After Attending The Oldest Transgender Festival In India, Filmmaker Jess Kohl Throws Light On Its Darker Side
- IWB Post
- November 20, 2018
Aaliyah Khan and Chintu Dolly are two entirely different personalities. Although both of them recognize themselves as transgender individuals, one can easily distinguish between their lives and recognize their talents as they compete with one another for the Miss Koovagam beauty pageant – the biggest Trans beauty pageant in India.
Aaliyah & Chintu were recently featured in a documentary called ‘Nirvana’ by London-based filmmaker and photographer Jess Kohl.
In an almost 15-minute-long film, one can see the two protagonists talking about their ambitions and how important it was for them to win the contest. “I want to become an international model, that’s my dream,” declared 28-year-old fearless Transwoman Aaliyah.
Koovagam festival is said to be one of the oldest festivals in the world. Transgender people from all over India come to be a part of this annual ritual that takes place in the Koovagam village of Villupuram district, Tamil Nadu. The festival takes place at the Koothandavar Temple dedicated to a deity called Aravan. The days-long ceremony involves re-enacting an ancient myth about Lord Krishna who married Aravan after taking the form of a (Trans)woman named Mohini. The moment the wedding takes places, Krishna sacrifices Aravan hence making Mohini mourn like a widow. The tradition has long been followed by the Trans community, involving them to first marry Lord Aravan and then mourn his death.
We appreciate the way Jess has captured this carnival and also brought to light its dark side. In her collection of pictures and a gripping documentary ‘Nirvana,’ we can witness this happy gathering celebrating the third gender occasionally transforming into a place enveloped with greed, anger, jealousy, and insecurities. Read our conversation with Jess discussing what inspired her to travel all the way from London to stay in a small village in Tamil Nadu among thousands of transgender and transvestite individuals. (A transvestite is a person, typically a man, who derives pleasure from dressing in clothes primarily associated with the opposite sex.)
Your work mostly focuses on subcultures, minorities, and hidden/underground communities. What inspires you the most about them?
I’m attracted to create work with underground communities and those on the fringes of society because I find that the most extreme and interesting spectrums of humanity that can be found in these pockets of society. I’m interested in groups and individuals who are passionately living lives outside of the norm, those who are fighting to have their voices heard. I’m particularly interested in struggles with gender and sexuality because these are themes I relate to on a personal level. Also, as a visual artist, I find that the imagery attached to more extreme pockets of society is really arresting and interesting to capture.
How do you reach out to these communities/groups and ask for their permission to shoot them?
I research a lot through social media, which is a gift of the age I’m living in, but also has its limitations, as only certain cultures and groups have access to these platforms. It’s usually through getting sucked into an internet black hole that I’ll discover a fascinating festival or group of people in a far-off corner of the world. I’ll then try to track down individuals who want to collaborate with me – I like to go directly to my contributors rather than work with a local fixer, as it’s really important for me that the people I film actively want to have their voices heard and stories told.
After shooting the Koovagam Transgender Festival, you revealed how unsafe the festival actually is for Trans women. Could you smell any shady story?
There were definitely dark undertones at Koovagam which became more visible as my time there went on. We were staying in a guest house where many younger Trans girls stayed with their ‘moms’ (small group leader) and Trans families. There was a lot of sex work happening there, and the first night we stayed there saw random people trying to get into their rooms. We could also listen to continuous siren-honking in the streets because the local men wanted to create trouble for them.
I began to find out more about the ancient ‘jamaat’ system that the Trans community adhere to – the money that the girls make from sex-work and begging which goes straight to their ‘moms.’ The hierarchical system continues at many levels, with these moms giving the money they make to their gurus, and so on. A family is so important in India, as it gives people a structure to survive in, whereas in the West, being independent is also a viable option. Trans people are generally not accepted by their birth families, so it made sense as to why the transgender community has had to build their own family structure, but there are sacrifices within that.
Did you happen to discuss it with the community members present at the fest?
My team spoke to some Trans women who have been attending the festival for decades, but in recent years have begun to feel unsafe there. The festival attracts more and more men from the nearby local villagers, who drink all night and take advantage of the Trans girls, who are just seen as sex objects. It’s no longer a safe space for the community to celebrate all night, which is quite sad.
We now understand why you say that these Mothers/Gurus double up as pimps for young Trans women. But what, according to you, makes the Trans community a close-knit group in spite of the skin-trade most of them are forced into?
It was a challenge to gain a well-rounded perspective of the community because it is so fiercely close-knit and the girls are very protective of one another. Partially, this is because they are scared of speaking negatively of their community, as it might have consequences and backlash within the community. This makes it hard to gain a full understanding of the way the community operates. They even have their own language!
