Brandon (Brandon English). Courtesy of Brandon English and Michael Thór
Bakla is a short film written, directed, and starring Brandon English. Bakla had its premiere at the 2020 New Filmmakers LA Film Festival and is currently making its way across the virtual film festival circuit. The film was also the official selection of the QTPOC Pride Arts+ Film Festival, finalist in the Asian Cinematography Awards, and a finalist in the Create from Home Film Festival. Bakla centers around a character named Brandon, a queer Filipino American, and the major anxiety he faces when his mom reminds him to wish his grandma a happy birthday. The film follows Brandon’s stream of consciousness as he meditates to get through his panic attack. The last play English produced, Borracho: Spanish for Drunken Bum, premiered last summer at the Hollywood Fringe Festival 2019. English was also nominated for the Broadway World award for “Best Featured Actor in a Musical” for Comfort Women: A New Musical, and recently starred in Consent, a film directed by Andrew Cervantes, which won the Grand Jury Award at Outfest Fusion. Together English and I spoke about the spontaneity of creating a film while in quarantine, his queer film community, finding pride in his intersecting identities, the queer film community, how he utilizes his background as a multidisciplinary artist, and finding the universality in sharing his truth.
English informed me that the idea behind Bakla began with a phone call. His mom called to remind him to wish his grandma a happy birthday. Upon hearing this, English explained, how as a queer person, he often feels anxious when speaking with his family; specifically, how daunting it is to speak with his grandma, who is more conservative than the rest of his family. The anxiety experienced by English was overwhelming leading English to think, “What if I just jumped off the ledge and came out to her on her birthday?”. While Bakla is not a documentary, English refers to it was a narrative based in truth as he wrote and shot it in the same week of this very phone call. While English admits to not being a method actor, his moving performance was inspired by the raw truth of this film, English truly didn’t know how his grandma would respond to him coming out. Therefore, English felt incredibly comfortable going through the character’s journey because he had already gone through the same situation earlier that week.
Around this same time, English had been furloughed from his job and it was at this point that he decided he wanted to shoot something worth sharing. Bakla is the story he wanted to tell. As the momentum in telling this story came underway, English knew that he would not be able to make this a big production, due to the Los Angeles lockdown, but was able to recruit Michael Thór, his roommate and fellow actor, into being his co-director. English emphasized that acting and directing in the same project can be challenging and suggests that for those that wish to pursue this should always find someone to assist you, that way you will not get caught up in your own mind. English informed me that he had shot Bakla on an iPhone which made the filming process a lot easier: with a phone you are provided greater freedoms in the overall movement of the shots that would be far more difficult, if not impossible, with a full-sized camera. Once English was happy with what he had filmed, editing was underway.
The film opens with a black screen and a narration, “Perhaps if I practice Filipino culture, I would feel more attached to you, without actually having to talk to you”. This profound statement sets the mood for the film as English connects wholeheartedly to his culture and ancestry. He believes that when he is connected to his culture he is connected to his ancestors – maybe, he hypothesizes, if he can’t talk to his family in his real life, he can connect with them in his spiritual realm though, he admits, he recognizes that it is not the same. Bakla is steeped with rich Filipino history both culturally and personally. The film jump cuts between Brandon practicing a sword dance and to a barong in the window, which represents the Catholicism that was imposed in the Philippines by the Spanish, marking a time when it was not okay to be LGBTQ+. For English, the showcasing of oranges reminds him of stories he has heard about his grandmother selling sandwiches, cigarettes, and oranges on the army base and the sacrifices she made for him. If I come out to my grandma, I am asking her to make another sacrifice for me, the guilt would be immeasurable. Additionally, the symbolism marks the journey English has made in America. While he was born in the US, he has learned so much about his culture and the power that comes with recognition and active practice. For English, objects have power and the objects showcased in the film are a conduit for his own empowerment within the Filipino culture. Therefore, he continues, he does not have to explain the symbols because those who are meant to get it, will get it.
Upon finishing the final edits on the film, English enlisted the help of his other friends, fellow film creatives, and asked for their honest opinion. English’s friends provided him with exactly that and assisted him in what English refers to as the post-postproduction editing, resulting in the “movie becoming a film”. The assistance from his roommate and friends were priceless, English explains, as when doing solo projects, it is difficult to have a truly objective opinion of the work you are creating. English found himself swaying between thinking his work was truly amazing and self-deprecation. His friends have always come through with the resources and necessary opinions needed to push forward in his art, English believes there is a power in showing others because it is at this point that you finally see your work as good, rather than focusing on all of the details you had obsessed over. Further, English states that we need friendships in which our friends are upfront and honest, he needs to know when something he creates isn’t good in order to grow as a creator. Without the insight from his friends, who had suggested that English begin submitting this film into festivals, he would have kept this project as just a submission to a fellowship. English informed me that he had always dreamed of having a queer community in which he was able to make meaningful connections and is completely elated that he has found his community. As English prepared his move from the Bay Area to Los Angeles, to pursue his dreams, he found himself coming into his own and had successfully found himself. English believes that by embracing who he is and living unapologetically he was able to make friendships with people who have his best interest at heart. The friendships are mostly among queer and transgender people of color (QTPOC) as well as Black indigenous people of color (BIPOC) that are also strongly rooted in the film community. English expresses that while he has essentially become a new entity while in Los Angeles, when he does speak with his family, he has to summon his old self back, causing a large amount of anxiety. However, with his friends’ support, English was ready to showcase Bakla to the world, including his family.
