Rising Fil-Am Director Launches First Movie in Hulu
I sat on a bar stool in the middle of a balloon-filled room, a bartender expertly mixing cocktails to the left of me and across from me on a table lay a spread of sweets – a rainbow of colorful chocolates and jelly beans. I heard laughter behind me where a group of good-looking people was engaged in a friendly banter. In the mezzanine, three steps up, a couple of well-dressed women were taking pictures in front of a backdrop reminiscent of the Academy Awards red carpet where celebrities and movie stars pose. Slowly, guests were pouring in just as cakes and hors d’oeuvre started to fill the table. A television propped above the table was playing a movie. Suddenly, a beautiful blonde woman dressed in a low-cut long dress with a slit very much like Angelina Jolie’s, entered the room and grandly took everyone’s attention. As soon as I recognized it was Cassandra Cass, one of the women in the movie playing above the table, I turned around to see behind me, watching Cassandra and smiling quietly, was the man of the hour – and the reason I was there – Filipino Director Cecilio Asuncion. This was his night, the Launch Party for his movie “What’s the T”.
I immediately introduced myself to Cecilio and he instantly knew who I was. He welcomed me so warmly and we both agreed to talk later as he was still welcoming guests. In the meantime, I amusedly observed the flurry of activity. Though in a smaller scale, this is how a movie launch party is like – surrounded by two of the gorgeous cast members of the film and their equally beautiful friends, the film’s crew busy answering questions from curious guests, and a barrage of their supportive friends eager to celebrate the success of their movie, “What’s the T”.
Finally, Cecilio emerged from the crowd and spearheaded his way toward me and invited me to take pictures with him at the Hulu backdrop. After several photos, we tried to find a quiet place to talk, and each time we bumped into people, he was sidetracked. I could tell people love him, they were happy to be there for him, to talk to him. His approachable and humble demeanor set an impression of the good man that he is. We found corner seats in a patio in front of a closed restaurant downstairs and talked.
Dulce: Please tell me more about yourself aside from being the Director of “What’s the T”
Cecilio: I am a new filmmaker, this is my first film. I was born and raised in Quezon City, Philippines. I migrated to New York in 1999 and then moved to San Francisco in 2006. My background was in hotel and hospitality management and was also involved in making TV commercials in the Philippines.
Dulce: How did you get into filmmaking?
Cecilio: “What’s the T” is my first attempt at filmmaking. I felt very lucky and blessed, because this is an indie film, we had very little budget. But, I joined a film cooperative group, entered a 10-minute version of the film in a contest, and won! Everyone I worked with loved working with me and we all decided to make it a full-length movie, the rest, as they say, is history.
Dulce: How did you come up with the idea of making a movie about Trans genders?
Cecilio: What’s the T” came to life because of my genuine interest in people, in what they do, in what motivates them, in what makes them tick. It is easy for me to get to know somebody’s heart and mind. I felt that the transgender community is often misunderstood, they are always judged, and therefore, their life is more difficult because of that, especially because they have physical changes. I have always had the natural instinct to defend the oppressed.
Because of his close friendships with the ladies, Cecilio was inspired to shed light into the reality of a transgender’s life. He pointed out that the film is meant to educate people and dispel any negative and pre-conceived notions about transgenders and the LGBT community as a whole.
Cecilio brilliantly presented these women through a documentary format in which he shot the whole film in these women’s natural element, following them at home, at school, at work, with their friends, engaging in casual conversation and going about their daily lives. Cecilio so tenderly and vividly brought out the women’s personality and character that by the end of the movie, viewers instantly feel like they personally know them, understand them, and love them. As Cecilio aptly puts it, “to know the Ladies of “What’s the T” is to love them”.
Dulce: What is your next move after “What’s the T”?
Cecilio: A lot of things are happening. I will soon be representing the Philippines to the Brazilian Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. Actually, I was initially selected to represent the U.S. but I firmly told the association that I would like to represent the Philippines; I feel that in doing so (and if I win), I have served our motherland, and that is my way of giving back.
The Filipino community hopes that Cecilio receives a nomination for the coveted GLAAD award. Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) is a media group which police proper representation of the gay, lesbian, and transgender characters on television. Also, because of the film, more opportunities have also opened up for the ladies, as they have received numerous offers for appearances and performances.
Dulce: Do you think that “What’s the T” would propel you to mainstream movie industry?
Cecilio: He said, “one can only hope, but for me, I am happy that I have a voice – I can show who I truly am, whether as a gay man or as a Filipino director or as a Filipino period, this is it. This is indicative in my subjects who are all happy working with me and in my crew who keep on believing in me”.
Dulce: You have contributed “What’s the T” to the LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender) community. Is there something you can contribute to the Filipino community?
Cecilio: Yes, as a matter of fact! My second documentary is in Philippine dance, called “Sayaw”– I documented a Filipino choreographer putting together a dance company here in San Francisco, joining the SF Ethnic Dance Festival. That is what I’m working on right now so I am super excited. (I used to dance ballet). I want to produce and direct a Filipino-centric movie because, as a documentary filmmaker, I want to do something that is close to my heart – Dance and being Filipino – and I am very proud of it.
