Children of the storm: Documentary cinema and the ubiquity of the Storm in Filipino culture

“We are the storm people. The storm could be the Filipino’s original Anito (God)… So, yes the storm gives the Filipino a resiliency that’s uniquely Filipino because it’s become a metaphor for restarting, rebuilding, reconstruction, relocation, rebirth… Amid a very corporeal history, there’s the storm, the Filipino’s god of all gods, which has somehow become the great paradoxical equalizer, giving the Filipino a complex logic/illogic cultural discourse; a philosophy founded on the patterns of nature; the meaning of existence is appropriated by nature’s ways.”i

Lav Diaz’s Storm Children: Book One, his recent documentary sheds a new light on the subject of the typhoon, which also became the takeoff point for discussion during the “Documentary as Experimental Cinema” forum at the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival (YIDFF) Film Criticism Collective program, where filmmakers and critics attempted to look at documentary cinema and filmmaking in the lens and approaches of experimental cinema. One of the panelists in the forum, film critic and programmer Philip Cheah thinks that documentary (with particular reference to the films shown in Yamagata) is a form of experimental film: “it is because the new documentary experiments are managing to say something without seeming to say anything.” In a way, Storm Children does not drive an overt advocacy, but the film is still a ground for Diaz to continue to explore themes that touch on Filipino culture. And Diaz’ affinity to the subject matter is perhaps what prompted him to head straight into the ravaged city of Tacloban to shoot the film three months after Haiyan (local name Yolanda), left its destructive path in December 2013. The tragedy is enormous and the impact on the people who lived to tell the horrors of that onslaught is unspeakable.

In the film, Diaz charts a new territory of the Storm in Filipino culture, which he previously tackled in Death in the Land of Encantos, which similarly dealt with the reality as experienced by people in the Bicol region, which is located in eastern Philippines where typhoons usually have its landfall. But in Storm Children, the tragedy and poverty that arose from the destruction is never mined to elicit charity or pity. The straightforwardness of the approach is deliberate (the credits would show you that the film is “photographed by”). The documentary begins very much like Encantos, capturing images of devastation with the overpowering presence of rain. Encantos’ documentary roots is noted by film critic Robert Koehler of Cinema Scope, “Encantos did indeed begin as non-fiction; the former reporter Diaz dashed to Bicol (where he made his previous two films) two weeks after (Typhoon) Durian hit to record the environmental and human conditions.”

But unlike Encantos’ docu-narrative approach, Storm Children is a perfect example of Direct Cinema, a documentary that resembles a raw and direct exploration that elevates the element of observation rather than clear-cut, purposive investigation. In the film’s first hour, Diaz captures long, static shots of floodwater, debris and the children that frolic about and rummage through them. He employs very little editing, letting us soak through the images in black and white photography, which sort of deepens the gloom and bleakness of the recorded reality. The first hour unfolds in a slow and deliberate pace, as if both Diaz and his audience are getting a feel of the place for the first time. The documentation changes pace and form in the second half. The static shots and long takes are now interspersed with handheld ones and where the first half of the documentary the camera records the events at a distance, Diaz slowly inches closer to his subjects: the children that scavenge this seemingly post-apocalyptic milieu. He briefly allows one character, a boy we see tirelessly fetching water for his family, to have a voice. The boy laments how his older brother gets to complain about him resting while the older brother does not even have the temerity to find a job. It is a powerful scene – one that shows Diaz understanding of the humanity that still radiates amidst the tragedy. We feel how Diaz exemplifies in this image of toiling children the resiliency of the Filipino’s spirit.

He also spends considerable time filming two boys unearthing a mound of debris, unmindful of the search’s uncertainty. This is Diaz giving us a sense of his own search for meaning – the images and signs of action reflecting on the first half’s seeming ambiguity and stasis. He then briefly interviews one boy under a ship washed ashore then follows him to show where his house is. We learn from this brief section of the documentary how a ship – a towering, uncomfortable presence – wrecked a stretch of houses in a single swoop. Following the same boy, we glimpsed on a group of young girls were singing “Let it Go” from Frozen, the camera quickly pans to this merry lot, a stark irony to their present reality. The scene, with its randomness, carries with it an unnerving tone that punctuates the search for the boy’s house. But it is also reflective of the unstructured inquiry that Diaz has set himself out to do.

While Diaz’s eye is focused on the children, he gives a certain humanity to the adults who are almost entirely absent in the entirety of the film in one scene before the final moments – a semblance of the solidarity in that is most often valorized in the media in disaster-stricken reportage when man is shown reconstructing a part of his house, an elderly passing by stops and helps him. But Diaz comes back to the theme of resilience in the final images, this time, with an almost dreamlike, magical tinge. We see groups of children rafting towards two enormous ships, climbing the ladders, jumping with carefree abandon into the sea, and in the final moments, in what seems like the only visual manipulation in the film, Diaz slows the scene’s speed down. The scene plays like a loop and the children has made something impossible – they have turned the symbols of destruction into a playground of innocence and rebirth where the possibility of hope and joy still flourish.

