Everyone’s a critic, but Lé Baltar is different

This story is part of “Normal People,” a series on reclamation as a way of engaging with the world featuring local artist-advocates and community leaders.

Poet-activist Maria Lorena Barros once said that the new Filipina is “a woman who has discovered the exalting realm of responsibility, a woman fully engaged in the making of history.” To transform into this new Filipina, it is necessary to define and articulate the type of reality we are trying to construct together or will be born out of our conflicting desires.

This Women’s Month, Preen debuts its new series called “Normal People” to highlight how this transformation can be a norm and to showcase how it is cultivated in feminist spaces through radical action and collective/ emancipatory art-making. 

Featuring artist-advocates and community leaders, the series engages in the struggle against the othering and commodification of our communities and the themes explored in our work. It’s a series about reclamation as our way of engaging with the world.

Our first featured artist is Lé Baltar. As a film and theater critic, journalist, culture writer, and poet, Baltar is preoccupied with examining the material conditions that shape art and artmaking in the Philippines. By centering stories and voices that have long been relegated to marginal spaces, she takes on a role in cultural emancipation. 

Baltar’s writing covers all mediums and, by extension, a variety of pressing issues that have shaped the country’s political landscape. Her poetry collection “Ang Iniiwan ng Katawan” is about the image of the body as a cultural artifact, extrajudicial killings, and resistance, while her hybrid zine “Any Any Lang” tackles transhood. Baltar released both works at the Better Living Through Xeroxography (BLTX) expo and press fair in 2022 and 2023. 

Our quick chat with Baltar uncovers her meticulous writing process as well as her advocacies and experiences that fuel her critiques on culture and the media.

Baltar in her main workspace, featuring a poster of and stills from Glenn Barit’s film “Cleaners,” alongside criticism and poetry books. Photo by Mark Tisado

What are things that you tend to highlight and uncover in your work? 

I’m a woman of trans experience, so this lived reality will always be apparent in my work as a critic at large. And I say this not only in terms of identity politics, which I think is a very liberal way of seeing things, but largely in terms of the material and economic struggles that my community goes through, and how many forces even co-opt these experiences.

Transhood exists in a spectrum, so I always try to interrogate how it is presented on screen, on stage, or in any work of cultural value, and, by extension, the stories we are allowed to tell in these spaces. 

I mean, ilan lang ba ang kilala nating trans critic, trans na direktor, o trans artists na nabibigyan nang sapat at hindi tokenized na espasyo? Ilan lang ba ang mga pelikula o midyang kinokonsumo natin na nagtatampok ng buhay na danas ng pagiging trans? Sobrang konti at limitado, ‘di ba, at hindi ako papayag na hanggang dito lang kami.

How would you describe your work process?

I don’t think I’m a prolific writer and critic, so I always take the time to think more about a work and how I see and frame it. If I see a film, for instance, I don’t immediately write about it because I think there’s danger in that in a way that it doesn’t allow me to really be as sharp as I can. And I don’t feel the need to always have the first say on everything, especially if I have nothing to contribute. But, of course, critical distance also depends on the space that you have, and I work in publishing, so I still have deadlines.

Baltar’s zines, which she released at the 2022 and 2023 BLTX expo and press fair. Photo by Mark Tisado

How do you take control of your work’s narrative and how it’s being framed? 

As much as I despise labels, I also think being a “trans critic” still has its merits, considering what has been taken from trans people by the government and by institutional forces that define and limit us. But I am more than my transhood, at sa malawakan, ito naman ang gusto kong makita ng mga tao, na hindi nila pwedeng itanggi ang personhood ng bawat trans na indibidwal, na dapat matamasa rin namin ang anumang karapatan na tinatamasa nila.

In terms of criticism as a craft, I hope for people to see its value and power. I hope for them to appreciate the place of cultural work in our everyday lives. In fact, there are cultural mass organizations like Tambisan sa Sining that use art to talk about pressing labor issues in the country. Lately, Palestinian films and literature are also being circulated online to surface the ongoing genocide in Gaza by the Israeli occupation.

What are non-negotiables in your routine?

I write what I hope to read. It’s difficult for me to write just for the sake of completing a task, although that happens at times, especially if you have a deadline. Having a good workspace is also non-negotiable because I easily get distracted. I need silence, like most writers do. Rest is also vital as a critic, so I don’t end up being a boring contrarian and actually provide real insight rather than being merely shady. In general, if someone asks me to do something that compromises my principles in life, then I am most likely to decline it.

What keeps things fresh and exciting for you?

These days, I really enjoy running around the UP Diliman Academic Oval, which is a good way to think about things or forget about work altogether. I also go to raves or exhibits, if I have the energy and time, or read anything outside of criticism, or even write poems.

Since I work freelance, I have a leeway to decide on what I want to write about, and I’m more excited to write about trans and queer spaces as communities or creative spaces as a collective effort because I feel like there’s no single person, no matter how progressive they are, that can represent our lived experiences in its entirety. I always see it as part of an accumulation—transhood and queerness as something that needs to be shared.

After earning the Alexis Tioseco and Nika Bohinc Award for Film Criticism, Baltar received the Pylon trophy at the 2023 QCinema International Film Festival Critics Lab. Photo from QCinema

What do you want to manifest through your work?

That by writing or centering stories about the trans and queer community I’d be able to do my part in convincing more people, especially our lawmakers, that it’s high time to pass the SOGIE equality bill, which has been there for more than 20 years. And I think it’s a privilege that I even have spaces like this to talk about it. 

Pero paano ’yung mga trans at queer sa eskwelahan, sa pabrika, sa hanay ng manggagawa at hanay ng magsasaka, na bukod sa pang-araw-araw na is ’yung kinahaharap nila, dagdag pasanin pa ang ganitong karahasan dahil sa SOGIE nila? Isn’t it a basic human right to live a life that is free from discrimination?

Whatever I do in my work is always an attempt to encounter myself again and imagine better worlds beyond precisely because the current makeup of the world relentlessly excludes and erases us. And I hope that someday being trans is no longer radical. Masalimuot siyang proseso, pero kung doon lang magiging posible ang lahat, bakit hindi?

Photo by Mark Tisado

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Andrea Posadas: Andrea is a perpetual daydreamer who hopes to pack as many punches in her voice as there are in her words someday.