Three Strangers

In February 2022, we screened Three Strangers (2021, Myanmar), an independently produced documentary about a queer coupleGwa To and Ma Soeand their adopted son—Phoe Htoo—living in a remote village in Rakhine State, Myanmar. We also hosted Three Strangers's director Lamin Oo for a conversation with guest co-host and researcher Corrie Tan.

In this excerpt, Lamin and Corrie discuss the difficulty of translating, and the limitations of terminology relating to, lived experiences of gender and sexuality between Myanmar and English-speaking audiences.

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Session Notes

📌 Audio and transcribed excerpts have been edited for clarity.

❤️ Elsewhere Cinema Club thanks Lamin Oo for speaking with us about Three Strangers and allowing it to be viewed worldwide for free. We also thank Corrie Tan for joining us as a guest co-host.

🔗 Thank you all who donated to our fundraising campaign.

🔗 Watch the trailer for Three Strangers on YouTube.

🔗 Watch more documentaries from Myanmar on the Tagu Films YouTube channel.

Elsewhere Cinema Club's PHOEBE

I remember one of the earlier questions I asked LAMIN and CORRIE was, “how should we talk about this relationship [in Three Strangers]? Should we call them a same-sex couple? Should we call them a queer couple?” We were negotiating what these words meant in English. CORRIE mentioned to me that the pronouns used [in Myanmar] are different. Could you both tell us a little bit about that?


LAMIN

The pronouns that we use in Myanmar when we talk about somebody is ‘သူ’ (thu) and it can mean both ‘male’ and ‘female’. It is different from English where saying ‘he’ or ‘she’ means something. In Myanmar and in the film, when people talk about Gwa To, they just use ‘သူ’ (thu). For us, it’s not a problem. But when we try to subtitle it [in English], it becomes a problem. It was my choice to use ‘he’ to describe Gwa To because that is how he sees himself. There is also ‘သူမ’ (thu ma) to refer to someone who is female but we chose to use to ‘သူ’ (thu) as a general term. CORRIE, do you want to add something to this?


CORRIE

Yes, I think in other regions in Southeast Asia, the third-person gender-neutral pronoun is quite commonplace. We think of ‘dia’ in Melayu and Bahasa Indonesia. And Kei [Elsewhere Cinema Club's KATRINA TAN] said it is also used in Tagalog. Likewise, ‘သူ’ (thu) is quite an expansive term. It feels a bit weird to reduce the multifaceted identity that Gwa To has. He alternately describes himself in multiple gender positionalities so it feels a bit strange to pigeonhole ‘them’ in this way—I feel like I am using pronouns randomly now! I feel that their conception of gender fits a bit differently.

LAMIN, you were telling us that Gwa To and Ma Soe describe themselves more in terms of their roles in their family unit, right? Gwa To will say, “I’m the husband” and Ma Soe will say, “I’m the wife”. Or, 'ဖေ ဖေ' (phay phay), 'မေ မေ' (may may)—father, mother.


LAMIN

Yes. When I was making this film, I went back there [the village] again and again so I became close with both Gwa To and Ma Soe more than any other protagonists or characters whom I have worked with. We even had discussions about homosexuality, LGBT, what the rainbow means, and what the spectrum means.

In my synopsis, for example, I described Gwa To as a transgender man but that is a term he would never use to describe himself. Like CORRIE mentioned, for them, it’s ‘father’ and ‘husband’—those are the roles [Gwa To] will take on. Ma Soe is the mother and the wife, and that is how she sees and refers to herself. Ma Soe would never say, “I’m lesbian” or “[I'm] bisexual”. These already established family roles are how they understand their whole sexuality—that’s what I would say.

Those discussions we had about [terms like] ‘LGBTQ’ are, for them, so eye-opening because even Gwa To will use terms like ‘အခြောက်’ (a chauk) which is ‘gay’ [note: derogatory], specifically referring to gay men in Myanmar. And I try to explain to him that ‘အခြောက်’ (a chauk), this gay identity, is quite similar to his identity. Those discussions are very interesting.