Many queer and trans people have had to live parts of their lives in the shadows, alone and separated from community and elders. It is unfortunately still rare to be born into families or communities that can embrace us fully, let alone connect us to those who have walked the same paths of self-discovery, adversity, and joy.
Leading up to the 35th anniversary Vancouver Queer Film Festival, we sat down with youth filmmakers Ronnie Cheng (they/she) and Leo Litke (he/him) and protagonist Tien Neo Eamas (he/him) of the film Becoming Queer Joy, premiering at VQFF in the Troublemakers 7.0 program, to discuss the importance of sharing our stories and intergenerational connection.
Tell us a little bit about who you are, and how you got involved with this project.
Leo: I’ve been into filmmaking since I was 11 or 12. I did one year of film studies, and I’ve made lots of films that haven’t really gone anywhere yet. I’m currently working on a documentary for a local non-profit.
Ronnie: I started making films around 11 or 12 years old, just fun short films with friends. I’m from Hong Kong, and I came here for school. Moving here, I had to develop a new community of filmmakers, because it’s such a collaborative thing. I’m always looking for different opportunities and people to work with, which is why I signed up for Troublemakers. I’m a media studies student, and I do film, animation, and creative coding. I am queer, and in terms of gender I am whatever. It took me a really long time to come to terms with my sexuality and gender. I was brought up in an environment that wasn’t supportive of queerness, and I’ve dealt with a lot of anxiety around finding the right label for myself.
Tien: I am Singapore born, but I’ve lived in Canada for 35 years. I am a goldsmith, a wizard, and a spiritual and gender guide. And I am trans. I am trans by default. Since I was a kid, my question was always why are there only two kinds of people on this earth. I found it very strange, and I just wanted to be me. Now, 50 years later, having had the experience of being the first asian trans man to come out in Vancouver, and having been part of the Lesbian and Gay community before the expansion of the acronym. I have left the community many times. Whatever makes us tick is individual choice. I have a warm heart for the community because I’ve witnessed its expansion. And because it comprises such an expanse of people, I get annoyed sometimes. As a spiritual teacher my commitment is to always be connected to joy, and to have fun.
What does “fun” mean for you?
T: Oh, I like that question. For me, fun is playfulness, silliness. Someone saying stupid silly things. Fun is what makes me laugh, anything from a bunch of flowers to jumping around in the wind, even sitcoms.
Can you share something you are really proud of, that you do for fun, or that brings you joy?
Leo: Most recently, I watched Across the Spider Verse, and it was so good. I got home and started drafting an essay about it.
Tien: Oh, excellent!
Leo: Which sounds ridiculous, but I do enjoy writing about film, I find it very fun often, and tying ideas together.
What was the essay about?
Leo: I was thinking about the inherent queerness of the multiverse, even in Everything Everywhere All At Once, and Across the Spider-Verse, and The Barbie Movie, and it’s so great because the multiverse is exploring every single option that there is, and I love seeing that included because that’s how it should be. I also got a new kind of tea that is delicious, jasmine thai tea. And I’ve been ice skating!
Ronnie: I’m most proud of seeing myself grow. I tend to be pretty critical of my work, but then when I look at my work from a year ago, I see that I’ve actually improved a lot. It makes me more motivated to keep making stuff, and keep doing the thing I love doing. Because there’s a part of my brain that always says, it’s not good enough, you’re not good enough, and so being able to see the progress I’ve made throughout the years, reminds me that it’s okay if I’m not good enough now, I can actually say to myself, you’re growing quite quickly.
There’s this quote from Ira Glass, and essentially he says it takes a long time for the quality of your work to catchup with your taste, which is so frustrating. You kind of have to suffer through making things not quite as well as you want to for a long time, in any medium. Figuring out what your niche is, is such a constant state of becoming.
Leo: There’s this quote from a short film director that I love where they say, you can’t make great stuff until you’ve made good stuff. You can’t make good stuff until you’ve made okay stuff, and you can’t make okay stuff until you’ve made some really bad stuff. It’s very true and it’s hard to remember when you’re in the making of it.
Tien: I think it’s a necessary part not just of human development or the human condition, but I like to call it our soul experience. Because we have to be able to dream big. Because if we all dream small, we wouldn’t expand at the capacity we have. The human condition is impatience about that big dream, and the whole lesson is to enjoy the journey of getting there, and not give yourself such a hard time about where you’re at.
With that in mind, let’s talk about the film you made. How did you get involved with Reel Youth and the Troublemakers film project?
Leo: Me and Ronnie found out about it on Instagram, and we both applied.
Tien: One of my big dreams is to have a movie made about my life, and for years people have been saying that I need a movie made about my life. So this was a good little step! And it was very organic; it just showed up in my inbox. Someone sent me a link to do this, and I said sure! A bunch of people nominated me as well.
Ronnie & Leo, what surprised you about working with Tien? And Tien, what surprised you about working with Ronnie & Leo?
Leo – I don’t think I could have been surprised, because I didn’t know what to expect in the first place. I’d never met a trans person over the age of twenty-something. It was really interesting. Now there’s more exposure of the internet to older trans people, so it makes it less novel. But being in person, being able to have a conversation with him, and realizing how many views around gender that we shared… I don’t know how to describe it. It was very nice, but that feels like an insufficient word.
