A story that comes, quite literally, from one of the farthest corners of the globe, Leitis in Waiting is a surprising and thought-provoking documentary from co-directors Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson. Surrounded by vast oceans, coral cliffs, and lush rainforest, the Leiti community has lived peacefully for centuries in the small island kingdom of Tonga. Leiti (or fakaleiti) is a local term used to describe individuals who are born male, but behave as females. Similar to the Native American two spirit, the Leiti once served very important roles in Tongan society. However, with the influx of evangelical Christianity in this remote part of the world, the Tongan views on gender fluidity have changed greatly in recent years, making modern-day Leiti the target of prejudice and discrimination.
Leitis in Waiting introduces audiences to Joey Mataele, a Leiti who has made it her life’s work to care for other Leitis and advocate for the Leiti in daily life. Joey was born male within Tongan nobility. Tonga is a very small kingdom of less than 110,000 people, or roughly 1/75th the size of London. When the entire kingdom fits in one postal code, it means many Tongans enjoy a surprising level of access to members of the ruling family, which is actually one of the things that makes this particular film quite unique. Joey takes a moment to recall her childhood, sharing a story of being presented to the queen as a young boy. The queen, sensing there was something feminine about the young lad before her, suggested to Joey’s mother that she change Joey’s birth name to something more feminine, which essentially put Joey on an ordained path to Leitihood.
Today Joey looks after a young Leiti who was kicked out of her family home, presumably for being a Leiti herself. Between balancing her caretaking duties and advocating for the Leiti community, Joey is also organizing a beauty pageant for Leiti individuals. Interestingly, perhaps via family connections, Joey has secured the support of a Tongan princess, who is serving as a patron of sorts for the pageant and for the Leiti cause for which Joey is so very passionate. With direct involvement and support from the Tongan royalty, Joey aims to create an opportunity for young Leitis to feel safe and celebrate who they are as a community.
While budget restraints have clearly affected the production quality of this film, the unique insight and unfiltered access to this remote community is astounding. Audiences may be surprised to hear thoughts on the role of gender in the kingdom…directly from the ruling family of the kingdom themselves. And while the threats of the evangelical community’s polarizing views have put the Leiti at risk of harm, this film is by no means designed to insight anger or fear. Rather, filmmakers Hamer and Wilson skillfully maintain a steady hand in weaving together multiple perspectives on the importance of modern-day Leiti in Tongan society, with just the right amount of delightful humour included for good measure.