Cebuana filmaker wins big at Slamdance; shares experience, tips

Cebuana filmaker wins big at Slamdance; shares experience, tips

“Ang Pagpakalma sa Unos (To Calm the Pig Inside)” by Cebuana filmmaker Joanna Vasquez Arong premiered at the Slamdance Film Festival and won the Grand Jury Prize last Jan. 25. The 19-minute documentary shows the aftermath caused by supertyphoon Haiyan in a city. This is one of the many films she has created, most of which have received various awards and nominations.

Apart from being a filmmaker, Joanna creates film installations for galleries and museums as well as founded Eskwela Haiyan (EH) in 2014, a scholarship initiative to help young victims affected by the supertyphoon to finish school. Before dabbling into films, she worked in various fields around the world from finance to economic development. She returned to the Philippines after living abroad for over three decades, exploring stories from her childhood.

In this feature, Joanna shares about the making of “Ang Pagpakalma sa Unos (To Calm the Pig Inside),” her early works and message to those aspiring to be filmmakers.

Monica R. Lopez (MRL): How did it feel receiving the Documentary Short Grand Jury Prize for “Ang Pagpakalma sa Unos (To Calm the Pig Inside)”?

Joanna Vasquez Arong (JVA): It was quite a nice surprise. To be honest, it’s been such a very long journey making this film. And you almost forget why you made the film to begin with, as you have to deal with the nuts and bolts of finishing the film and getting it out. During the premiere as I was sitting in the audience watching the film, all these memories of filming back in 2013 and 2014 and all of the people I met came flooding back. And soon after, I was starting to feel quite surprised after the two screenings, as people would stop me at cocktails or in cafés, at lunch or in the hallway, and would want to discuss the film. At first, I thought they were being polite, but then I felt people who barely knew the Philippines, were somehow moved by the film. So that really touched me that somehow, the film seemed to be universal. So when on the last day, during the awards ceremony, when the film won, it felt like all of that time and effort was somehow worth it, and I thanked everyone for sharing their stories with me as well as all the people who helped me shoot and create this film.

MRL: What other awards did you receive from the making of the film?

JVA: Well so far we’ve only been able to screen at Slamdance. Two other festivals where it was scheduled to screen (the newly created Daang Dokyu festival as well as Florida Film Festival have been postponed). Our next festivals will be held online and our film is in competition for both, including Palm Springs International ShortsFest in June as well as in Cinemalaya Film Festival in August.

MRL: What inspired you to create this film?

JVA: I had actually spent significant time in Tacloban and Guiuan as I was the local producer for a French/UK production of the 3-D film “Hurricane.” Soon after, I started a scholarship initiative (EH) where we worked with local groups to choose students in need and affected by typhoon Haiyan. In fact, after six years, students we’ve supported graduated this year. This allowed me to get to know a wide range of people, from the students, teachers, businessmen, non-government organizations, which gave me a different insight to their personal experience with Yolanda (Haiyan). Somehow, I thought some of these stories weren’t really shared and I suppose I wanted to share these collective reflections.

MRL: What were some of the challenges that you encountered during the making of the film?

JVA: Funding. It’s always such a challenge finding funding. At some point, I actually started selling some of my paintings and furniture, just to pay some bills. And finally, we had two producers come on board, who believed in the film and provided the funding to finish the film the way I wanted to. Structure. I had actually created three short films related to post-calamity realities. The two other shorts, “Gabby,” which was shot in Bohol, soon after the earthquake a few weeks before Yolanda hit, as well as “Sol,” which was filmed in Guiuan, two years after Yolanda made landfall. For the longest time, we tried to keep these three shorts in one film, despite this nagging feeling that it didn’t quite work. It was a painful decision to finally separate the three films, and release them on their own. But it was the right choice.

MRL: What was the message were you hoping to convey to the audience?

JVA: That’s a tough one. Generally, I prefer to hear what message people get out of the film. But I suppose, I feel that although Yolanda happened seven years ago, many of the same issues that cropped up then after this natural disaster, seem to consistently crop up over and over again. And what amazed me was when people in our Slamdance screening also pointed out how similar issues cropped up even in the United States during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans or Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. In a way, I wonder if there might even be overlapping issues today with how the Covid-19 pandemic is being addressed.

MRL: How long have you started your career?

JVA: My first film “Neo-Lounge” premiered in 2007. And I premiered two other films: “The Old Fool Who Moved the Mountains” in 2008 and “Sunday School” in 2010. “To Calm the Pig Inside” is the first film I premiered since I moved back to the Philippines. An entire decade passed by! I have also created more experimental short works which have been screened in galleries and museums. In a way, the counterpoint for “Ang Pagpakalma sa Unos (To Calm the Pig Inside)” is “Sampit sa Dagat (Call of the Sea).” We first showed this in Qube Gallery last June and since then, it’s been shown in Manila, Chicago and it’s presently in another group show in a gallery in New York, but of course, the opening had to be postponed for now. I love collaborating with other artists. Last year, I collaborated with visual artist Melanie Gritzka del Villar on her residency and exhibition, Ghosts of San Luis Potosí at the Leonora Carrington museum in Mexico, which culminated in the creation of three other shorts which were part of the exhibition.

MRL: When it comes to subjects or themes for your works, what are you usually inspired by?

JVA: I sometimes surprise myself when I realize that some of my films seem to have recurring themes. Interestingly, all of the films I mentioned to date, to a certain degree, they somehow touch upon destruction and then renewal. I suppose I’m drawn to characters who may be on the margin and are experiencing uphill struggles, and I like to explore that journey. On the other hand, I’ve also always been attracted to mythology since I was a child. So these tend to seep into my films as well.

MRL: Do you have any upcoming projects you would like to do?

JVA: Quite a few! I’ve just recently revived a long-gestating documentary on a Burmese writer in exile, and this film “116B University Avenue, Rangoon,” through the story of this writer who was made stateless at the age of 20, explores the concept of identity, the idea of home and homeland, what it means to have to survive in a cold, inhospitable foreign land and how childhood nostalgia and traumas creep up on you. And we were one of 19 projects selected to participate in a lab called IF/Then Southeast Asia, and we should be pitching (online) this June. I also have my first fiction script ready, “The Sigbin,” which is set in Cebu and the Visayas. However, I’m not sure when we can pursue that yet.

MRL: What’s your advice for those who aspire to be filmmakers?

JVA: What I can say is that it’s definitely not an easy journey at all. So if you are certain this is what you want to do, I would say two things: try to learn as much as you can, whether it’s from studying and watching, researching on other films and connecting with other filmmakers and learning from them. Secondly, work on finding your own unique voice, and what you want to share with the world.


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