Too often, the narratives of our Muslim siblings are forgotten when discussing the plight of the LGBTQIA+—but their narratives have always existed.
This year a documentary titled “Budjang” is participating in the Southeast Asian Queer Cultural Festival and is available for free streaming on its website until March 13. The docu follows the story of a transgender woman in a Muslim barangay who finds herself on a village seat after being abandoned by her parents.
We had a chat with filmmaker and human rights activist Rhadem Camlian Morados about his film’s role in the signing of the Zamboanga City anti-discrimination ordinance and the struggles of the Moro LGBTQIA+ community.
Can you tell us a bit about how the idea for the film was conceived?
Rhadem: [I’ve] worked with the Mujer-LGBT Organization Incorporated [on my] previous film about the LGBTQIA+ Muslim Moros in BARMM (Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao). For “Budjang,” we were approached by the ASEAN SOGIE Caucus to produce a short film for the Southeast Asia Queer Cultural Festival. They wanted a story that focuses on narratives in the provinces. At that time, Mujer-LGBT and I, along with equality champs like councilor Lilibeth Macrohon Nuño, have been lobbying for the passage of the anti-discrimination ordinance in my hometown Zamboanga City.
How was the process of producing and shooting the film different from your other projects?
Rhadem: We started filming “Budjang” early in January 2020 and were able to finish it before the lockdown. However, there were still challenges because of it. Communication was temporarily hampered because [we had to move]. We took so long with post-production because we couldn’t enter the village of Taluksangay when it underwent a strict lockdown. Our main character, Asmin Jallih, didn’t have a mobile phone. We also faced economic challenges. [We were only] able to finish collecting and editing all the materials this January.
Why did you choose the title “Budjang?”
Rhadem: “Budjang” means dalagita in Tausug, my ethnolinguistic [background]. [Putting] Tausug elements in the film was a way for me to bring cultural awareness to the struggles faced by the Moro LGBTQIA+ [community].
Can you walk us through what the Comprehensive Anti-Discrimination City Ordinance No. 543 entails?
Rhadem: It took us many years to lobby for the anti-discrimination ordinance in Zamboanga City, given its conservative [community]. We at MUJER-LGBT are supporters and lobbyists of the national SOGIE Bill as well. We thought that maybe it would be [better] to rally for an anti-discrimination ordinance to mediate LGBTQIA+ [issues] in Zamboanga City than to wait for the national SOGIE Bill to be passed in Congress—given that it has [remained] unsigned for 14 years or so.
We originally produced this film to gather more supporters for the ordinance and put pressure on local politicians. The pandemic happened and the attention was massively diverted. However, we continued lobbying for it despite the pending film release.
Late last year, the ordinance was finally passed and signed by the local government unit of Zamboanga City. It promises to acknowledge and protect not just the LGBTQIA+, but also Indigenous people and People with Disabilities, from abuse and discrimination at work, in city policies, and so on. It’s a more inclusive anti-discrimination policy. Now, the goal of the film has shifted from passing the ordinance to helping bring awareness to the importance of the SOGIE Equality Bill.
How did you meet Asmin Jallih and Lilibeth Macrohon Nuño?
Rhadem: Councilor Lilibeth Nuño is one of the major supporters of the ordinance, and MUJER-LGBT has been working closely with her in drafting and making strategies for the [passing of the ordinance]. It so happened that one of our contacts in Taluksangay knew Asmin, the trans Sangguniang Kabataan (SK) treasurer of that place.
Asmin talked about experiencing job discrimination in the film. Can you tell us more about it?
Rhadem: Asmin currently gets her income from working as an SK treasurer. Before she got that job, she used to work as a [house-to-house] helper and nanny to support her family. Many close-minded people in the Philippines think that trans people [willingly choose] work in undesirable environments such as sex work. But they fail to realize that most trans individuals have no choice but to walk that path and endure ridicule, insults and discrimination. Most Muslim businesses, and sometimes even government posts in conflict areas, do not accept or hire trans workers. If there are many trans folk in Metro Manila who have a hard time getting hired because of their gender [identity] or how they look, how much harder is it for trans individuals in Bangsamoro or other conservative provinces?
Asmin referred to herself in the documentary as a trans woman and with the term “bantot” meaning gay. Is there a reason behind this?
Rhadem: Yes, in the Moro language, we don’t have a specific or designated word for transgender folk. Many Moro and Mindanao folk still call trans people gay.
In the film, a local religious leader talked about “accepting” LGBTQIA+ individuals when they’re productive. Do you think that there’s a double standard for the LGBTQIA+?
Rhadem: Yes, just like Indigenous people, the LGBTQIA+ community usually has to prove their worth and work twice as hard for others to even tolerate their existence. That isn’t acceptance, in my opinion. There are many Moro religious leaders who don’t even recognize the existence of LGBTQIA+ as something natural. Some still support conversion therapy and [approaches] such as forced marriage and legalized rape.
Given the politics in Moro and other religious regions, [including] the religious leader [featured in the film is like a] light in the darkest room. It gives [me] hope that in some way, they are open to embracing the LGBTQIA+ as their equals in the near future.
Watch out for the official launch of our documentary film #BUDJANG online at Southeast Asia Queer Cultural Festival this month!
Rhadem: I have made a few documentaries focusing on Mindanao history, culture, arts and human rights issues. [Each one was] screened [abroad] and some even garnered recognition and awards. But I still feel that there is much to be done when it comes to awareness and representation. Many of my audiences, in first- or third-world countries, still can’t believe that there are Moro Muslims in the Philippines and how colonial powers massacred and [nearly] erased us from history books.
It is also difficult for me to screen my documentaries here in the Philippines because we have [a small] market for them. That’s why being able to share the stories of my people with the international community is very significant for me [and] those who also want to feel that they belong—be they the LGBTQIA+, the Moro Sultanates, Bangsamoro, or the women and children of Mindanao. If I can’t help educate my fellow Filipinos, I’ll [try doing it internationally] instead.
What’s your message to members of the Muslim LGBTQIA+ community?
Rhadem: Always stand for your rights and be strong enough to fight for them, in whatever way you can. Our time might not be now, but let’s make sure that the next generation of LGBTQIA+ Moro will have a better, kinder and more accepting [future].