Icelandic director Olaf de Fleur Johannesson's "The Amazing Truth About Queen Raquela" is an 85 minute drama which chronicles the story of a naive but street smart Filipina transsexual prostitute named Raquela who decides to travel in order to find her prince charming. Like many Transsexuals (often known as "Ladyboys") in the Philippines, Raquela dreams of marrying a heterosexual man from the West. She spends much of her time on the Internet looking for men who can come and rescue her. They promise to come, but time after time Raquela gets stood up at the airport. Her life changes when, by luck, she lands a job as a webcam host on a transsexual porn site...Raquela eventually gets the opportunity to travel far away on her quest to find the straight man of her dreams. "Queen Raquela" won the Teddy Award at the 2008 Berlin International Film Festival in addition to best foreign narrative feature and the Vanguard Award at the 2008 New Fest (New York Gay and Lesbian Film Festival). The film opens in L.A. at the Regent Showcase and in New York at the Quad Cinemas Friday, September 26.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career?
As many will say, it's addictive, being a filmmaker is a passport into other people's lives. It helps you understand life and appreciate it. Of course many other things have the same effect. I just found this one and have been addicted ever since. I found it after going through a healthy "what can I do in my life" crisis in my early 20s.
How did the idea for "Queen Raquela" come about?
I was traveling in the Philippines and I saw these amazing women who looked like models in the middle of a poor neighbourhood in the Philippines. They were at odd with their surroundings so I started asking my fellow Filipino friends about them. When I spoke with these Tgirls, I found out that they are boys with a soul of a woman, and they want a heterosexual to marry. That was really something that hooked me up. Life is askewed, it's never black or white, and I am drawn to [that]. We interviewed about thirty girls in the Philippines and Raquela stood out for her creativity and she turned out to be really smart, despite being half-way on the street, she is extremely clever. I [followed her] and learned from her and her friends to make a script. Many scenes are authentic docu moments and some are written and some are even improvs. We were always amazed by her talent of being able to improvise and deliver lines when needed. I take little credit, she is a natural.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film...
When doing it, I had little idea where I was going. It was like going into "auto" mode, I've never experienced something like that before. It's about impossible dreams, dreamers who pretend that their impossible dream will come true, it's about globalization, how our Western world values impose themselves upon poor cultures through Media. It's about how we try and keep third world countries in place (difficulty for locals getting a VISA), how the Western world is greedy and selfish in it's supposed wondered nature. And in the arms of all these things, it's about a pure human dream and how naturally clumsy life can be when handling our hopes. The goal is always to try to increase fellow-human understanding of each other. That's a lofty goal but I always try.
How did the financing for the film come together?
It was a mixture, as with all creative results, a mixture of mistakes and obstacles. When trying to finance it as a documentary I would usually get a "no" in the sarcastic form of "it's-just-another-third-world-tranny-film" and "it's been done before." Also, when looking at other films on the subject I felt it had indeed been done before, so I decided to do something different -- a film about the impossible dream of my subjects and not the typical biological film (i.e. will you get a breast transplant, sex change). I wanted to do it in a film language, not talking heads. So I decided to use the real world, real subjects up to certain extent, real situations, improvise and just see what happens. This has been done before in different forms, and I sought inspiration from the Italian neo-realism, from Mike Leigh, from Von Trier. So I was just doing "a film," not pre-occupied with genre. Shooting with "gut" all the time.
Who or what are some of the creative influences that have had the biggest impact on you?
Paul Thomas Anderson for his bravery, Woody Allen for his productivy and Kristof Kieslowski for his mistery. Those three have fed me with oxygen during the years. But also I'd like to mention that cable series like "The Soprans" and especially "The Wire" have influenced me a great deal. "The Wire" is the biggest achievement in film history, it's amazing the cinema and story language there.
What other genres or stories would like to explore as a filmmaker?
I don't know what other stories or genres will come, and I don't wan't to know. Each project has arrived by amazing coincidence and clumsy pipes of life. There is no formula, and when I write or explore, I'm always curious to know where the hell this comes from, it's like an out-of-body experience sometimes.
Are there other aspects of filmmaking that you would still like to explore?
Well I've done most of it, as many indepenant filmmakers, you have to be able to edit, sound, direct etc. Just to survive, it's a pratical thing to do when finance is lacking. I'm not interested in producing for others, I just not that kind of person, I'm very self-centered and have found it best to help filmmaking friends by not getting involved.
What is your next project?
My current project that I just finished is the film "Higher Force" (http://www.poppolipictures.com/higherforce.html) and it'll premiere at AFI Los Angeles International Film Festival in November in competition. It's a small Icelandic dramedy about a low-life debt-collector who becomes the main man of his gang by pretending to know a crime lord. It's an international cast, mostly Icelandic actors, but Stefan Schaefer my good friend and producer playes a part there as he did in Queen Raquela (Michael the Internet pimp), and Michael Imperioli from "Sopranos" plays a small role. Besides that I'm developing several other projects, two projects in Iceland and two projects that I am seeking to shoot in the US. I like to have many going at the same time, it's a kind of survival technique.
What is your definition of "independent film," and has that changed at all since you first started working?
I guess it is being able to make a film for no money, if you are able to do that, you'll never have to fear not getting money. Be an island is independent filmmaking, freeing yourself from dependance upon money. I've done several films for no or little money. Then when things have progressed I feel like Spielberg when I finally get financed.
What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?
I was fortunate to realize early in my filmmaking that most people out there with money, are not interested in what you are doing. That is the case with 97% of filmmakers. Therefore you just have to behave like a big studio. You'll just do everything to immitate all the big shots out there, and you'll perhaps become one. Also it's very important to just keep going, do many films, make tons of mistakes, and eventually you'll get it or not. Either doesn't really matter, since you'll be dead eventually. Well, results have to be beside the point, otherwise you'll just get "filmmaking bitterness," which is the widest spread disease among filmmakers. It will break you down. You've got to keep going like winning the game is the most important thing, knowing that there is no award.