At the young age of 26, English is far from new to the film festival circuit as he has made a blossoming career for himself in acting, producing, writing, and directing. English has worn many hats in his projects as well as those he acts or directs in; he has gained an invaluable perspective for others during the film-making process. English believes that all artists benefit from a multidisciplinary background because it provides an ability to connect with a wider range of artists when building a production team. When creating art, film in particular, there has to be a shared language in order to be successful, when directors are also actors and vice versa they know the right things to say as they have physically been in the same position. English further express that when he directs an actor, he is able to feel comfortable and confident because he knows what they are going through and what would be helpful. Additionally, when someone is producing one of his projects, he has noticed he has an increased amount of patience because he has been there before and knows, from personal experience, just how much work goes into producing. When you have experience wearing all of the hats within the industry, you become aware of the normalcy of pitfalls and are more ready to embrace the necessary shifts that come with projects. English explains, the work we do is a lot of money and takes a lot of planning, things happen, and you have to be ready for that, having multiple tools to pull from will help you better navigate the unexpected.
After the film was finished, English called his mom to forewarn his family about Bakla. He was incredibly scared because the name Bakla has very deeply rooted meanings in Tagalog. It is more than just being gay, English clarifies, it speaks to one’s feminine mannerisms and effeminate nature, it is incredibly derogatory, and its main intention is to make fun of someone. English hopes that by associating this film with the title he is able to reclaim and transcode the word entirely. English is no longer ashamed of this word. Rather, he is able to recognize the shame that comes from within his family, as he spoke to a lot of Filipino and Asian cultures, particularly in his experience, actively avoid LGBTQ+ topics and would rather sweep it under the rug than to face it head on. While some of English’s family is aware that he is gay, they will never directly speak to him about it, and if any LGBTQ+ topics come up, there is a silence that fills the room because “he is around”. English smiles as he explains he now is comfortable stirring the pot and making his family uncomfortable to break the ice and to talk about LGBTQ+ topics, he will point at someone and say “That guy is hot,” to not only get a reaction but to normalize his identity. His grandmother; however, has not yet seen this side of English. This is a daily struggle for English because he wants to be accepted by his family, especially by those who have raised him, his grandma being one of those individuals. While contemplating coming out, there were five members of English’s family that he cared the most about accepting him and of those five there have been amazing and supportive responses, he has it “pretty good” compared to most he says. English is grounded in who he is within his friend circles, but finds once it comes to his family, he will still ruffle the occasional feather, but with his grandma, he needs to constantly check in with himself and ask who he is going to be. This is extremely taxing and devastating, because English recognizes that he hasn’t been able to have a similar connection with her that he had as a kid. They were incredibly close when he was younger, and he misses having the opportunity to have deeply meaningful conversations with her. English admits, it’s sad sometimes, he can have these conversations with his friends but struggles to have these conversations with his family. This is extremely challenging as English values his family to a great extent.
English recalls the day his mom found his Tumblr, this is what outed him, but even that wasn’t as extreme as it could have been. When someone in the family comes out, people take sides, he explains, essentially, they are saying that they accept you and will be there to shut down conversations that are negative in nature. English’s mom struggled with this transition but has since greatly improved. His mom is now team LGBT and more importantly, team Brandon. Over the years, English has found out that the biggest fear his mom had with him being gay was rooted in her belief that this would ruin his opportunities as an actor and limit what is available to him within the film industry. English informed her that he isn’t ashamed in who he is and that the roles and projects he wants to be involved in are LGBTQ+ films. Plus, he says, there are a lot of gay actors who play straight characters. English, does not see his sexuality as a limitation at all, being truer to who he is, he explains, invites other people into his world. He is a firm believer in opening one’s self up to their capacity as the world will open up to you. English doesn’t want to hide anymore. By being completely open he has been able to meet people that truly accept him for who he is and love him unconditionally.
