When transgender celebrities are placed under the harsh media spotlight, they’re often turned into cover girls, and their stories reduced to catchy, alliterative headlines. And thus even with the recent coverage of celebrities coming out as trans, understanding the challenges that this community faces remains a struggle.
The need for a deeper, unvarnished portrayal of transgender individuals has never been more pressing, and in my opinion, there is no platform that fulfils this need quite as effectively as the documentary genre.
‘Draft Day’, a 9-minute documentary, is one such effort to present a more authentic view of the transgender women in our own backyard. As part of his research for a feature film, Korean-American filmmaker Josh Kim follows two transgender women in Thailand, and their endeavour to gain medical exemption from the military draft.
While their circumstances and experiences are fascinating, the documentarian behind the camera is just as intriguing. Josh is no stranger to making short films about the LGBTQ community, but strikingly enough, his films are never centered on the coming out process.
Rather, the sexual and gender identities of his protagonists are often non-issues, with supporting characters who are unquestioningly accepting.
In an interview with Viddsee BUZZ, Josh said that he was inspired by the films of Thomas Bezucha, like ‘The Big Eden’ and ‘Family Stone’. “The characters in his films always just naturally accepted the sexuality of others. I felt that that was how the world should be,” he said.
In ‘Draft Day’, the transgender women relate their stories and experiences in a matter-of-fact tone. In addition to Nookie and Bell, Josh also interviewed other trans women with varying attitudes towards the military — one says that it was the best days of her life, another resents the thought of enlisting. But all of them have to submit to the draft, because they are not able to change the gender on their identity cards to female.
Even for Thailand, where attitudes towards the transgender community are relatively more positive, socio-political institutions like the military have yet to overhaul practices that disadvantage this minority community and deprive them of an equal opportunities to serve the nation.
Josh became interested in Thailand after reading a collection of short stories by the Thai-American author Rattawut Lapcharoensap. For the young filmmaker, reading the story on the military draft almost resembled a cinematic experience. In a video interview with TeddyAward TV, he said it was like he “licked the colour off the film strip”.
He then made a cold call to the publisher, got the film rights, sold his film gear and boarded a plane to Thailand. He spent the next three years in intense research: learning Thai, attending military drafts, and meeting people. When he met Bell and Nookie, he decided to document that process and their stories. This became ‘Draft Day’, which was his research for his debut feature film How To Win At Checkers (Every Time).
For audiences outside of Thailand, ‘Draft Day’ provides atypical glimpses into a vastly different culture. But as Josh would uncover, his documentary held surprises even for the Thais themselves, many of whom had never attended a draft.
“The draft lottery is only for men, many women have never been to a draft. Many men as well opt to serve in the ROTC in high school for 3 years and do not have to participate in this process,” he explains, referring to the Reserve Officer Training Course.
Jaa Kongwiang, one of the two women interviewed said that this documentary “was a story they’ve been telling their whole lives”. Josh continued, sharing the feedback “And, now someone has recorded it for them so that others can now also hear.”
‘Draft Day’ was screened at festivals in Hong Kong, Italy and Indonesia. It won the Jury Award for Best Short Film at the Polari26: Austin Gay & Lesbian International Film Festival, and Best Documentary at San Diego Asian Film Festival in the US.