By Matt Connolly
The Amazing Truth About Queen Raquela
Dir. Olaf de Fleur Johannesson, Iceland/Philippines/France/Thailand, Regent Releasing/here! Films
The Amazing Truth About Queen Raquela is a quasifictional film that employs traditional documentary technique to tell the story of Raquela Rios, a Filipino trans woman who dreams of leaving her limited existence as a part-time streetwalker in Cebu City and starting a new life in Paris. After meeting Raquela while visiting Cebu City, director Olaf de Fleur Johannesson decided to make a movie about her life and experiences. Not interested in shooting a documentary but lacking the funds for a traditional fictional narrative feature, Johannesson mixed the two genres together: casting Raquela and her friends (also transwomen) as versions of themselves and drawing upon some of Raquela’s real-life experiences, while constructing a largely fictionalized narrative based upon his personal research into the lives of Filipino transwomen. The narrative remains a mixture of fact and fiction, but the aesthetic (first person interviews; on-screen text with information on both Raquela and transwomen in the Philippines; distanced shots capturing on-the-fly conversations between Raquela and her friends) feels distinctly documentary. This “visionmentary,” as Johannesson deems it, wades into some shifty ethical waters, placing a uniformly nonfiction veneer over an undifferentiated mixture of real and imagined events. How is the viewer to know where Raquela’s actual experiences end and Johannesson’s researched assumptions and narrative prerogatives begin? If this remains an issue to be parsed, however, those who read the press release will be well informed with regards to the film’s fusion of fact and fiction, able to make an informed decision regarding the implications of….
Wait, what was that? Did I mean “film”? Of course not. Nothing in Johannesson’s film mentions any of the information told above, except for the plot description. A viewer will have to wait for the credits to roll before seeing that many of the roles are just that: actors performing for a director, as opposed to individuals being captured by a documentarian’s lens. A viewer will not be able to consider the aforementioned implications of Johannesson’s choices, because the film presents itself primarily as a documentary that occasionally incorporates staged scenes to bolster its points, a technique by no means unheard of in nonfiction filmmaking. In fact, if a viewer were to leave right as the credits begin to roll (also a practice not unheard of), they could very well walk out of the theater thinking they just saw a wholly factual account of life as a Filipino transwoman: subjected to the inevitable biases in framing and editing that imbue all documentaries, but inherently nonfictional in its aims and execution. Never in my life have I been so thankful for a press release, a luxury any filmgoer not attending a special screening or watching a studio-released screener will be without.
What bothers me (offends me, really) about Queen Raquela is not that Johannesson walks in the shadow land between lived experience and constructed artifice; many of the best directors, regardless of genre or mode of filmmaking, do just that, in ways that span the artistic and ethical gamut. It’s that, for whatever reason, he has essentially chosen to hide it from his viewer. His methods are not secret per se, although good luck trying to get your hands on that coveted press release without some kind of media outlet behind you. Rather, his film does not inform the viewer in any explicit or definitive manner that what they are watching is a compilation of varying levels of fiction and fact, and that the images and words being presented to them must be primarily viewed within the context of invented narrative, albeit one inflected with real-life experience. Viewed as fiction, the viewer would see certain story shifts or bits of characterization as, not the documentarian’s shaping of a preset reality, but the director’s distillation of feeling and thought into a resonant, but finally separate, intellectual and emotional sphere.
Because of Johannesson’s decision to shift the viewer’s expectations from fiction to documentary, the viewer now assumes the action on camera, while mediated, arrives from a fundamentally shared reality, and therefore has the potential to feel more immediate and gripping. Consequently, he has the potential to imbue moments otherwise lacking in drama with the added punch of captured reality. It’s not for me to judge whether Johannesson actively thought of this effect when making his directorial choices. What I do know is that the rare moments of emotional clarity I found within the otherwise clichéd and forgettable Raquela derived at least part of their power from the assumption that the camera was capturing exhilaration, loneliness, and ambivalence in real time, and not recording pre-planned emotional effusions.
