Last December, we were invited to screen Kumu Hina in the Kingdom of Tonga, a beautiful island nation arrayed across thousands of miles of the South Pacific, steeped in tradition and proud of its independence.
While we were there to share our film's message of aloha and stories of gender diversity and inclusion in Hawaii, we were fascinated to hear Tongan perspectives on the issues and lucky to be able to attend the Miss Galaxy Pageant, a joyful annual celebration of the creativity and talent of "Leitis" - a community of often marginalized transgender women now rising to reclaim their revered and righteous place in Polynesian culture.
Our host was Joey Joleen Mataele, the pageant's founder and the most prominent and admired leiti in Tonga. Joey descends from a noble family, and is quite at home in the upper echelons of Tongan society. But she's also a woman of deep Christian faith who works tirelessly to help lift up those still living in the shadows, primarily through the Tonga Leitis' Association, an organization she runs to support and educate young leitis and to advocate for dignity, respect, and human rights for all.
As filmmakers, we immediately began to shoot all that was unfolding around us. We captured footage of the pageant, and of Joey and other leitis preparing for the event and attending to other aspects of daily life in the kingdom.
Inspired by what we saw and the belief that these stories could build on the foundation laid by the Kumu Hina project to deepen understanding and promote positive social change on a global scale, we applied for and received Research and Development funding from Pacific Islanders in Communications to explore further.
On our second trip to Tonga, this past June, we continued to follow Joey's story, captured compelling portraits of several other leitis struggling to fulfill their dreams, and interviewed a cross-section of Tongans who exert great influence on the country's direction, including members of the royal family and prominent clergy, as well as government, business, educational, and community leaders.
What is emerging is a defining story of our time, a small nation and its people struggling to hold on to its culture and traditions in a rapidly modernizing world, and to determine which forces will define who, and who is not, welcome in its fold.
To answer some of these critical questions, we'll be returning to Tonga this December to film an unprecedented national consultation organized by the Tonga Leitis' Association that will propose the repeal of antiquated laws still on the books - and that conservative religious crusaders are threatening to revive - that would criminalize, imprison, and further marginalize leitis and LGBT people in the Kingdom.
These are extraordinary times, and we're sure that these powerful stories will galvanize public attention in our common quest for that better world.
We're thrilled that esteemed documentary editor Bill Weber ("To Be Takei" - "We Were Here" - "The Cockettes") has joined our team, and we invite you to come along too.
Stay tuned here and follow the project on Facebook for updates.
As always, thanks so much for your support and solidarity.
Malo aupito and Me ke mahalo nui,
Dean, Joe, and Hinaleimoana
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