Ronnie: I was mostly surprised with how easy and stress-free the whole process was. This was the most stress-free film project I’ve ever worked on, which is surprising because this project is so important to me, so I thought I’d go into it with more pressure on myself to make it really good. But it all worked out really well. From the first day we met and got to talk to Tien, I knew we were good, and it would work out great. So the process was the most surprising for me. And in talking with Tien, especially realizing our similar views on gender and gender fluidity, the concept of gender fluidity is presented as a new thing young people are coming up with, which obviously I know is not true, but to actually meet someone who is older who has had those same views for decades was really nice.
Tien: What was most remarkable was that there is a clarity and a lightness to both of them, which was refreshing. Even with the various challenges with individual lives, there was still a belief of faith, or knowing that it’s okay, it doesn’t need to be that hard. For me that makes me feel hopeful, and it also affirms that how we bring ourselves to any circumstance is really how it turns out. Being responsible for how you are in your life is the most important thing. Life will turn out because of who you are about it. So they have a level of self-accountability that is so respectable and honourable, and it’s not surprising, but it’s extremely delightful to discover that.
What do you think is important about making film as a queer person about queer people?
Leo: I really think that it’s genuine, and sometimes straight people can get away with telling a compelling story, but there’s more of a diversity of perspective within queer narratives told by queer people. It brings out the unique perspectives that show up in subtle ways because if you go through life differently than most other people, art is a reflection of your experiences and your worldview.
Ronnie: On top of that, it provides queer and trans artists with a platform to tell their own stories because the stories queer and trans people choose to tell about themselves are going to be different than from a cis-hetero lens.
Tien: Representation obviously matters, and there is a reliability that is just there when it’s told by people who have had cross-over and similar experiences. It speaks on a heart level. The more there is, it adds to the rich diversity of what’s available.
Leo: I feel like queerness, as with any marginalization, you’re forced to experience the world in different ways, and you’re forced to adapt, and it brings a lot of uniqueness and freshness to art in its entirety. Your very existence is going against normalcy. It forces you to become less afraid to experiment and try new things.
Something we hear as queer and trans people is that we’re unique, in the sense that we don’t learn about our culture and history from our parents or families-of-origin. Instead, we rely on the guidance and wisdom of older queers. Before working on this project, had you met many older queer folks before? If so, what were your relationships with them like?
Ronnie: I always think that knowing about history informs on why things are the way they are. And queer history is not very well documented. Like, Tien is the first Asian trans man to publicly transition in Vancouver. You don’t find that when you google it. Being part of documenting this part of history and making it more widely known is a big honour.
Tien: It’s funny, history, we don’t know it’s history while it’s happening. I’ve known I was the first, but hearing you (Ronnie) say it in this context is really quite moving. I love understanding and studying human anthropology. As human beings, we are tribal mammals, so we naturally exist in tribal cultures. So in any conventional family, there are elders, and as we are developing and creating queer communities, we are creating a tribe as well. I suddenly had this vision of all these queer people in an intergenerational sitcom. Cause when you’re a teen, you don’t have a flaming queen grandpa to tell you to stop being a bitch. So as we’re connecting, our mammal self really isn’t fed right now because that connection isn’t there to tell you to shut up and sit down and eat your rice.
Tien, do you have many queer youth in your life?
Tien: I do. I know lots of youth, and I’m very aware that the new generations are freer beings because we are now busting out of the old paradigms we lived in. I know it’ll happen over the next 50 years. The difference in being able to work closely with Ronnie and Leo was really significant for me. There was an honour and acknowledgement of the challenges and pain that I’ve been through. And the isolation of the first 15 years of my transition, I was torn apart, even by queer and trans people, because of racism. It is very beautiful to be seen and heard and respected.
Leo: I think that being queer can be an isolating experience, and hopefully, with more representation, there’s more opportunity for connection like this, more connection in general! It broadens our understanding of what queerness is and what it can be.
Tien: Film is becoming bigger and bigger as an impactful resource and tool because we process film through many different senses. As we know as human beings, the more senses are hit, you receive the information on a whole different level, and you remember a whole lesson learned. So when we can share really valuable stories, it’s important to be responsible about how we leave our audiences and how we tell that story. We need to bring them to a place where they’re left in light rather than in sadness and despair. It doesn’t forward the conversation and keeps the oppressive cycle alive. In reaction to somebody’s hatred, the most revolutionary thing you can do is to respond in light and with joy. Otherwise, the fighting back continues to keep the haters alive. If we’re able to respond in light and curiosity, that shifts the dynamic completely. It leaves the perpetrators with education.
Ronnie: Going back to the question about queer and trans people making queer and trans films, even though our experiences are different, we understand how it feels to be isolated and rejected. For myself, that’s why I put so much emphasis on being respectful. I want to tell the story of the life-saving power of joy. I think the film is what it is because we understand how that feels and the importance of it.
You can watch all Troublemakers 7.0 films including Becoming Queer Joy by Ronnie and Leo, and featuring Tien online until during the 35th anniversary Vancouver Queer Film Festival.