Not that Queen Raquela exudes a great deal of thoughtful self-awareness on either representational issues or ethical implications, despite its seeming concern with ethnic and sexual exotification, and the dangers and double standards behind a certain breed of benevolent cultural colonialism. Raquela’s dreams of a fabulous life in Paris may be outsized, but she’s pragmatic when it comes to finding money given her limited economic status and marginalized cultural position. After yet another online suitor breaks his promise to come and take her away from the Philippines, she follows a lead that brings her to Michael (Stefan Schaefer), a New York¬¬–based administrator of a website specializing in Asian transsexual erotica. Raquela also strikes up an online friendship with a fellow transwoman from Iceland, Valerie (Brax Villa), who offers to fly her to Iceland with a temporary visa. Though Raquela’s Iceland job in a fish factory lacks some of the glamour she hoped would come from a European lifestyle, she nevertheless finds brief contentment, even as her visa expiration date ticks in the background. Her dream trip to Paris eventually occurs but, in a particularly bitter irony, it’s bankrolled by the toxic Michael, who accompanies her and proceeds to make the city of lights a little bit dimmer with a seemingly endless barrage of seething observations and sour musings.
Queen Raquela is more than ready to point an accusatory finger at Michael for exploiting Raquela’s desire for temporary escape as a tool of economic gain, allowing her a brief glimpse of an alternate life with no intention of helping her sustain it. Indeed, some of the film’s most poignant images come when Raquela walks around Paris by herself. We’ve seen Raquela walk down narrow city streets earlier in the film: shrouded in shadow and poured into a skin-tight miniskirt and low-cut blouse, evaluating propositions from potential Johns. What strikes the viewer is how comfortable Raquela looks strolling the broad Parisian avenues or smoking a cigar at a cramped café: a fish out of water finally finding the right pool to swim in.
As a documentarian (pardon me, a “visionmentarian”), though, would it not have been wise to point that wagging finger back at yourself, if only to keep everyone honest? Regardless of the level of involvement that the real-life Raquela had in the shaping of the film’s semi-autobiographical narrative, the power dynamics between white, European male director and Filipino transsexual subject would seem, if nothing else, to provide a filmmaker with the opportunity to dramatize some of his own moral qualms and worries about artistic exploitation in complex and challenging ways. Johannesson bypasses this, instead painting Michael in garishly broad strokes that underline his noxious cultural and interpersonal insensitivity. At one point, Michael compares transsexual men and women to cicadas (hiding their true selves for years before bursting forth and hungrily devouring the previously unseen landscape before dying a quick death), but the moment feels less like a trip into one man’s bigoted heart of darkness than a signpost pointed at an antagonist’s skull, with neon letters flashing “Hate Me!”
If the film’s relationship with Michael is painfully clear, however, its take on Raquela ultimately seems indeterminate. Certainly, Queen Raquela is sympathetic to her, but beneath that sympathy seems to lay a kind of defensive condescension. The viewer discovers only the most cursory aspects of Raquela’s childhood and adolescence and, indeed, her present familial and economic situation remain sketchy at best. Mostly, we see her walking the night streets, exchanging instant messages with would-be suitors and chatting with her friends about men and clothes. It’s a less than complex portrait of a woman who tends to communicate her dreams and fears (to the camera, anyway) in simple, at times inelegant, terms. Johannesson lets his lens linger on Raquela’s pretty if cosmetically imperfect face as she struggles with describing her hopes of leaving Cebu City, but he seems to pick up more tics than grace notes. When the demonized Michael dismisses Raquela and other Filipino transwomen as shallow or obsessed with men, then, Johannesson’s construction of Raquela, while pleasant, rarely out-and-out refutes or contradicts such claims.
For all these tonal issues, it’s hard to leave Queen Raquela not feeling a good deal of respect for Raquela herself, who navigates an often unfriendly world with an unpretentious and up-front honesty with regards to gender and sexuality. Johannesson himself admires it in Raquela and the other transwomen he met, writing in the director’s note that “they truly enjoyed life and were deeply entranced by the idea that they were being true to themselves, living authentically.” It’s a choice sentiment from a filmmaker whose “visionmentary” ultimately seems blind to its own dishonesty.