"An Absorbing Plunge into Leitis’ Unique Role in Tonga" - The Utah Review

by Les Roka - July 12, 2018:

This year’s Utah Film Center Damn These Heels International Film Festival, taking place July 20-22 in Salt Lake City's Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, is a panoply of emancipating artistic expressions that break many taboos and boundaries. The 23 feature-length films introduce audiences to stories where different cultures, religious beliefs, and personal pursuits bring fresh awareness, especially to sexual identity and the fluidity of gender.

Joey Joleen Mataele is Tonga’s most prominent trans activist. A caterer and organizer who also launched a pageant that draws thousands of visitors every year, she co-founded the Tonga Leitis Association more than a quarter of a century ago. The film is thorough, well-paced and instructive, not just in Tongan culture but also in strategic lessons about activism and collaboration. The leitis enjoy the patronage of the royal family in the Tongan kingdom, and they have been encouraged by positive statements from the Catholic church in this South Pacific island nation. However, as in many other countries in the region, leitis do not enjoy full protections when it comes to employment opportunities, healthcare access, or basic civil rights. There also is the rise of evangelical dissent that refuses to acknowledge making any concessions in the debate, and the rhetoric has inflamed the risks of violence and personal attacks on the leitis.

Through all of this, Mataele remains an articulate, dignified, wise leader in a film that highlights a beautiful nation and a different perspective on activism that seeks collaboration with the country’s most cherished institutions. The leitis are committed to staying in their communities because they value Tongan culture and social relationships. Leitis in Waiting emerges as a documentary that is a catalyst for meaningful, sustained change that sets mutual dignity and respect for all community sectors.

1Dean Hamer