Diaz shot Storm Children: Book One while he was finishing his Locarno-winning Mula sa Kung Ano ang Noon (From What Is Before). And while Mula is set in pre-Martial law Philippines, both films portray a society that grapples with the reality and brutality of change; whether political or natural. The soundtrack of rushing water, especially in the first half, also recalls the diegetic use of the terrifying waves in Mula. Water in both films serves as a physical force that the characters find themselves having to struggle with, whether it is rushing or roiling, it is an ever-present reality like the reality of the typhoon in Philippine culture, just like the presence of the unwanted Ship “that is something to be accepted, willingly or not.” Once objects of movement, it is now lifeless and uncaring, very much like lack of immediate governmental functions in the critical reconstruction and recovery process. This absence framed in the film, “strengthens the significance of people system in survival,” critic Manshur Zikri writes.ii

This tangible icon of the destruction symbolizes the unseen, unfathomable force of nature and the unwanted, inescapable reality of the calamity brought by the storm. This imagery of the ship also appears in Nash Ang’s Paraiso, a documentary following survivors of the typhoon with particular focus on children as its subject. It employs a similar approach to Storm Children with half of its running time. In just over an hour, Ang’s documentary chronicles the struggle of rebuilding lives and dreams. Among the interview subjects include a family who lost 23 members. We see the surviving members visit the graves of the loved ones they lost in the mass grave. The use of the word paraiso (paradise) is clearly meant to be ironic, the meaning of the word lost in the pervasive memory and reality of tragedy and great loss. The Ship seems to be the most overwhelming imagery of the typhoon in Leyte. It also appears in a narrative film, Brillante Mendoza’s Taklub (Trap), which is also set and shot in Tacloban. It treads the same territories as Diaz’ documentary, but the apocalyptic landscape, while serving as the background for the film’s interconnected stories of survival, is used to mirror individual loss and grief; the debris and ruin captured by Mendoza’s usual documentary-like camerawork suggesting of the inner chaos that any time threatens to destroy the veneer of human resilience.

This resilience is met with its most formidable challenger: death. The destruction wrought by the typhoon is amplified in the personal story of a couple who lost all their children in Wena Sanchez and Cha Escala’s Nick and Chai. Instead of showing images of devastation and ruin, Sanchez and Escala zero in on Nick and Chai Quieta, as they recall in heartbreaking account the loss of all their four children during the typhoon’s onslaught. The documentary rarely changes setting, charting mostly the couple’s makeshift home and immediate community but it depicts the difficulty of the day-to-day process of dealing with such a great loss. The constant visit to their children’s graves and looking at the photographs of their children floods them tears but we also see glimpses of rebuilding a new life, little steps towards painful resignation. Chai says that they both prayed, “Lord, please take us together”, a resignation tinged with alarming helplessness. It is something that hints at the spiritual and fatalistic nature of our beliefs – the impact of the typhoon leveling not only the physical landscapes but also the personal territories of emotion and psyche. The documentary may not exhibit the same visual heftiness of Storm Children and Paraiso, but Sanchez and Escala know that the strength of film lies in the story of the Quietas – but it is in the telling through the documentary platform that provided them to take the audience into their experience, mirroring the immeasurable loss and pain of death and destruction, and the slow recovery towards what would constitute a new normal.

The estimation of this Filipino reality through the lenses of these documentaries carries a great philosophical weight into understanding the Filipino psyche. Diaz, while recording reality, “becomes a facilitator too,” writes Zikri, adding that the camera becomes a medium of empathy.iii It does not only record the actuality of the typhoon, but the documentary medium bridges the distance between this reality and transforms it into a shared experience of loss. The reality wrought by the “superstorm” was overwhelmingly new. It was historical and unprecedented. Despite the Storm’s ubiquity in Filipino life and the impact it has made on our psyche – as if human resilience is a prized sculpture carved out by this force majeure – Typhoon Haiyan was proof that the Filipino is fraught with worse realities heightened by the physical force of a changing climate. There was the reality of an ill-prepared government that failed to rise for its people; on one side, there was the everyday reality of the long-suffering Filipino struggling for survival.

–Jay Rosas

i – Beware of the Jolibee: A Correspondence with Lav Diaz by Andrea Picard, Cinema Scope Issue 51 ii- Camera of Empathy, Rhythm of Territory by Manshur Zikri, Grand Illusion: The ARKIPEL Documentary and Experimental Film Festival iii- ibid

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