Julie Willmarth, a California native, has a B.A. in media studies from Mills College. Yo Soy Asi (I Am Who I Am) was her senior thesis film and was subsequently featured in the New Fest Film Festival in New York City in the summer of 2004. Willmarth currently works under the name Joui Turandot, inspired by the French word jouer, meaning "to play," and the Puccini opera Turandot, which features a powerful female protagonist. She lives in San Francisco.
If you didn't know what you were watching, the opening scenes of this week's Rough Cut might look like the rushes from a film by Pedro Almodovar. Our stories come in a variety of styles; this time around, we present a cinema verite piece, a "day in the life," narrated by its main character, a transgender hairdresser living in Santiago, Chile.
All Karina Parra wants is to lead the life of an ordinary 27-year-old woman. But, as filmmaker Joui Turandot explains, a normal life for a transgender person in Chile is no easy task. "Transgendered people are almost always rejected by their families and end up on the streets. Basic human rights and opportunities do not apply." Many of them, says Turandot, become child prostitutes, and many who have mainstream jobs often lose their jobs as soon as they assume a female identity and are then forced into prostitution to survive.
Turandot spent a year studying in Santiago, where she was surprised to find a visible community of transvestite prostitutes in a society characterized by overt homophobia. With her film, she wanted to explore what it was like to be transgender in a fiercely Catholic and conservative country such as Chile.
"It's difficult for transgenders to make it as professionals. They are often condemned to dwell at the margins of society," says Turandot. "With few exceptions, Chilean universities will not accept openly transgendered students, and the best schools often expel male pupils who come to school dressed as a woman."
In this revealing personal portrait, Karina talks to the camera with a disarming frankness as she takes you through her daily life and early struggles, not to mention her physical and mental journey toward femininity. She says she is one of the lucky ones, having survived a childhood on the streets without resorting to prostitution.
"I left home when I was 10, so I learned a lot of things and I became aware of everything," Karina says. "I was never stupid. Back then I knew that if I dressed like a woman, I would have had to prostitute myself. But I don't like prostitution. So I asked myself, 'What can I do?' Work. And I started selling dish towels."
Today, she runs her own hair salon and is in a committed relationship with a longtime partner.
Chile has been rated as one of the freest nations in conservative Latin America -- the country elected its first female president in January, socialist Michelle Bachelet, who advocates for much greater tolerance in Chile -- but it is still criticized for its rigid class structure. And in this class-obsessed society, the only people lower than the indigenous peoples are those in the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities -- sectors of the population many Chileans prefer to ignore. Compounding the prejudice, transgendered Chileans are often shunned by gay, lesbian and bisexual Chileans.
As a hairdresser, Karina earns 2,000 pesos -- about US$4 -- for each haircut. Prostitutes earn 10,000 pesos or more for each sexual encounter. Yet for Karina, self-respect has been enough to keep her on track. Turandot says that although Karina would like to travel outside the country, she is not permitted to as long as she is legally "a man living as a woman." Ironically, with sex change surgery -- a lengthy, painful and expensive procedure she may never be able to afford -- she could qualify for a passport.