Kelli Williamson, contributor for The Seattle Lesbian, sat down with Danielle Villegas to talk about her new short film Dos Almas which premiered at STIFF (Seattle True Independent Film Festival) on Sunday, May 5 at 8:00 p.m. The film chronicles her reflections on gender and sexuality based on her insights, awareness, and observations of culture and politics, as well as her personal background and coming out story.
Where did you initially come up with the idea and inspiration for the film?
My original inspiration began 20 years ago after reading the book Spirit and The Flesh by Walter L. Williams about Sexual Diversity in Native American Cultures. I began to see myself, as a lesbian, in a completely new light based on indigenous beliefs of gender and sexuality in contrast to the more traditional religious beliefs, and judgments, I was raised on. The Two-Spirit Philosophy, noted in the book, needed to be shared. As a storyteller, my instinct was to do it through film.
Tell me more about the subject matter of the film, Dos Almas.
The film deals with the idea of Two-Spirit individuals who are able to express both aspects of gender, male and female, within themselves and to others. They can also integrate sexuality into both aspects. In this Native American philosophy, an individual’s ability to embody and express both genders simultaneously was revered, as opposed to many other cultures that shame and condemn individuals who express this unique trait. I related to and was more interested, personally and as a filmmaker, in the Native America belief and idea of being “Divine” because of one’s ability to blend genders compared to being considered a “Devil,” for example.
The film is set in 1850, in the deep forest of the Northwest. A Mestiza woman, mixed European and Native American ancestry, raised in Mission Era Alta, California and posing as a man for safety, is approached by an Indigenous woman who befriends her. The two begin to discover each other in spirit and flesh.
How did your upbringing influence your ideas about sexuality and gender?
I was raised in a traditional Hispanic Catholic home. So, when I began to “come out” as a lesbian, I experienced a lot of shame and guilt over my choice…of course, coupled with the thought that I was going straight to “Hell.” It was difficult.
How did you reconcile your family background with your sexuality?
I escaped, literally. I fell in love with a woman for the first time, when I was in my early 20s. Soon after we began our love affair, I came out to my family and then promptly left to spend time abroad, in India, as a foreign exchange student. I didn’t want to deal with their shock and disappointment so I dropped the bomb and left.
Years later, I realized that leaving home, gaining some independence, and being in touch with my true nature was one of the healthiest things I’ve done. I have gay cousins who never separated from their family or their family’s belief systems. It seems drugs and alcohol was their way of escaping the shame and guilt. I’ve often imagined what things would have been like had we been “revered rather than reviled.” The Two-Spirit concept provides the former view.
What did you learn about yourself in India?
It was actually a very healing experience. I had time and space to sort through my feelings and along the way, I encountered a wise counselor who helped me move through my coming out process. One of the best questions she asked me was, “If you went to the door of your Father and he said, ‘If you’re gay then I never want to see you again,’ what would you do?” My answer was, “I would turn around and walk away.” This is something my cousins were never able to do and I realized, then and later, how strong and determined I was to live an authentic life. Ultimately, even though I’ve had to struggle through my own fear and doubt, I chose me.
What do you hope viewers will take away from the film?
I hope it will showcase the idea of being revered for being different, for being who you truly are. And I hope it will encourage others to question their belief system and hopefully let go of some of their own shame from their family of origin, or society, or the culture they grew up in. It’s a paradigm shift. I think more people can relate to the ideas expressed in the film than one would imagine. They’re just afraid to talk about them openly.
What about the cast and crew for the film?
Most of the cast and crew are local, with a couple of exceptions, and many are Native American. I needed their expertise to stay true to the culture.
Jennifer Lisa Vest plays the role of the Native Two-Spirit Woman. She is a mixed-blood poet and philosopher hailing from Chicago. She is an author, teacher, and exceptional spoken-word artist. You can find out more about her at www.jenniferlisavest.com.
Madelyn K. Rosenberg plays the role of the Mestiza Woman. She is a Seattle based artist and model and was perfect for the role.
I’m planning on making the short into a full feature film over the coming years. That will be my next big project.
Why did it take you 20 years after reading Spirit and the Flesh to complete the film?
I’ve known I wanted to be a filmmaker since I was a child. I’ve worked in and around the film community for many years. I never gave up on the idea. I never gave up on my dream and I hope my perseverance is an inspiration to others not to give up on their dream either.
Dos Almas will also be featured at The Northwest Film Forum during The Seattle Transgender Film Festival on Saturday, May 11at 4:30pm. The film will be appearing at other film festivals nationwide in the coming year. More information can be found at www.dosalmasthefilm.com and you can contact Danielle at www.daniellevillegas.com.