short films

Queer counter-mapping in EKSENA!’s short film program

Lé Baltar

This is AI generated summarization, which may have errors. For context, always refer to the full article.

Queer counter-mapping in EKSENA!’s short film program

Still from Samantha Lee’s 'IT WAS A LOVE STORY (AFTER ALL).'

The lack of inclusive and thoughtful representation is a common fixture in Filipino queer cinema

Queer cinema, like the scale of experiences it draws from, is hard to fit into a singular mold and mode. If anything, its fluidity is the very thing that excites both its maker and viewer, well aware that queerness behaves that way — spontaneous, fraught, raw, suffused with mess and color — despite many attempts to contain it into a cinematic canon. Like cinema at large, it continues to evolve. It finds, if not carves out, new spaces through which new ways of framing prosper. Within queer cinema, possibilities are boundless. There is pushback and insistence, because how else can one grapple with the incoherence of marginality?

In its first iteration, EKSENA!’s short film program gestures toward this effort of centering queer realities by curating seven Filipino-made short films spanning four decades: Raul Sarmienta’s Honey (1983), Allan Brocka’s Rick & Steve: The Happiest Gay Couple in the World (2000), Paolo Villaluna’s Palugid (2001), Keana Trasporte’s Ang High School at Si Olive (2016), Beverly Ramos’s Dory (2017), Mark Felix Ebreo’s This is Not a Coming Out Story (2022), and Samantha Lee’s It Was A Love Story (After All) (2022).

“We wanted to kind of posit this idea that queer filmmakers [are] still in the periphery of making movies,” says program co-curator Petersen Vargas, after the first screening at Sine Pop, Cubao. “We always had to find our own ways…like we’re not in the mainstream or no one’s gonna fund [our] projects immediately. So we wanted to tell that story through the program na parang paano siya ginawa nung ’80s (the way we did it in the ’80s) and then the ’90s, and it’s like all these modes of production na feeling ko (which I feel are) DIY in a way. And it’s encouraging that we’ve survived through those modes of production.”

But the showcase not only tracks how queer film practice has evolved over time. More than anything, it excavates the rich yet cruel history that has shaped, if not eroded, Filipino queer lives, a counter-mapping of some sort. And each work in the lineup might affect the viewer to varying degrees. One is more refined than the other. One towers over the rest for its filmic daring. Another tugs at the heart. Some are saved by sheer nostalgia. All of them vary in form and approach. Yet, when stitched together, the whole thing makes sense in capturing the “representations of wayward queer desire and longing,” as co-curator Kaj Palanca puts it, informed by the temporal and cultural distance between each film.

“Whereas once there could have only been self-abasing confessions of desire, now no apologia for queer romance is needed. At turns sincere then ironic, sober then deeply decadent, these films testify to a queer Filipino cinema that will not merely survive, but persist and flourish against all odds,” Palanca writes in the curatorial notes.

Queer rights as human rights 

While the program tours the audience around the alternative sights of Filipino queer cinema, it equally foregrounds the material conditions that relegate queer populations to the margins, arguing that queer issues inevitably point to human rights issues, which is also among the integral points raised in the talk complementing the program moderated by Jade Castro, featuring National Artist Ricky Lee, JP Habac, and Samantha Lee.

Dahil aktibista ako noong panahon ng Martial Law, nung ginawa ko ‘yung mga pelikula noon, ang concern ko eh maging writer na nagbibigay ng boses sa mga walang boses, sa mga dispossessed, sa mga tinanggalan ng human rights, which would include OFWs, prostitutes, gays, lesbians, and so on. Mas ‘yun ‘yung sakop ng mga pelikula ko kaya hindi ko kinunsider na nakapokus lang ako sa gays or lesbians,” says Ricky Lee of this intersectionality.

(Since I was an activist during Martial Law, my concern when I was making those films was to be a writer who gave a voice to the dispossessed, to those who’ve been stripped of their human rights, which would include OFWs, prostitutes, gays, lesbians, and so on. My films covered all of those more, so I didn’t consider them simply gay or lesbian films.)

He adds, “At the onset, ‘pag nagsusulat ako, iniisip ko agad na political lahat ng ginagawa ko. When I say political, hindi siya personal. Hopefully, it will affect people. It will affect social situations, social conditions. In that sense, political siya.”

(At the onset, when I write, I immediately assume that what I’m doing is political. When I say political, it’s not personal. Hopefully, it will affect people. It will affect social situations, social conditions. In that sense, it’s political.)

The national artist also notes how existing heteronormative forces continue to deny the personhood of queer people on and beyond the screen, which largely factor into the heightened hostility towards them and why the SOGIE equality bill has been languishing in Congress for over two decades now. “Hindi sila nagiging buong tao, ang daming nagtatanggal ng pagkatao nila. So ang ipinaglalaban natin ay human rights para maging pantay lahat.”

(They’re kept from being fully-formed humans, so much of their humanity is stripped away. So we’re fighting for human rights to provide equality for all.)


Even if queer narratives break through the noise, considering the stream of content relentlessly produced by big studios and online platforms, meaningful depictions of such narratives are still often up for debate. Sadly, the lack of inclusive and thoughtful representation is a common fixture in Filipino queer cinema.

