infectivity in the country. Jessica Nguyen was introduced to Khanh as a preferred interview subject; already a well-known transgender figure in Ho Chi Minh City (she incidentally featured on the cover of our May 2016 issue of Oi Vietnam), Jessica runs a costume hire business and both shelters and advises transgender people in need, helping them to establish a means to make a living, prepare themselves for sexual reassignment surgery, and remain protected from hate and discrimination. Hon Boum is actually Kim Khanh’s second project for PEPFAR; a few years ago she directed a theater piece for the organization entitled Cau Vong Khuyet (The Incomplete Rainbow) that dealt with gay issues and HIV, which was performed in Ho Chi Minh City, Can Tho and An Giang.

“I wanted to capture the beauty, the energy of the story,” says Kim Khanh about her approach to the material. “Before a butterfly emerges, it has to go through a phase of being an ugly caterpillar. The women in my film are born in the wrong bodies. In the movie, they all say that they hate the male body. This is the first Vietnamese movie that talks about how people hurt them, their suffering while growing up, and their relationships with their mothers. And framing everything is their dream to unfold their feminine souls, with all the color of a butterfly’s wings.”

Openly featuring the mothers of transgender subjects is a first in Vietnamese cinema. “There were over 250 people at the screenings in Saigon,” says Kim Khanh. “It was the first time that people heard the mothers talking about it, not just the kids. I had to convince the mothers to appear in front of the camera and tell their story; they didn’t want to talk, but I told them that if they spoke out, it would help millions of other mothers and families. Jessica wanted to kill herself so many times as a teenager after her mother kicked her out of home—it’s lucky that she didn’t die. So if she didn’t tell her story, a lot of parents may do the same to their kids, and not stand by their side, help their son to make his dream come true, to become a transgender woman. If they kick them out on the street, it’s so easy for them to turn to crime, prostitution, drugs, and be at great risk of getting HIV. That’s not just a family issue, it affects the whole of society.”

As the movie points out, legislative LGBT discrimination in Vietnam is amplified against the transgender community in that their medical needs are very specific and sometimes urgent. It’s still illegal in Vietnam to undergo surgical gender reassignment except in cases of hermaphroditism; the hormone treatments taken prior to surgery are also against the law here. Transgenders wanting a sex change are usually left to seeking risky procedures in Thailand, and complications are sometimes life-threatening.

“There is a fourth story in the movie about a girl who couldn’t urinate a month after the operation,” explains Kim Khanh. “She had to wait several days to be taken back to Thailand again to fix that problem. She survived, but if she’d had to get treatment in Vietnam, she would have been kicked out of the hospital. None of them would want to take responsibility. The treatment is illegal, so social insurance won’t cover it. Who would take the blame if she died here?”

Despite the film’s primary purpose being to inform those at risk of HIV, the overall message of the film is an exposure and assessment of discrimination. There are no medical professionals interviewed in the film; transgender people are shown plainly in their struggle to find acceptance, unable to marry, unable to find employment.

“I don’t want anything in particular to happen because of this movie,” says Kim Khanh. “I just hope people have a better attitude towards transgender people. Many of those who attended the screenings admitted to me that they didn’t really have a good opinion of transgender and gay people before, but said that the movie changed their view. They said that they felt lucky to be born as their true gender, and felt an empathy for people who don’t experience that sense of normality.”

“I want to show their beauty as women, the body and the face, as beautiful as any girl,” she adds. “Why should we always have to look at people with a question in our minds, ‘who is she, lesbian, gay, whatever?’ We should see people’s value in their humanity. I think the true story about Jessica and Yen My and the others is that they are very normal people. They’re strong, brave, and every day they’re not afraid to try to be better. They try to be good people, to live well. I think that’s just the natural human attitude.”

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