Flavio Florencio on Why His Documentary ‘Made in Bangkok’ Is More Than a Transgender Movie

“This is not a transgender movie.” That was the line that director Flavio Florencio found himself stressing to a rapt audience following a screening of his documentary, Made in Bangkok. The film, which screened as part of the Havana Film Festival New York, centers on Morgana, a Mexican transgender opera singer who travels all the way to Thailand to fulfill her lifelong dream: to undergo a sex reassignment surgery (SRS). Florencio’s line may strike many as false protestation. Isn’t an entire film that takes place at a beauty pageant for trans women (Miss International Queen) and which gives us access to Morgana’s own ideas about why she wants so badly to get the SRS she’s been fantasizing about for years, not by definition a “transgender movie”?

One gets the sense that Florencio really wants his film to move beyond such a label (“the film is about the dream”). And yet, despite focusing on Morgana’s talents (her singing voice is definitely awe-inspiring), the film does function as a “transgender movie” in that it offers audiences inadvertent lessons in the trans community and on the aforementioned SRS—at one point we even get a very graphic education on the way the surgery itself works.

There’s plenty to admire in Made in Bangkok and if there’s one thing the film teaches you is that Morgana, like many trans women in Mexico and around the world, is improbably resilient as well as a star in her own right. But the very moment when the film turns into a “dream come true narrative” — when a renowned Thai surgeon, upon receiving an email from Flavio that remains off-bounds for us watching enters the picture as a benevolent patron — the documentary loses some of its claims on veracity. (We see, for example, Dr. Preecha’s assistant fawning over Morgana after her pageant and asking her to come visit them before we’re even told that Flavio had made contact before the moment was filmed; what’s first passed off as kismet quickly gets revealed as much less spontaneous than we’re lead to be believe.)

Florencio, who often spoke of the interestingly selfish and self-educating nature of filmmaking (“I make movies not only to change the characters but myself”) and who refused to divulge what was behind the mystery email he’d sent to Dr. Preecha (he laughed off any attempts at getting him to reveal what seems like the film’s intentional sleight of hand by saying, “if it’s not in the movie, it’s not in the movie”), nevertheless engaged readily with an audience who was eager to discuss the particulars of Morgana’s story. Find some highlights below, including some key comments made by the very game Q&A moderator, Cristina Herrera from Translatina Network, who helped round out some of what Flavio was talking about.

On The Difficulty Of Making The Film

“This movie is not even about the surgery. It’s about the dream. Everybody has a dream.”

When you make a movie, the inspiration changes during the process. When you’re making the movie, you think you’re not gonna make it. So the feeling is up and down. When I made this movie I waited for a year and a half. I didn’t want to see anything about Morgana or Thailand. I was very shocked when I came back home. Because it was very strong on me. Because it was just me; only one person. I didn’t have no sound crew, no producer. It was just two people together 24 hours a day. And that was very intense.

But now I’m very happy. I’m in New York! Drinking wine! It’s perfect! But I when I was doing it. It was terrible. It was a nightmare. Because I didn’t have money. And it’s horrible but when Morgana was in the hospital, she had salmon every day. And I didn’t have money to buy salmon. And she didn’t eat the salmon! Because she was sleeping. I would eat her food everyday. It was perfect because the doctor would bring the food when Morgana was sleeping and I would eat Morgana’s lunch. So the process was very painful. The night before the surgery, I didn’t sleep. So when I came back [a year and a half later] to the movie I thought, okay, I need to reconnect again with the process.

On The Film’s Inspiration

Basically, the inspiration was, when I went to live to Mexico, that very first week, my new friends took me to this cantina where transvestite people do a show. And all these Mexican families take pictures and are all very happy. And they took me there every weekend. I really had fun, but I kept wondering, where are they during the day? What do they do? One day I went during the day and for a few months I went there, without the camera, and then I found Morgana one night in the cantina.

On What This Movie Is Not About

Flavio: This movie is not even about the surgery. It’s about the dream. Everybody has a dream. Morgana’s dream was the surgery but this is not a transgender movie—for me as a director. It’s a movie about the dream and the inspiration. If Morgana can do it, you can too. And that was a very beautiful part of the process. So Morgana now has become very famous. She’s doing very well. We’ve been to Europe, to Paris, to everywhere, to Thailand. It’s like a dream. She’s not here because she doesn’t have an American visa. Because before the movie she was extremely poor—she didn’t even have a bank account. But she’s doing very well. She sings every night. She’s been working with the UN. And I’m her manager now so I’m making money—now I pay for the salmon.

