Interview with Leitis in Waiting Co-Producer/Director Joe Wilson -

Leitis in Waiting is a raw, yet tender portrait of Joey Mataele and the Tonga leitis, an intrepid group of native transgender women fighting a rising tide of religious fundamentalism and intolerance in their South Pacific Kingdom. 

Interview with Co-Producer/Director Joe Wilson

Congratulations! Why did you make your film?

We made "Leitis in Waiting" because Joey Joleen Mataele, one of the founders of the Tonga Leitis Association and most prominent leitis in the Kingdom, invited us to Tonga to show Kumu Hina, our previous movie about a similar subject in Hawaii, and said afterward: "We've long dreamed about having our stories told.  Can you help us?"

Imagine I’m a member of the audience. Why should I watch this film?

You should watch this film because you will see a side of life in the Pacific Islands which you have never seen before, and be inspired by the courage, humor, and grace with which leitis and other gender and sexual minorities live their lives, despite tremendous prejudice and discrimination.

How do personal and universal themes work in your film?

The stories portrayed in the film are intensely personal as viewers go on individual journeys with different characters from different places in Tongan society, seeing the highs of those who are close the Royal Family, to the lows of those kicked out of their own homes simply for being who they are.  But within these stories are inspiring and universal themes of self-acceptance, resilience, pride and determination, and what it means to find and use your voice. 

How have the script and film evolved over the course of their development?

This is an unscripted documentary. During the year of verite filming, an extraordinary story unfolded before the cameras, when the leitis went from walking the narrow path that a conservative society had proscribed for them to standing up and calling a national meeting to challenge the colonial-era laws, still on-the-books in Tonga and six other Pacific nations, that criminalize and threaten their lives.

What type of feedback have you received so far?

The film has been very well received, winning the Audience Award at the Festival of Commonwealth Film in London where Joey Joleen Mataele was also honored as a Commonwealth Point of Light, bestowed by Queen Elizabeth to recognize outstanding advocates creating innovative approaches to social challenges affecting the global community.  The film also receive a Special Jury Award at FIFO Tahiti, and has been invited to screen in festivals around the world.

Has the feedback surprised or challenged your point of view?

A common theme among audiences at our screenings, many of whom are Tongan or islanders from another Pacific country, is that while they are all familiar with transgender people in their own families and communities, they had no idea that the prejudice they face is so severe or that the challenges they face in access education, finding jobs, etc. are so difficult.  These post-screening conversations become very emotional for many people as eyes become a little more open and hearts and minds begin to change.  It's beautiful!

What are you looking to achieve by having your film more visible on

We are hoping that will help new audiences see the Pacific Islands and its inhabitants in new, more enlightened and understanding ways.  To see that the region is not just for sun-seeking vacationers, but that it is a vast and vibrant cultural landscape whose people are helping to define what inclusion and equality should look like across the globe in the 21st Century.

Who do you need to come on board (producers, sales agents, buyers, distributors, film festival directors, journalists) to amplify this film’s message?

Produced in association with Pacific Islanders in Communications, this film will eventually be broadcast on national public television.  So, our biggest hope for this and other festival and community screenings is that journalists, activists, and others who believe that film has the power to spur change will attend and be inspired to amplify its message.

What type of impact and/or reception would you like this film to have?

In addition to opening and changing hearts and minds toward greater acceptance and inclusion for gender and sexual minorities, we are using the platform that screenings provide to galvanize global support for a petition calling on the seven Pacific Island nations to decriminalize and protect the rights of LGBTI people in the Pacific now.  See and share the petition HERE

What’s a key question that will help spark a debate or begin a conversation about this film?

What would you do if you were seen as a criminal in your own country simply for being who you are?

What other projects are the key creatives developing or working on now?

The filmmaking team behind Leitis in Waiting is working on a new, animated film project that will bring a powerful, yet largely unknown, legend to life, uncovering an aspect of Hawaiian culture and tradition that reveals that mahu where not just respected, but sent by the gods and revered by the people.  Stay tuned.

Interview: July 2018

We Are Moving Stories embraces new voices in drama, documentary, animation, TV, web series, music video, women's films, LGBTQIA+, POC, First Nations, scifi, supernatural, horror, world cinema.

1Dean Hamer