Within the first 10 minutes of Lorcan Finnegan’s “Nocebo,” Chai Fonacier arrives at the doorstep of a suburban home in Dublin. She rings the doorbell and introduces herself as Diana, a Filipino nanny hired to help around the house. Christine (Eva Green), a fashion designer has been incapacitated by a mysterious illness months before and has no recollection of hiring a nanny. But Diana’s smile is warm and her tone seems helpful. So Christine concedes — partly because she needs the help, partly because she’s too shy to turn away an immigrant.
What could go wrong?
As the first Philippine-Irish co-production, “Nocebo” steeps the psychological thriller in Filipino mysticism. In the months since its premieres at BeyondFest and Sitges, two of the world’s most prominent genre film festivals, acclaim has slowly poured in for Fonacier whose “knack for coiled tension” and “measured performance is well-realized and deeply felt.” Teetering between disarmingly warm and insidiously odd, Fonacier keeps the audience second-guessing Diana’s intentions and the healing her witchcraft provides Christine and her household.
However, the journey to Christine’s doorstep was a long and arduous one. The project began as Finnegan’s minor obsession with the world of placebos and nocebos — inert substances that may benefit or harm, respectively, depending on how the subjects perceived them. When Finnegan and screenwriter Garret Shanley’s research brought them to Cebu and the Siquijor islands, they found connections between Ireland and the Philippines through shamanism, particularly in the shared folklore and devastating experiences with colonization and capitalism.
Once Bianca Balbuena of Epicmedia Productions entered the picture, it was much easier to tether the narrative to the locality. In need of someone from Cebu who knew the nuances of the culture, Balbuena recruited Ara Chawdhury, writer-director of “Miss Bulalacao” (2015), to help write the scenes to be shot in the Philippines. “As a third culture kid, understanding religion and the intersections between culture and how many times those religions and cultures have interacted throughout history became my journey towards self-identification,” says Chawdhury, whose fascinations with the mystical and with fantasy are deeply embedded in her own work.
With a narrative skeleton already in place, Chawdhury fleshed out Diana’s backstory and dialogue, peppering in details that imbued the narrative with cultural specificity such as spells and music choices “Only the privileged and city kids listened to indie rock back home.” Chawdhury says to CNN Philippines Life. “In my bukid, people dance to Budots.”
Fonacier became involved after Balbuena and Chawdhury recommended her to Finnegan, encouraging him to watch “Miss Bulalacao” and “Patay na si Hesus” to see her range. “I was elated to know that my character was going to speak in Cebuano,” says Fonacier. “We don’t often hear that even in local mainstream media in the Philippines.” Chawdhury and Fonacier have a nearly decade-long friendship thanks to their previous collaborations “Operation Prutas” and “Miss Bulalacao,” enabling them to work together on the specifics.
Though Fonacier wasn’t privy to the details of Filipino mysticism prior to this role, she asserts that the practice of going to the manghihilot or mananambal is a near-universal experience in the Philippines, especially for those without access to medical help or insurance. But more than that, she and Chawdhury agree that folkloric and spiritual practices are parts of our history that we must connect to, even though most of it has been lost due to colonization.
It’s no wonder that “Nocebo” makes little effort to conceal Diana’s otherness, with Diana at times displaying her Filipino-ness like a badge of honor — cooking Filipino food, curing Christine of her illness through traditional folk medicine, and speaking in a thick Cebuano accent; almost as a way to assert these within white spaces. While these result in aggressions against her by Christine’s husband Felix (Mark Strong) and even her daughter Bobs (Billie Gadsdon), it forces the audience to wonder whether such treatment is rightful distrust, simple thoughtlessness, or the symptoms of deeply-rooted racism.
It’s not as if Filipinos are exempt from unlearning these same patterns of aggression. When the trailer dropped in October, an online discussion sparked around Fonacier’s use of an accent — creating tensions between those who see it as a caricature that perpetuates the othering of Filipinos and those who see it as an empowering refusal to assimilate into whiteness. Chawdhury asks that we examine the source of our discomfort rather than passing immediate judgment. “It grates the ears when you’ve been conditioned to self-correct so much that you forget that not everybody has the same educational privileges,” says Chawdhury. “It heals the soul when you recognize the resistance comes from a lack of self-acceptance.”
Accents, in and of themselves, are not bad. Cinematically, they’re also important. In Chawdhury’s 2015 short “Operation Prutas” accents are used to highlight the disparity between two characters from different parts of Cebu, their cadence signaling an immediate sense of place. “We deliberately had Chai do an Urban Cebuano accent in contrast to Ronyel’s Southern Cebu drawl,” says Chawdhury. “It just felt important to express the musicality of these accents.”
Still, Fonacier understands the whiplash. “Bisaya people are starved of proper representation, and some are just coming from a protective space — they’re tired of the tropes that make our origins or our accent the butt of jokes,” says Fonacier, citing Jo Koy’s stand-up comedy routines on Filipinx accents and the disparity between how regional accents are ridiculed in popular media versus how they are treated as commonplace in the day-to-day. “We understand that those who have heavy opinions about the accent I used for the character are just afraid of all the ridiculing happening all over again.”
No form of art can represent an entire culture, but these conversations are often missing or misunderstood, especially on social media platforms that tend to strip away context and conflate opinion and identity. “The idea of a Philippine or Asian monolith needs to be shattered,” says Chawdhury, emphasizing that cultures have specific sensibilities and encouraging spectators to seek out Visayan cinema — from filmmakers such as Peque Gallaga to festivals such as BINISAYA, Sinulog Film Festival, and Cinema Rehiyon and beyond.
“At some point during production, Chai and I were messaging about this and I remember we came to the conclusion that if we don’t do this right, “kita gyuy isugnod ani memsh” (we’re the ones they’ll come for with pitchforks and torches),” says Chawdhury. “But we’re also both not afraid of playing villains. I would worry if we were super concerned with how we look over what we were trying to invoke instead.”
Beneath these issues of representation are larger, more dangerous issues on labor. Like ‘Triangle of Sadness’ and ‘To the North’ earlier this year, ‘Nocebo’ challenges the dominant image of domestic Filipino workers overseas, using film as a way to shift the existing power dynamics between OFWs and their (often White) higher-ups. In the process, the audience sees the many ways that Western countries are dependent on individuals from the Global South and the scaffolds of capitalism and colonialism that keep such a status quo from toppling.
Such labor disparities between the Philippines and other countries became more apparent once Fonacier and Chawdhury began comparing notes on working conditions of international productions. From the lack of labor studies on the Philippine entertainment industry to the scaricity of guilds and unions that protect workers’ rights to the minimal government support, working conditions in the Philippines leave creatives exhausted and struggling to survive, let alone be creative. Even Fonacier experienced massive difficulties traveling out of the country for the filming of “Nocebo” due to the absence of a system that supports sending film and TV workers internationally.
Chawdhury sums it up best: “Their [dystopian] fiction is our post-colonial reality.”
“Nocebo,” “Triangle of Sadness,” and “To the North” will be having their Philippine premieres at the QCinema International Film Festival.