I remember the night before the night surgery. That night that I didn’t sleep. I had that question: what’s gonna happen with me? You know, Thailand is a very complicated country. So I was thinking, oh they’re gonna send me to prison. What about if she dies? My parents didn’t know either [that I was in Thailand] so we were alone. It was very complicated. But I think that when you love somebody from the beginning. They change your lives. When you are in this process, like a big brother for 24 hours—because we were together 24 hours! Because, I made the movie two years later. So I didn’t think about the movie when I got home to Mexico. Because it was too strong. I think cinema is a tool to express your feelings, to express your love. It’s not only about the ego, oh I made the movie. I mean, anyone can make a movie now. But what can you do to the people, to the universe?

Cristina: It sounds like you were capturing her everyday life…

Flavio: Well you [Cristina] got the surgery, so how do you feel about that, by the way? No, I ask because I was in Los Angeles and the moderator didn’t like the movie and was all like eeeh [nervous laughter]…

Cristina: Well, you know, I think this is a very sensitive topic because a lot of times when we think about about SRS, when it comes to the transgender community for individuals who are looking to transition all the way: we are the minority of the minority. It’s like less than 1-2% of the trans population looks forward to making that dream come true. Most trans individuals feel very happy with their body parts. You know, when an individual such as Morgana and I are looking to transition, we’re not just facing pressure from society to conform and to be happy but we’re also facing a kind of pressure from our own community. And it comes from a place of fear. You know, they want to make sure we’re making the right decision, it’s so difficult to get someone to really understand where we’re coming from and going through. It’s something so personal and so deep. It’s so hard to describe and you can’t even measure it. It’s just a sense of completion. A sense of wholeness. For me, it’s the same way. I feel that was one of my principle goals and once it was accomplished I was able to continue with my journey. For me it was back in 1993, it’s been already more than 20 years. But you know, does that surgery make me who I am? No. It only makes me happier, and makes me feel more complete. I thikn that’s an area where we really have to focus on: getting to know a person not only from what’s between their legs. What matters is the emotional state of mind.

On The Danish Girl

“When we think about the transgender we have to be very mindful that it’s very diverse.”

Flavio: I didn’t like The Danish Girl. And the reason is because he became a transgender because one day he touched clothes and said, “Oh, I’m a woman.” And it’s not about that. It’s about this process. Morgana never was a man. So I think that has to be very clear. That’s the reason I didn’t like that movie. Because in that movie he’s very straight, he’s very loved, he’s having good sex. And one day he gets dressed and realized he’s a woman. And that took him like one day. The process is a very long process—this movie is about this process Morgana was fighting. We watched the movie together. And we cried! Because the movie is very sad at the end. It’s beautiful. We realized with Morgana that she was very lucky, compared with the Danish girl. You know, with Morgana, the surgery wasn’t painful like in this movie. It took one year to recover but now Morgana is fine and she’s a perfect sexual life.

Cristina: I just wanted to say that when we think about the transgender we have to be very mindful that it’s very diverse. And there are individuals who are able to know who they are as a young age and there are individuals who, for different reasons, they have to go through the process of finding themselves. And sometimes that means possibly living a life not as transgender, not as someone who is gender variant. In the case of The Danish Girl, it took her time to find out who she was, and that doesn’t make her any less trans than anybody else. What matters is that she wanted to reconcile her body and her mind, and it sounds like that’s what she was able to accomplish. I just wanted to share that.

On His Dreams

I want to make more movies. But this movie, gave me so many things, but also so many responsibilities. Now I’m a very difficult position for the next movie. In terms of my profession my dream is to make more movies. I have a personal dream, because my dad was in a coma and he woke up like a miracle, so I have a dream about him (he’s recovering)—that’s my personal dream. My next movie is different though, it’s gonna be in Africa; it’s gonna be something completely crazy.

Made in Bangkok is playing during the Hola Mexico Film Festival in Los Angeles on May 16, 2016. More info here.