While it doesn’t indulge in the same kind of thematic miserablism of other movies about transgender sex workers, Olaf de Fleur Johannesson’s The Amazing Truth About Queen Raquela (2008) still can’t avoid the fact that at least part of its narrative–arguably the dominant part–is constructed from a cisgender man’s preconceptions of who transgender people are. The conceit of the movie is that it’s half documentary and half fiction, mixed together in such a way as to obscure the lines between the real and the fake. The director himself calls this shambolic portmanteau structure a “visiomentary.” You can probably see the flaws in this approach without even seeing the movie, but I’ll elaborate anyway.
The movie begins with its central character, a trans sex worker in Cebu City, The Philippines, speaking directly to the camera and swearing to tell the truth and the whole truth. This is Raquela Rios, essentially playing herself. The filmmakers spend a good deal of time following Rios through her life, which includes interactions with her family, attempts to find employment outside of the sex trade, clubbing with her friends, and generally walking around the city. This is where the film is heavy on the documentary and while it’s letting Raquela speak for herself, the movie is on pretty firm ground. Raquela is bright, funny, optimistic, and gregarious. Were she in different circumstances, she would undoubtedly be a success at whatever she did. The same might be said for her friends, Aubrey and Olivia, who also make their livings as “ladyboy” sex workers. Unfortunately, the filmmakers can’t leave well enough alone. They also start the film with a title card that says, “Raquela is transsexual. A chick with a dick,” and once the movie acquires a narrative, the attitude behind that pronouncement seeps into the whole enterprise.
Slowly but surely, it becomes the task of cis white men to explain the lot of the ladyboy, and with that shift in focus, the movie begins to patronize its subject. The mouthpiece for all of this is Mike, an internet pornographer who makes his living with ladyboy porn from places like The Philippines and Brazil. In a memorable pronouncement on how trans women live their lives, he compares them to cicadas, dormant for the early parts of their lives only to bloom for a short and intense period in which their longing to be something they can never be leads them into risky behaviors. There’s a troubling essentialism to the pronouncements the film puts in this guy’s mouth, and the filmmakers wisely make it clear that he’s a douchebag, but he also carries himself like an authority figure (there’s that white male privilege asserting itself) and the movie doesn’t quite shake that off.
In the movie’s defense, some of the individual scenes here bring Raquela to life as a living, breathing human being just like the rest of them. The audience is invited to share her heartbreak at being denied entrance into nursing school and to share her mounting apprehension as she waits for the results of an AIDS test. Her defense of the kinds of risky sex she uses to validate her gender identity surely comes from the actress rather than the filmmakers. Her candor in sharing these moments gives her performance in the fictional portions of the film a degree of verisimilitude. When she concludes that Mike the Pornographer is kind of an asshole after he regales her with ugly Americanisms all through Paris, it rings true even though Mike himself is a part and she’s talking about someone who doesn’t really exist.
The sex trade hangs over all of this, though. It’s the elephant in the room, and the movie plays to it rather than offering a critique. As a counterpart to Raquela’s failure to get into nursing school, for one example, is a scene shortly afterward that dresses her in a latex nurse outfit for the benefit of her webcam chat business. This seems almost cruel in context, and there’s definitely a fetishistic gaze involved in the director’s choice to make the film in the first place that makes me wonder if he’s not a chaser himself. Meanwhile, there’s no real acknowledgement of the human cost of the sex trade and its attendant relationship with human trafficking. The movie bills itself as a kind of Cinderella tale, in which Raquela is given the chance to live her dream of visiting Paris, but the film blithely creates this plot without realizing that the scenario it constructs is disturbingly similar to the modus operandi of slavers: provide the money to travel, indenture the victim to the money. The movie omits the indenture. One of the film’s more unbelievable elements is the notion that Mike the Pornographer takes Raquela to Paris out of the goodness of his heart, especially once the movie establishes that he’s kind of a prick. This casts a sinister pall over the director’s assertion that the film is about globalization and the commodification of human beings, because he seems not to have a clue as to what he’s portraying.
Marginally less troubling is the persistent enforcement of a gender binary worldview and the fixed social roles it portends. The movie already indicates that it thinks that Raquela will never inhabit her desired gender (never mind that movie categorically depicts her doing exactly that). There’s a shot–surely staged–of Raquela and her two friends standing at urinals with their skirts hiked up; this is obviously a shot that enforces the film’s essentialist ideas of gender identity. The world of this film is also a world without social mobility, where in spite of Raquela’s jaunt to Europe, she still winds up back home with no prospects, walking arm and arm down the street with her girlfriends. While there’s an inherently humane element to this shot, friends being friends and all, it indicates that Raquela has been running in place. She’s never going to move out of her current social role, the movie suggests, and the shadow of dangerous sex, crushing poverty, and (perceived) self-delusion looms large in the end.
As a postscript, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the packaging for this film. Here’s the DVD cover:
THAT’S not a prejudicial image. Not at all. Sheesh.
The Amazing Truth About Queen Raquela is available on DVD from E1 Entertainment for purchase or rent from the usual suspects. Also, I need to give a shout out to Gina over at Skip the Makeup, who pointed me at the movie in the first place.