“You look like a celebrity,” murmurs Ulfah, looking over Tiara’s new photos. “Good Tiar,” she goes on, as he watches her and cools himself with a red paper fan, “You’ve really become a woman.” In the next moment of Tales of the Waria, Ulfah speaks directly to the camera, the same red fan now fluttering at the edge of her frame. “When I see Tiara’s photos, I feel sad,” she says, “But what can I do? That’s my son.” Premiering on PBS’ Global Voices on 3 June, Kathy Huang’s documentary presents a series of similarly complicated relationships, between couples as well as parents and children. At least one complication has to do with the fact that they live in Makassar, Indonesia, the country that’s home to the world’s largest Muslim population. “Before Islam came here to South Sulawesi, there were men who dressed like women,” explains Tiara. “They were trusted to take care of the king.” Today, such men — known as waria — live in between. “Most warias don’t want a sex change operation because of the teachings of Islam,” Tiara goes on, applying makeup in hopes of changing the look of her “chubby cheeks.” She doesn’t want surgery, she says, “But I do want my face to be more beautiful.”
Tiara’s one of several transgender community members followed in the film, along with Suharni, who’s living with HIV, and Firman, whose wife tearfully confesses — to the camera, not to him — her concerns over the time he spends with his coworkers at a TG club (“I’m scared,” she says, “I don’t sleep until he comes back”). Mami Ria introduces herself as the “head of the warias in Makassar,” surrounded by young men eager to learn the best makeup techniques in her salon. It’s here that she met her boyfriend of 12 years, a policeman who has a family at home. Though Pak Ansar and Ely seem content with the relationship, having Ria over for dinners and bringing her along with their kids to the water park, Ria worries Pak is spending less time with her, and decides plastic surgery might help.
The film doesn’t pretend to resolve these difficulties. It does present them in images that are as compelling as they are revealing. Tight, mobile frames suggest the emotional confines of the warias’ lives, but so too do long shots of streets filled with traffic and rides at the water park. Each image shows another angle on alienation, struggle, and resilience.