Review by Mark Schwab
A small collection of islands in the Pacific just north of New Zealand, Tonga is one of the oldest official "Kingdoms" in the world (recently surpassing 1,000 years in its monarchy). It is religious, conservative and as beautiful as it is isolated. This is the context where director/narrator Brian Favorite finds himself while on assignment with the Peace Corps in 2004. Favorite was excited about his new adventure but there was one potential problem - he was gay and despite the Corps being totally accepting of him the people of Tonga would not be. Especially in his role of an Elementary Teacher. Favorite would either have to be reassigned or keep his sexuality in the closet. At age 40, it had been a long time since Brian had hidden his sexuality yet he decided to go forward and be secretive about who he was.
That in itself would be a challenge but Favorite does something surprising with his new documentary "The Queendom of Tonga". In his journey he explores the culture of the FAKALEITI - the Tongan term for a "male who behaves in an effeminate manner" (there is no word in Tongan for gay or transgender). Profiling a number of Tongans identifying as Fakaleitis, the 50-minute doc begins to draw a fascinating picture of how diversity can still thrive even in the most remote places.
I have no idea how Favorite was able to even find these men much less get them to tell their stories on camera. His subjects are wonderful and engaging, showcasing charm, humor and (critically) dignity for who they are. Some are drag queens, some are tour guides and some are even tapped to make sure the coronation of their new King is brought off with appropriate beauty and fanfare.
Smoothly woven into these stories is director Favorite's own self discovery of the land and culture around him - so different from the San Francisco fishbowl he left behind. We become immersed in the Tongan culture with great documentary footage and delightful animation to keep things entertaining but still informative.
"The Queendom of Tonga" is a rare document of being gay/transgender in a world few of us see but more importantly it proves that no matter how isolated or cloistered a culture may be, diversity finds a way to blossom proving it's the most natural thing in the world.