Dulce: In so doing, you are then promoting the Filipino culture?!
Cecilio: Absolutely! I do work with mostly non-Filipinos. But, everyone I work with on “Sayaw” learned about Philippine culture. I also had a Filipino caterer so my crew learned to eat adobo, binagoongan and rice instead of hamburgers and fries. I also ate with fork and spoon, that was how I was raised, why would I be ashamed of that?
Dulce: In the Philippines where gay and lesbians are accepted, how was it like to grow up as a gay man?
Cecilio: For my mom, my brothers and sisters, it was never an issue. However, it was difficult to come out because of the stigma of being gay. Gay representation in Philippine media was actor Roderick Paulate’s outlandish, over-the-top, flirtatious character roles in movies and the typical jobs that they land are in beauty salons. I was never that way and I believe there is more designation for gay people in life than that.
Dulce: Are there any obstacles breaking into film-making?
Cecilio: Yes, largely because it involves money. However I was lucky to have a crew that really supports me. With the help of my two best friends, Brian Anderson, my co-producer and Joshua Jones, our lawyer and writer and I produced “Sayaw”. Also when I started, I didn’t know how to direct and was talking to another director. Michael Garrigues, our cinematographer, told me, “Forget it, dude, you should direct!” So, I did – all it took is one person to believe in me even when I did not believe in myself.
Dulce: Do you think that this type of movie will be accepted in the Filipino community too?
Cecilio: I hope so, to a certain degree, it is more accepted in the Philippines. I remember going to church and seeing gay and lesbians holding hands with their partners inside the church. You don’t see that here. For me, there are a lot of possibilities. You have to keep believing, that’s why it’s important to be around positive people because it’s the hardest when you feel like you have no one to turn to – when you’re gay you choose your family.
Dulce: What is your advice to Filipino gay people or any gay men in general who are still afraid to come out?
Cecilio: ‘Mahalin mo ang sarili mo’, love yourself first, and then surround yourself with people you love who equally love you back. Because once you have the proper support system, the sky is the limit. I’ve been very lucky, that my family – my mom and my brothers and sisters were supportive, ‘basta mabuti kang tao at tama ang ginagawa mo’; you’re going to be fine. My advice is if you’re going to come out, surround yourself with the right people because that is the only way you can reach your full potential – when you have a full support system.
By this time, Cecilio and I were inundated with guests passing by us and saying hello. We decided to wrap it up and go back upstairs where the action was. Just as soon as we reached the top of the stairs, Cecilio was confronted by excited friends, got pulled in for pictures and selfies, and was immediately lost in the crowd. I stayed a little bit longer to socialize with a few common friends, met some of the crew members who had nothing to say but great things about Cecilio. If he is this popular now, I mused, what more when he goes to Hollywood?
I am fortunate to have met and known Cecilio Asuncion in person. He is proud to be Filipino and hopes to share more of his filmmaking talent as his way of giving back and makes sure that he promotes the Filipino culture in his work and personal life. Cecilio is paving the way for more Filipino filmmakers to be recognized globally. Yan ang power ni Cecilio! Yan ang Power ng Pinoy!
“What’s the T” is a poignant documentary on the lives of five transgender women. This film is an intimate look into the every day life of trans women who were born the opposite gender but transformed themselves into who they really are – beautiful women of substance that they are today. It is a film meant to educate people on what a being a transgender really means, talking about their journey in life and how being true to themselves presented challenges, which they faced and overcame triumphantly.
The Ladies of the film are Cassandra Cass, who appeared in CSI, Tyra Banks Show among others; Nya Ampon, a well-known Filipino performer at AsiaSF; Rakash Ramani, a nurse who reigns in the underground ball scene; Mia Tu Much, an LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender) advocate and activist; Vi Le, a biochemistry student, also a performer at AsiaSF, who will appear in the upcoming Tyra Banks docuseries “Transamerica”.
Director and Producer Cecilio Asuncion led the successful and well-attended launch party for the official release on Hulu of his first film, “What’s the T”, last Saturday, June 21, at the Lookout restaurant and bar in the legendary Castro district. “What’s the T” launch party was graced by the presence of two ladies from the cast, Cassandra Cass and Victory “Vi” Le. Also in attendance were the film’s crew: Associate Producers, Brian Anderson and Johnny Francisco; Cinematographers Michael Garrigues and David Bowsky; Eye Film’s Releasing Representative Benjamin Shearn; and Composer John Piscitello. Supportive friends of Cecilio and of the cast and crew enjoyed mingling amongst each other and celebrated the Hulu release of the movie, toasting to its current and future success.
“What’s the T” was officially released on Saturday, June 21st, on Hulu, a website for streaming movies, and is now available for viewing. By far, it has a whopping 22,100 views and counting.
Photo credits: Lookout, Darryl Pelletier and Marques Daniels