Well, noong panahong ‘yun, wala kang mapapanood na tamang representation ng gays or lesbians, at iba pa. Ang mga gays noon, pampatawa, mga Jack and Jill type, o ‘di kaya may sakit na kailangang gamutin, o biktima, o ‘di kaya mare-reform at magiging lalaki, o magiging babae si lesbian. Halos lahat ganoon at mahirap mag-pitch ng project na ‘yung tamang representation,” Ricky Lee points out. “So hindi nila papayagan in the real sense, ilulusot mo lang noong panahon namin.”

(Back then, you wouldn’t be able to see gays, lesbians, and others properly depicted. Gays were just comic relief, the Jack and Jill type, or had an illness that needed healing, or was a victim, or would be reformed and become straight. That’s how things were then and it was hard to pitch projects that depicted proper representation.)

For JP Habac, of romantic comedy I’m Drunk, I Love You, this remains to be the case, despite the passage of time and the progress that the queer community has achieved since. “Ako ‘yung goal ko kasi parang sana makakita ako ng…like kunwari, every Valentine’s Day of every year parang sana nakakakita tayo ng romcom na queer characters ‘yung nasa big screen…. And I think para ma-achieve mo ‘yung dream na ‘yun, you have to be really rebellious about your scripts, about your stories. Kasi kung panay ‘yung compromise, at wala namang masama sa pagko-compromise, pero kung palagi na lang nagko-compromise, hindi mo maa-achieve ‘yung dream na ‘yun.”

(My goal is, for example, that every Valentine’s Day, we could see romcoms with queer characters. And I think that in order to achieve that dream, you have to be really rebellious with your scripts, your stories. Because if we keep compromising – and there’s nothing wrong with compromising – but if we always do that every single time, you won’t be able to achieve that dream.)

The problem also extends to casting queer actors in queer roles. And when they do land these roles, the next dilemma is whether they’d get new offers or none at all, as in the case of Zar Donato, an out queer actor who starred in Samantha Lee’s coming-of-age drama Billie and Emma

After Billie and Emma, sobrang hirap na hirap siyang makahanap ng follow-up roles,” shares the director. “So as a filmmaker na nag-cast sa kanya, I feel bad din kasi parang, oh binigyan kita ng lead role for your first film, tapos after that wala nang sumalo sa iyo, so feeling ko problem pa rin ‘yung pagiging out na actor sa industry.”

(After Billie and Emma, she had such a hard time finding follow-up roles. So as the filmmaker who cast her, I felt bad too, because I gave you the lead role in your first film, and then nobody hired you after that, so I feel like being an out actor in the industry is still a problem.)

“So the hope is not to be the avatar for representation. It’s actually to…sana mapadali ‘yung buhay ng ibang tao (make life easier for other people),” she adds.

Forging ways forward

Acknowledging these cracks in the current terrain of Philippine cinema, Ricky Lee points out that the overhaul must be done collectively, beginning with elevating the sensibilities of the audience. 

Halimbawa, kung ang consciousness ng mga manonood natin ay very progressive na gaya nang pag-iisip natin, walang magagawa ang producers except sumunod. Actually, ang purchasing power, nasa audience, sila ang magdidikta kung anong gagawin ng producers. Kaya lang, hindi pa natin namumulat totally ‘yung audience natin para ‘yun ang puntahan. So anywhere na puntahan ng audience, pupuntahan ng producers, pati ‘yung mga artista na takot na [tumanggap ng queer roles].” 

(For instance, if our viewers are progressive and like-minded, producers have no choice but to relent. The audience has the purchasing power, they’re the ones who get to tell the producers what to do. The thing is, however, we haven’t educated the audience enough to steer them in that direction. So wherever the audience goes, that’s where producers go to, as well as the artists who are afraid to take on queer roles.)

The veteran screenwriter adds, “It’s an overall problem, which becomes our problem kasi I think it’s our problem na tumulong na mag-raise ng consciousness sa lahat ng mga tao sa paligid natin para maging safe na lugar sa paggawa ng mga pelikula, material, at kuwentong gusto natin. Tayo ang magki-create nung dagat na ‘yun. At hindi natin magagawa ‘yun sa paisa-isang pelikula lang o isang tao. Tulong-tulong tayo lahat.”

(I think we need to raise the consciousness of everyone around us in order to create a safe space to make the films, material, and stories we want. We are the ones who will create that space. But we can’t do it with just one film every now and then, or through just one person. We need to work together.)

EKSENA!, in a sense, contributes to this collective, and certainly protracted, effort. With each picture it highlights, it stakes that defiance, no matter how granular, is possible in a reactionary industry. It forces us to look at the screen with different vantage points, to fixate on these obscured lives, to those who have learned to take comfort in the fringes, to see queerness as something real, lived, and meaningful, and not an abstract concept to be forsaken, to be shamed. Above anything, it is a document of where we came from, where we are now, and where we can go. –

Add a comment

Sort by

There are no comments yet. Add your comment to start the conversation.

Summarize this article with AI

How does this make you feel?

Download the Rappler App!
Accessories, Glasses, Face


Lé Baltar

Lé Baltar is a Manila-based freelance journalist and film critic for Rappler. Currently serving as secretary of the Society of Filipino Film Reviewers (SFFR), Lé has also written for CNN Philippines Life, PhilSTAR Life, VICE Asia, Young STAR Philippines, among other publications. She is a fellow of the first QCinema International Film Festival Critics Lab.