"A Remarkable Portrait of Tongan Leitis" - Filmmaker Magazine
In an in-depth piece titled “Made Visible: The 2018 Hawai’i International Film Festival,” Filmmaker Magazine’s Jason Sanders highlights “Leitis in Waiting” among other films.
One of HIFF’s greater strengths, though, is the range of what defines its “local” community, with films from across Polynesia and the Polynesian diaspora coming under its umbrella thanks to Honolulu’s status as a regional landing pad for much of that diaspora. It’s over 3,100 miles from Honolulu to the Kingdom of Tonga, for instance (Seattle to Miami coast-to-coast is a mere 2,700), yet the festivals’ screening of Joe Wilson, Dean Hamer, and Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu’s Leitis In Waiting may as well have been a hometown affair. A remarkable portrait of several Tongan transgender women (or leitis) led by the charismatic activist Joey Joleen Mataele, the film refreshingly gives its protagonists the space to speak for and about themselves. From the giddy flamboyance of crowd-pleasing beauty pageants or the everyday drudgery of household chores, and the struggle to organize politically in the face of rising (and usually US-funded) homophobia and fundamentalism, Leitis proudly puts front and center a community rarely — if ever — seen onscreen before. A thematic follow-up to Wilson and Hamer’s earlier festival favorite Kumu Hina, this film was co-directed as well by that film’s subject, Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, who first connected Mataele with the two.
The film’s screening provided one of the festival’s more memorable experiences, with Mataele in person and a celebratory audience comprised of many Polynesian “third-gender” individuals, from Tongan leitis to Hawai’ian mahu to Samoan fa’afafine. At one point Mataele and some friends took the stage for a performance and dance, with joyful audience members rushing up to shower the dancers with money or simply singing and clapping along. “Our experience at this year’s HIFF was wonderful,” writes Wilson of their screening. “Even though we live in the middle of the Pacific, stories reflecting the indigenous culture and diversity of our islands are often overlooked. HIFF provides a wonderful antidote by highlighting films that focus on the often overlooked people and communities who make Hawai’i and Polynesia unique….Also, there just seems to be an air of excitement around the programming and among the attendees that is at an even higher level than usual, and it’s infectious.”