For the last 23 years of his life, English recalls, he has had to hide so much about himself which made it incredibly difficult to make connections with friends and family. Brandon now recognizes that he does not have to be anyone but himself and that is enough, if that isn’t cool with you, he says, that’s okay – I don’t have to mesh with everyone.
As a queer Filipino American, as well as a creator, English recognizes that everything he does is political and automatically means he is taking a stance on something without even knowing. With that said, he takes on the responsibility to make the message of Bakla and his other films universal, not only to be seen by a wide range of audience members but to have people like him be understood. English received news that someone, who wasn’t Filipino, watched the premiere of Bakla at the New Filmmakers Film Festival and shortly after came out to her family. Just from watching the film English says. This situation gave him goose bumps because while he is a queer Filipino American does not mean that experience is foreign to how white people feel. Beyond the recent trends of being QPOC (Queer Person of Color) English thinks that we are finally coming to a place where people are learning that we can relate to each other, believe it or not. You have to realize that anyone can be a conduit for a narrative, he explains, not just white people. English expresses that being in the film industry is almost like sitting at a table, he seldom gets introduced and welcomed to the table, and attributes this because people (predominately white) don’t know how to handle these conversations yet, to the full visibility of diversity. They have yet to encounter QPOC and don’t know how to tell these narratives correctly, they are caught up in the idea of offending someone. Therefore, English believes it is a responsibility amongst QPOC to write these stories because they are the only ones who will get it right. Further, he hopes the Millennial generation becomes the blueprint for the future and will redefine what normal means within mainstream media and films.
For this reason, English works incredibly diligently to find other Filipino queer directors, writers, and actors. When he does find them, he latches onto them because he recognizes the need to be together and to help one another out. English says he is lucky to have allies, but the only true way to gain visibility is through community. Part of queer history, he says, includes creators relying on the community for resources because it isn’t and hasn’t been readily available to everyone, even knowledge isn’t readily available. English didn’t go to film school and explains that everything he has learned thus far about production has been on set or asking his friends, which he is eternally grateful for. He continues, it isn’t just the work that he is doing, but putting it out there for the world to watch and having the courage to do it. When you don’t see yourself in the media, he says, you don’t know if people will like it because it has never been out there before. To counter this, English proudly says he reminds himself that his queerness and Filipino identities are his superpowers, and this is what makes him special. He wants to impart this idea to his friends and younger people because by taking ownership and taking space, you will be seen and most importantly will be comfortable with being seen.
English recalls one of his favorite professors as an undergrad, he was a fairly young actor, and had truly become an artist in college – but this moment has remained with him over the years. English, calm and poised during our conversation, informs me that this wasn’t always how he was. He used to talk very fast and he has found that this was rooted in anxiety and people paying attention to him. His professor made him stand in front of the class one day, to be seen. English was instructed not to do anything and ensured that he would be okay and will learn to be okay with being looked at. During this activity, English began to cry, and his professor rooted him on, encouraging him to let his fellow classmates see him cry. The power of being seen and having eyes on you is a very scary thing, he explains. Representation is power, having a platform is power. As a POC and the youngest in his family, English admits that he is not used to people asking what he thinks about things. When you become someone with a platform, you have to be okay with expressing how you think. English believes that a lot of queer folks aren’t used to being asked what they think or asking themselves what they think and why they think that. He struggles with expressing himself as no one has really cared before. At 18, after this exercise, he began his journey with being okay while taking center stage and learning that when it’s his time to back off it is okay to back off. When his time comes to be seen and take center stage to say a message, he owns up to it and this is something he has not done for a long time. In the last two years it has come together for him because he has been able to surround himself with queer folks of color who have been this example for him, he now knows what it looks like and wants to pass this along to other queer folks of color in the industry.
We gently come back to the topic of film genres and English explains, for him, this is a queer Filipino American film. However, a lot of people have latched onto exclusively as an LGBT film. English expresses that the majority of interviews he has had have primarily focused on the LGBTQ+ portion, rather that of his culture. English interprets this as the universality within the messages of dealing with queerness in a multigenerational family. English has noticed that within his demographics, the majority have come from 15-18-year-old young women and nonbinary people from Florida. At first, he was curious as to why this was but soon realized Bakla is a coming-out story. English explains, coming out will always be a very personal experience and there is no right or wrong way to do that. However, he continues, before coming out people often look up how to do it and how to make it the easiest experience possible, this film provides an experience, more importantly a personal narrative, for those coming out. With this film, English states, I wanted to give other people the courage to tell their own narrative and make it their own. English is thrilled that this film has assisted in him making connections with other queer people across the country. English always wants more queer friends as he knows the strength in community. The virtual showcasing of the film, English says, extends the wider reach of the film and those who have access to it. As we wrap up the interview, English says, this film represents the courage I have to be myself, to be bakla, “I am bakla and that is me”.