This travel miniseries is using true crime to challenge historical revisionism

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Lao-American filmmaker Aria Inthavong talks to us about the transformative potential of true crime, the machinery behind historical revisionism, and why he’s no longer afraid to sing “My Way” at the karaoke. Photo by JL JAVIER

Aria Inthavong is listening to the dead — well, not literally. “I wanna let these stories speak for themselves,” the Lao-American filmmaker says over Zoom. In his self-produced travel miniseries “Solivagant,” Inthavong shows that true crime can do more than just dissect cases like a cadaver on a steel autopsy table.

Since joining Buzzfeed in 2017, Inthavong has produced a plethora of videos that documented him getting choked-out in an MMA fight to falling in love with his coworker. However, his entry into the Buzzfeed Unsolved Network — which would later be the home of his series “Aria Investigates” — happened because he was stuck at home.

Unable to produce content outside of his house during the lockdown, Inthavong decided to scour the internet in search of his father’s best friend, Serge Armand. “The ideal ending would have been to reunite my father with [Armand]. It would have been so good to have them reunited and smiling and laughing together over Zoom. But it didn’t go that way,” he says. Spoiler: Armand was allegedly involved in drug trafficking and domestic abuse which is believed to have led to his suicide.

With 6.1 million views on YouTube as of writing, “I Solved The Disappearance Of My Dad's Best Friend” was Inthavong’s first encounter with the untold stories of the dead.

The next step for the Buzzfeed producer was to create travel content. Before moving back to the US at the age of 17, Inthavong had already lived in Thailand, Indonesia, and Singapore. It comes as no surprise then that he developed an affinity for wandering on his own.

“I’m a third culture kid,” he explains. “As Dean [Julkipli M. Wadi] said, people like me don’t really have a home country. We kind of live in the gray area. I think that’s what’s driven my desire to travel and explore the world.”

And it’s this desire that urged Inthavong to pitch “Solivagant” to Buzzfeed. A way to marry his career in investigative content with his wanderlust, “Solivagant” transforms travel content into cultural commentary.

Buzzfeed's policies and the COVID-19 pandemic didn't stop Aria Inthavong from boarding a plane bound for the Philippines to film "Solivagant." Photo by JL JAVIER

Though Inthavong’s manager and the channel heads at Buzzfeed were initially supportive of the series, some of their policies (coupled with the sudden onslaught of the pandemic) didn’t allow him to film overseas. This, however, didn’t stop him from boarding a plane bound for the Philippines to film the travel miniseries on his own.

The first season of “Solivagant” has three episodes covering some of the Philippines’ most insidious crimes and atrocities: the Manila Film Center Tragedy, the Jabidah Massacre, and the “My Way” killings. At the center of each episode are the victims.

In a country whose collective memory is as fragmented as ever, where historical atrocities have become a matter of debate, where the son of a dictator has been proclaimed president-elect, Inthavong looks into the stories of the silenced. “Solivagant” is a reminder to listen to the dead so that we may never forget.

Here, the Lao-American filmmaker talks to us about the transformative potential of true crime, the machinery behind historical revisionism, and why he’s no longer afraid to sing “My Way” at the karaoke.

The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

On historical events such as the Jabidah Massacre, Inthavong says: “Since I started at Buzzfeed, I was always looking into the struggles of marginalized peoples, communities that are often painted in a negative light. I just want to pull back the veil a little bit." Photo by JL JAVIER

Hi Aria! Do you ever get spooked by your own work?

I dabble in both true crime and paranormal stories. I’m a Buddhist, so I have a spiritual side. But at the same time, I also haven’t had any paranormal stuff happen to me yet. What spooks me more is the true crime stuff.

Just this past week, I was in an Airbnb and I woke up in the middle of the night. I couldn’t go back to sleep for several hours because I was hearing a creaking sound from the house. I wasn’t thinking of a ghost. I was thinking that someone was in the house. My mind goes there because I consume so much of these true crime stories and you hear so much horrific stuff happening. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone rented out an Airbnb and hid in the closet until their guests were sleeping and killed them. That’s what happens when you cover so many of these stories.

I think it’s good because it makes you aware. I feel like it helps. I’ve become a little more cautious because of the stories I cover. But it also forces me to stay awake all night in an Airbnb. It’s a double edged sword.

Why is there a growing interest in unsolved mysteries and true crime narratives? Is it because of that awareness?

I think it’s that, but at the same time, I think most people are inherently curious–morbidly curious. Because at the end of the day, the people committing these atrocities are humans just like us. So that’s why, for me, the scariest monsters aren’t the ghosts or the monsters under our beds. It’s the real people that we come across on a day to day basis. You always hear about those stories, and it’s crazy to think that someone you know and love may be capable of such things.

Since we’re talking about the real, there’s also the danger of oversensationalizing and embellishing the real in order to get a good story. How do you avoid that?

Honestly, that’s the dilemma I face when telling these true crime stories. I’m very conscious about how, even if we’re sticking to the facts, we’re still kind of sensationalizing and monetizing these horrific events. I’ve been investigating true crime cases on Buzzfeed and on my personal channel, and I felt like there wasn’t much of a purpose to them.

"Here, I’m investigating these horrific events, but they serve to speak to larger issues and bring awareness to historical atrocities. I get to speak to something larger than just one singular event," says Inthavong. Photo by JL JAVIER

If anything, that’s kind of what drew me to tell stories with “Solivagant.” What a lot of true crime does is they just tell these one-off events like the murder of so-and-so and that’s it. Here, I’m investigating these horrific events, but they serve to speak to larger issues and bring awareness to historical atrocities. I get to speak to something larger than just one singular event.

