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I’m a Queer Asian Woman Director. Here’s Why Films Matter.

"There was always a disconnect between who I knew I was, versus the lesbians portrayed on screen. They were always hyperbutch, so it was hard for me to reconcile my identity with what media said a lesbian is."

by Samantha Lee; as told to Therese Reyes; photos by Martin San Diego
09 October 2019, 8:26am

Samantha Lee is a Filipino writer-director. Her films Baka Bukas (Maybe Tomorrow) and Billie and Emma received various awards in the Philippines and have been screened in a number of international film festivals like the Osaka Asian Film Festival and the Frameline Film Festival in San Francisco.

One September night in Melbourne, I was walking out of a club and holding a girl's hand. We were just holding hands, walking home. And no one cared. I felt comfortable. That was the moment I knew I needed to do something to normalise this behavior elsewhere. That I should contribute to the representation of lesbian stories. As an aspiring filmmaker at that time, I wanted to see girls who looked like me and talked like me on-screen.

So I went back home to the Philippines. I started writing in January and my first film Baka Bukas (Maybe Tomorrow) premiered that November. It’s autobiographical and tells the story of Alex, a twenty-something creative in love with her best friend, who has no idea that Alex likes girls.

I wanted to make a queer romantic comedy and have young people watch it and say, “Oh, it's okay to be gay.” I wanted to plant that little spark of hope in them. To have a famous actress kiss another girl on the big screen—that was my advocacy. This might sound trivial in other parts of the world, but in a conservative country like the Philippines, this is huge.

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Recent events have shown that there's still a lot of misunderstanding, hate, and bigotry against the LGBTQ+ community in the Philippines. I always tell people: here, we are tolerated, but we're not accepted.

I went to an all-girls Catholic high school where we had to take classes on morality. Our teacher was very strict and I was so nervous for the homosexuality chapter. I was like “Fuck, this is me,” but I was in denial. In the class, they said that being gay is not a sin, but acting on your urges is. I think I carried that with me for years, thinking that as long as I don’t date a girl, or kiss a girl, or hold another girl's hand, then I’m fine. That I was going to go to heaven.

I identify as queer and always knew that I liked girls, but I worked so hard to not be gay when I was in high school. I had long hair and wore tube tops and dresses. I would talk to boys and have “crushes” on them. I only came out to my parents when I was 23, before leaving to study in Melbourne. That was the same year I had my first girlfriend—the first time I kissed a girl.

There was a lot that I needed to unpack in terms of religion and family pressure. I needed to start from scratch, explore, and get to know who I was. When I moved to Melbourne, that was the first time I was able to hang out with girls who dressed like me, and talked like me, and spoke the same way as me. It was like I was surrounded by so many gay women that it made me feel okay to be myself. Once I was comfortable with myself, that was when I was able to say, “Now I can make films,” because I had fully accepted who I was.

Samantha Lee Director Filipino

I had a great life in Melbourne. I had a stable nine-to-five job and lived near a nature reservoir. After work, I would jog and see kangaroos. I had an active social life and was dating. And then, suddenly, it clicked. "Why can't I have these same things back in Manila?"

That's why I decided to move back. I knew that I wanted to make films that I needed when I was a lot younger. There's some representation in Philippine media, but not of women that I wanted to grow up to be. There was always a disconnect between who I knew I was, versus the lesbians portrayed on screen. They were always hyperbutch, so it was hard for me to reconcile my identity with what media said a lesbian is.

Through my films, I want to normalise the gay experience. We all experience hope, fear, and anxieties just like cisgender people but the media chooses to focus on the otherness of the community. If media continues to show that there are different kinds of gay people, the Philippines would be a safer place to live in.

Romantic comedies, I think, are particularly powerful. My goal as a filmmaker is to make people feel okay to be gay or to understand this community more, and I think rom-coms are the perfect trojan horse to get that across because people will think, "Oh I’m just watching a rom-com,” but they’ll end up leaving the theatre with a deeper understanding of gay experiences. After Baka Bukas came out, so many people wrote to me saying it helped them come out to their parents.

I really want to do it right. I know that I’m just one person and can’t tell the story of the entire community, so I tell myself that I need to get it right so that the next person who pitches a gay film will maybe have a 99 percent easier time. I want to clear as many obstacles as possible, so that more stories get told and more people feel represented.

Samantha Lee Filipino Director