Talking about the Trans community in India, it’s so ancient and steeped in tradition that for many of the girls, sex work is the only option to survive. They’re pushed into it from a young age in order to pay to have their place in a Trans household. This is also where mainstream society has pushed them; it’s where they’re accepted in the Indian culture. It’s a vicious cycle and change is incrementally slow.
Did you have to convince these women to not hide their faces and instead bravely narrate their stories to you? We love their sharp gaze into the camera lens.
Trust me when I say these women wanted to be on the camera and have their voices heard. Of course, there were certain moments which they didn’t want to share, and sex-work was one of those delicate subjects. There are a few scenes I filmed that never made it into the cut because the girls asked me to remove them. They were majorly concerned with how they looked; I remember they didn’t want to be filmed without their makeup and proper attire.
I did try to push them out of their comfort zones through my questions and what I wanted to film, which I felt was necessary to give the community a rounded, humane voice that the viewer can empathise this. This is particularly important for the Indian viewers because mistreatment of the Trans community is a prominent issue in the Indian culture.
How okay were they otherwise when you went into their vanity rooms and captured them crying? Did anyone attack you or your gear?
We were markedly immersed in the community, so after some time, the camera felt less intrusive and people seemed relaxed. As I’m genuinely interested in the communities I document, my relationship with contributors generally becomes more like a friendship, which makes it rare that there’s ever negative emotions involved.
That said, Derek Hardie Martin (who art-directed the film) had taken Polaroids of the girls, and at one point we saw Aaliyah’s mom snatching them out of his hand, saying they were ‘her girls.’ Derek had to run after her to get them back, which luckily he managed to do without any physical confrontation.
We definitely pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable to film, but always stopped rolling if someone felt really uncomfortable or asked us to. For example, one night we dropped Aaliyah at the roadside for work having spent a really nice day filming together. This was the brutal reality she had to go back to, and it felt really emotional for everyone involved. She left the car and then got back in and cried. I felt totally paralysed to film this.
For us, Aaliyah was the star of ‘Nirvana.’ She seemed wise and content with her current situation. How do you remember her?
Aaliyah has a real star quality to her, and I was instantly attracted to having her as a main focus in the film, especially after seeing her auditioning for Miss Koovagam. She has a confidence and originality that some of the other girls lacked. Her story of family abandonment is tragic and I really empathise with her inability to escape the cycle of the jamaat system. She should have so many more opportunities than she currently does. I hope that ‘Nirvana’ might provide her the exposure for this to happen.
Before we conclude, introduce yourself to our readers by sharing what inspired you to study cinematography and how long have you been practicing it commercially.
Growing up in London, I’ve been lucky to be surrounded by creative opportunities from a young age. My mother studied graphic design, which she practiced until family life took over. My parents collect and appreciate art, and although we have quite different tastes, I think this is partly what allowed me to take a creative career path. My brother works as a television producer, so I can bounce ideas and get advice from him, too.
I decided to study cinematography after completing a degree from Central Saint Martins in Moving Image. CSM was brilliant as it gave me the space to develop my practice as an artist and experiment with different mediums. I graduated with a 1st class honours degree but felt I lacked the technical skills and film language to have confidence as a woman in the industry. I wanted to learn skills that would allow me to go out and shoot independently, without having to rely on a big crew or anyone else to tell stories.
I graduated from my master’s degree in September 2017, and launched myself straight into the production of ‘Anarchy in the Philippines’, a short documentary about a group of punks against the backdrop of President Duterte’s ‘war on drugs.’ I guess this was my first ‘commercial’ project or ‘big break’, although it was not financially lucrative and it definitely left me out of pocket, fortunately, I was willing (and able) to do this to get my voice heard and tell a story that I felt was really important.
My experience so far has been that making documentaries isn’t financially lucrative, so it’s important for me to also take on commercial projects too, which I also enjoy. I feel that there is a space for commercial and documentary worlds to come together, and I hope that my work can fill that gap.
Lastly, what new projects are you currently working on?
I have various film ideas in different stages of development that I am pitching, all with a focus on themes I have previously expressed interest in. Most are in Asia – a couple in India, one in Pakistan and another in Malaysia. I find Asian culture really interesting as it contrasts so heavily with the West, so I’m always drawn to finding stories to tell in that part of the world. I’m also really interested in working on longer form and episodic pieces, and I’m currently looking into funding for developing both Anarchy and Nirvana into full-length films.
First published on Aug 1, 2018.