I think you actually acknowledge that in the “My Way” killings episode. You started talking about the “My Way” killings, but it evolved into this bigger discussion on American imperialism.

My concern for that one was that I felt like there wasn’t much to it. Obviously, the Manila Film Center spoke to martial law and the larger issues surrounding the Marcos regime. The Jabidah Massacre spoke to the Moro struggle.

I definitely have to give a lot of credit to Dr. [Mary] Lacanlale for that episode. Her perspective on [the “My Way” killings] really changed the way I look at true crime cases in general. Now, when I look at true crime cases not only in the Philippines but also in other countries, I look at what happened and how it’s told through a Western lens. What are the deeper reflections of the people that are actually involved in the case?

With the “My Way” killings, many of the Western articles that I read for that case didn’t even name any of the victims. I had to dig through and find Filipino news sources written in English to find their names. When you look at the Western outlets that covered this case, it’s always about Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.” This is something that really stuck with me when I look at these types of cases now.

What drew you to the Philippines for your first season?

Well, first and foremost, I’m a little selfish. (Laughs) When I go on these things, I wanna go to places I’ve never been before. This was actually my brother’s mindset. I told my brother that I was going to spend my own money to go there and that I hope people would watch [“Solivagant”]. Then my brother says, “It doesn’t matter if people watch it or not because at the very least, you’re visiting a new country. You get to explore a new country and try their food. Enjoy yourself.” That’s how I chose to look at it. “Solivagant” or not, I get to go to the Philippines.

Secondly, there’s just an abundance of stories that could be told. There were so many other stories I wanted to tell, but I was only there for five days. I would have also wanted to go outside of [Luzon], but it wouldn’t have made sense to go anywhere else given the time. I wanted to go to Baguio because I’ve been hearing about the Old Diplomat Hotel. I wanted to tell the story about the Japanese during World War II. I would’ve loved to have done a story on Duterte’s drug war as well. We also didn’t get to touch up on the occult. I also wanted to do stuff on the aswang and the babaylan.

When I was doing my research, I knew that I wanted to go to Asia for my first season. Just being Asian, I felt it was important to tell stories from Asia. The Philippines was an easy choice because I was spoiled for options.

I think one thing that ties all three episodes together is the commentary on collective memory and historical revisionism. Based on your research and the work you’ve done, how does historical revisionism work?

I’ve yet to come across this degree of historical revisionism in any other region I’ve explored. When Karl Castro and all of the other interviewees explained how martial law is painted as this golden age in textbooks, I found it startling. For it to be so ingrained into the Filipino education system, that’s the root of it. If children are being taught that as they’re growing up, that’s what they’re going to move forward in the world with.

I’ve yet to come across this degree of historical revisionism in any other region I’ve explored.

We see stuff like that here in the US. There are some parts where that are rewritten or ignored, but not to the degree of the Philippines. Here in the US, the atrocities committed to the native tribes, the Black community, even the Chinese immigrants are ignored or glossed over in some textbooks. In some cases, we have textbooks that talk about the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln and how that was the end of racism. That’s the way historical revisionism takes place. History is rewritten, retold, reshaped.

As you said, it is kind of a thorough line here. It’s in the way that we look at the “My Way” killings through the lens of American imperialism. As Dean [Julkipli M. Wadi] said, Muslim history in Filipino textbooks is all in just one or two pages. I don’t know how textbook publishers started framing the martial law years as this golden age, but it’s scary.

Would you consider the work that you do as history writing in a way?

I’ve never actually thought of looking at it like that. For me, it’s just been a privilege and honor to be welcomed by so many people. But I’m telling these stories as a foreigner, so I would never dare to presume that I’m writing or helping write the history of the Philippines. I’m happy to even just bring out historical revisionism to the surface and maybe help some people challenge what they had previously been taught.

That definitely makes sense. But I guess there’s some merit as well in how you’re able to amplify the voices of these experts and professors through your platform.

That’s what it was for me. That’s why I want to tell these stories. If I’m gonna tell true crime or these types of darker stories, I want them to serve a purpose.

In your recent Instagram Stories, you were asking people where you should go next. What places are you eyeing for your second season?

There’s so many stories in Asia that I want to tell, including the ones from my home country of Laos. It’s inevitable that I’ll come face to face with the stories from my own country. Laos is definitely a big one for me. And I’d love to go through a bunch of countries in Asia, like Indonesia, Singapore, Cambodia, South Korea, Japan.

There are also stories from around the world that I’d love to cover, even out in the West. Even if parts of Europe are responsible for colonizing parts of the world, there are still a lot of marginalized communities in those countries. You have the immigrants in those countries that have been facing discrimination and harassment for decades. Those are the stories I’d love to tell.

Inthavong outside the Manila Film Center, which was the subject of the first episode of "Solivagant." Photo by JL JAVIER

Last question, did you get to sing “My Way?”

I did not, and I really regret not singing it. That, again, speaks to the kind of Western lens that’s on this case. Because when I was preparing to leave the US, I told people that I was gonna go to the Philippines and I was gonna sing “My Way,” and they were like, “Oh, you shouldn’t do that! That’s gonna be so offensive. You’re gonna upset a whole bunch of people. It’s banned there and that’s gonna be so disrespectful.”

And obviously, I didn’t want to disrespect anyone. But when I got there and I was livestreaming [the karaoke session], my Filipino followers were telling me to sing it. But I still hesitated. When I did my interview with Dr. Lacanlale, even she asked if I sang “My Way” and I said no, to which she replied, “Oh, you should have.” I was like, “Goddammit, why did I listen to the white people?”