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JP Habac and the blooming of queer narratives

It is so much easier to see the world as binary; you are either one thing or the other. We prefer to have the line clearly drawn in the sand, to have things and people neatly tucked away. But the simple truth of the matter is: people are diverse. We cannot be simply drawn in broad strokes. The norms that we see in mainstream stories are just a thin slice of the wide spectrum that people can and do find themselves in.

The lived experience of queer people may seem trivial in the way they are commonly portrayed onscreen. But despite the stereotypes and the caricatures, more and more diverse stories are being given the spotlight in the recent years. This is especially apparent in the recent influx of openly queer characters in media. Going against generations of arbitrary taboos and repressive mores, these stories are the beginning of an invisible people being seen on their own terms.

This is where JP Habac, a Filipino writer-director known for his works like I’m Drunk, I Love You, Sakaling Maging Tayo, and the recently concluded web-series Gaya sa Pelikula, enters the scene. Insightful and impassioned, Habac is one of the brave storytellers that has been fighting for authentic and heartfelt queer representation in Filipino media. 

Masks no more

Gumawa ako ng mga palabas na naka-mask siya sa mukha ng mga babae at lalaki iyong kuwento. How does that represent me?” Habac passionately expresses as he relays the struggles of being a queer filmmaker. For decades, cisheterosexual narratives have been the norm in Philippine media, with queer characters reduced to fulfilling roles such as the gay best friend or the show’s comic relief. This has forced creatives like Habac to find ingenious means of telling the stories of the Filipino LGBTQ+ community.

(I made queer stories that were masked under a heterosexual relationship onscreen. How does that represent me?)

Despite the success of Western queer films like Love, Simon and Call Me By Your Name, Filipino media still regards queer content as too unconventional for mainstream platforms; often touting these storylines as more suitable for indie films exclusively shown during film festivals or special screenings. 

On top of this stigma, Habac points out that the industry is a business more than anything else. As such, the product will not exist without demand, and even then, he remarks that there is still a considerable amount of risk on the producer’s part. “[Kaya’t] nakakatuwa na marami nang producers [ang] nagtatake ng risk to produce shows like this. Kasi kung hindi dahil sa kanila, wala ang mga [Boys’ Love] (BL) shows na eto,” Habac admits.

(It’s uplifting to see producers finally taking a risk to produce BL shows. Without them, these shows will not exist.)

Behind the craft

Directing, however, is a different story altogether. The difficulty stands in ensuring that the actors take to heart the gravity of the roles that they are portraying. More than just great acting chops and cast chemistry, Habac notes that the actors must be able to act as ambassadors for the show’s advocacy. “It’s more than us. It’s more than me. It’s for the younger queers,” he explains.

That being said, creating something as massive a project as Gaya Sa Pelikula is a team effort. In films like these, everyone in front and behind the camera has a hand in crafting the tone of the film and its subsequent success. Which is why the showrunners made sure that the cast and crew underwent a Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Expression workshop. “I’m really proud na all [of] the staff na kasama namin on set, [like] sa marketing, they [all] attended the workshop, especially mga camera crew, iyong mga tito. Nakakatuwa, nandoon sila,” he shares. 

(I’m really proud that all of the staff and crew attended the workshop. Even the camera crew, whom we’d refer to as “the uncles”. I’m overjoyed that they showed up.)

Unapologetically queer

Habac views the recent rise of romantic comedies (rom-com) centered around BL as an avenue for change, a means to help normalize non-heteronormative love stories in mainstream media. “It’s about time na tayo naman iyong magpapakilig,” he asserts. Heterosexual love teams, a staple of Philippine pop culture, have dominated the silver screens for decades, but it’s high time for the likes of Karl and Vlad of Gaya sa Pelikula, and Mico and Xavier from Hello Stranger to bask in the limelight. 

(It’s about time we have our romantic shenanigans as well.)

Habac, though, notes that it is still crucial for the public to be critical of what they consume. While queer characters may now be more visible more than ever, he explains that there’s a distinct line between visibility and actual representation. It is not enough that the LGBTQ+ community is visible, the characters that portray their stories and struggles must have certain depth and sincerity. “Hindi siya caricature, hindi siya kathang-isip lang. Totoo siya,” he shares.

(These characters shouldn’t be caricatures or imagined. They need to be real.)

Part of this inclusive representation is to shift the focus from tragic queer stories to narratives that paint the community in a more positive—albeit still diverse—light. Though these unfortunate stories continue to be part of the realities that some of the members of the community face, they could deter young queers from further exploring their identity for fear that they may meet the same miserable end. As such, these more optimistic stories could help queers understand that just as loving freely is normal and attainable, so is an ordinary life.

All this being said, JP Habac is but one of the new faces making art in the Philippines. And for all the diversity that can be shown, in sexuality, gender, or others, this is but the beginning of a more nuanced and interesting artscape, one that more accurately reflects the society that creates it.

By Albert Bofill

By Blair Clemente

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