Leitis In Waiting


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Leitis In Waiting
"Leitis In Waiting provides insight into the leiti community, Tongan society, the spread of American-funded missionary fundamentalism and the politics of resistance."

It has always been difficult to be different in a small community. Imagine, then, what it's like to be on the sharp end of prejudice in Tonga, which has a total population of just over 100,000 people. Go back a few hundred years, or even just a few decades, and Joey Mataele and her friends wouldn't have been seen as outsiders Traditionally, trans women like them were accepted and had their own distinct role in Tongan society, but the arrival of evangelical Christianity has changed that, importing hostile attitudes and the violence that goes with them. This documentary, dedicated to a leiti who lost her life to that violence, looks at Joey's efforts to change people's thinking and to take care of other leitis in the meantime.

In a place as small as Tonga where the same royal family has been in power for centuries, it is perhaps not surprising that the relationship between the nobility and the rest of the populace is closer than in many places and more personal. Of noble birth herself, Joey recounts how she was presented to the Queen as a young child and how it was the Queen who told her mother to add the final vowel to her name, sensing that there was something feminine about her. Drawing on these connections, she has secured the services of a princess as the patron of her organisation for supporting leitis, and this involvement seems to considerably beyond the occasional photo opportunity or Christmas card that one might expect from such an arrangement in the UK. The film follows her as she arranges to hold a beauty pageant to give her fellow leitis more self-confidence and the chance to have some fun.

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Made by a trans Native Hawaiian and former competitor in Joey's pageant, Leitis In Waiting provides insight into the leiti community, Tongan society, the spread of American-funded missionary fundamentalism and the politics of resistance. It's by no means an anti-religious film, with input from Church figures who don't see any necessity for conflict between Christian principles and the acceptance of gender diversity; the voices of evangelicals who reject trans people are also included. Members of the royal family contribute their thoughts and there's discussion of the nature of masculinity in Tongan culture. It would be useful to have a bit more here about older Tongan understandings of gender, especially for newcomers to the subject, but the film still packs a lot into its 72 minute running time.

Vital to this is the exploration of human experiences at its centre. We spend a lot of time with a young leiti whom Joey has been looking after since she was rejected by her family, and her simple ambitions and gradual progress into independence as an adult provide emotional context for the rest. The beauty queen contestants may not fit the skinny, hi-glam norms of Western pageants but the sheer joy with which they prepare for the events makes them many times more charming. But will it go ahead in the face of religious opposition? This uncertainty provides tension to keep the narrative moving.

Though it lacks the polish of better funded documentaries, Leitis In Waiting provides a rare opportunity to get to know an under-explored subject from the inside, and it provides a very different perspective on life in the Friendly Islands.

Reviewed on: 12 Dec 2018
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The story of Joey Mataele and the Tonga Leitis, an intrepid group of transgender women fighting a rising tide of religious fundamentalism and intolerance in their country.

Director: Dean Hamer, Joe Wilson

Starring: Joey Joleen Mataele

Year: 2018

Runtime: 72 minutes

Country: Tonga, US

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