“You know, a lifetime ago, I dreamed of being a photojournalist.”
Joanna Vasquez Arong has been in constant movement since she was 17, leading her to live multiple lives around the globe: from growing up in Cebu, migrating to the States and U.K. for studies, and then moving to Beijing to start her journey as a filmmaker.
Since then, she’s traveled along with her stories: from attending Berlinale Talents in Berlin and filming traditional life in Zambia, just to name a few, eventually finding her way back to the Philippines. Now, she is the founder of her own company Old Fool Films and of Eskwela Haiyan — a scholarship program for students severely affected by Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan).
I saw her film “Ang Pagpakalma sa Unos” (To Calm the Pig Inside) for the first time at Cinemalaya last year. I paused after the first minute, overcome with emotion after seeing the image of children playing in the rain and rubble; their joy a stark contrast to the aftermath of the typhoon around them. It was a scene that many of us who grew up in typhoon-stricken areas knew by heart, whether we liked it or not.
But more than the nostalgia, the film mixes memory and myth to make sense of the catastrophe; creating a cinematic language of survival that was both personal and universal. By combining still black and white photographs and colorful childhood drawings with footage and newsreels from the supertyphoon and the political situation, Arong contains the storm and the devastation into a filmic time-capsule — readily unleashed with each play.
The film has been screened around the world and has won several awards such as the special jury prize at last year’s Cinemalaya and was nominated for Online Video of the Year in the 2021 Digital Storytelling Contest of the World Press Photo contest. The winners will be announced on April 15.
I sat down with Arong days after the announcement to speak to her about the nomination, her filmmaking journey, and how she chanced upon one of the most valuable stories in recent Philippine history. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What was your reaction to finding out about the World Press Photo nomination?
We’re very honored. I find myself with this film, “To Calm the Pig Inside”, working with two fabulous photojournalists — Veejay Villafranca and Piyavit Thongsa-Ard. It was Veejay who said: “I think you should send in the film,” and I said “Okay why not?” I didn’t really think about it after that.
Then I got the call one night and yeah, I’m very pleasantly surprised. I’m really happy because I think the images that we have are really strong and poignant, besides the whole story. I mean, it’s difficult to capture these photos so I’m happy that we’re recognized.
I know that you have a background in political science, economics, and international development. Do you think your training in those disciplines informs your filmmaking and the kinds of stories you're drawn to, if at all?
They ask me: “Do you feel like you wasted your time?” I don’t think so at all. I feel like all of my experiences are somehow helping me with being an independent filmmaker. As an independent filmmaker, it’s like you’re an entrepreneur. Creatively, it’s only 25% of the time because I’m kind of working a lot of the time on my own. But the other parts of it, are really: the research, which I still consider part of the creativity, or the budget.
I was always interested in politics, but it’s never been my main goal. I’m more interested in personal stories. In all of my films, it’s always framed within a social context somehow. The way I see it, we don’t really exist on our own. We kind of are informed by our experiences — whether they’re forces we have control over or don’t. I think all of my films always have that dynamic or background at the minimum.
You released your first feature-length documentary “Neo-Lounge” in 2007 and have been making films since. What made you pivot to filmmaking and what was that transition like?
I was always interested in stories and films and art. Even in my old jobs, it was always about trying to get the story of someone or something. There was this cinematographer from Hong Kong, and I really loved his work, he was like: “If you want to become a director, you really just need to live life and learn from it and somehow translate that.” But on the other end of the spectrum, I had friends who said: “Okay, but how are you gonna learn how to do a film?” In terms of the technical aspects, they had a point.
At the time, independent Philippine cinema wasn’t really the way it is now. There’s been a huge boom since then. So, I was afraid that maybe if I stayed, I’d become a bit more Hollywood or I wouldn’t find my style. During this period, I was really in love with Chinese films. What I especially loved about the Chinese films that I knew — from directors like Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige — was that, when I looked them up, they hadn’t really gone to the West. This was really their own voice. Maybe I could learn from that.
I decided to drop everything and just do it. You can’t have one foot in and one foot out, you just gotta go. From a corporate job with a corporate flat in Manila, I sent everything home. I ended up in Beijing and I didn’t have a job. I didn’t speak Mandarin and I didn’t know anyone in Beijing. The Beijing Film Academy was so famous, where all these fifth generation filmmakers had gone, I said: “You know what? Let me see if there’s a Chinese course there.”
One thing I realized, at least with my trajectory, is that I never know where I’m gonna end up. So when I went to Beijing, I was only planning to stay maybe 1-2 years. But after eight years of being there, I decided: maybe I’ll never be Chinese, maybe it’s time to go back home and look for stories there.
What prompted you to tell this story about Typhoon Yolanda?
So as soon as I came back home, I had also wanted to move into fiction so I had written a script that was part of Fabrique des Cinémas du Monde in Cannes. On November 9th, we had to pitch it in France again. My flight was November 8th, which was when Typhoon Yolanda struck.
I had already planned to spend a month in France. But, just by chance, I ended up meeting a producer who was looking for a local producer to go back to the Philippines and start shooting. I was from Cebu and everything was going through Cebu. I was already in touch with so many people, so it was easy for me to come back and start scouting for places to shoot.
So in a way, I hadn’t really initially thought of filming Yolanda, it kind of just happened. I was really there for a foreign film. But because I spent so much time with them and because I was one of the few Filipinos there, people would actually come to me and tell me their stories. That eventually prompted me to start a scholarship program called Eskwela Haiyan, which, again, made me spend more time in Tacloban and Guiuan and hear more stories, etc.
Eventually, I said: “I need to tell these stories cause these aren’t coming out.” I just wanted to share the stories I had heard. What I’ve learned now is that some things just fall into your lap. This has been with me for a long time now and it was supposed to be a small story that I was gonna send out! And then now, it became much bigger than I had thought.
The film reminds me of Chris Marker’s work, specifically the 1962 film “La Jetée”. I was wondering, what made you tell this story through an experimental short film format?
People ask me: Did I ever think to make this a feature? And I say: No. There were a lot of stories I could’ve shared, but I didn’t think it needed those. It would’ve been more repetitive.
Chris Marker was a huge inspiration for this film, particularly his film “Sans Soleil.” I remember just being blown away because the first few minutes was about nothing but happiness. So for the opening of my film, the first image of those kids playing, that’s a direct inspiration from Chris Marker. I wanted to show something more upbeat somehow rather than go into the storm right away.
But in all of my films, I actually use photographs. But this was the first time I collaborated with professional photographers. But they really managed to capture what I wanted to express, more so than the videos that I had on hand with me. So there was no question because these photographs were so poignant that I’m gonna work around these photographs.
The one that has the most photographs is Veejay Villafranca. Most of his photos are actually in black and white and the reason the film ended up being black and white, except for the illustrations, was precisely because of Veejay’s photos. So we worked around his photos, almost. Even when I was writing the essays, I was looking at the photos. It was a give and take.
This film explores something so specific but it seems to have resonated with so many around the world. Why do you think that is?
I was actually very nervous at first because I was worried that the story was old or if it was gonna even resonate. When we had the world premiere ago at Slamdance, I remember sitting there and… you know it takes so much that you almost forget why you did it. So when I sat in the audience and I was watching the big screen, I had to pinch myself from not crying! Because I was hearing all of the stories again, for the first time.
People came up to me from all walks of life. I remember someone from the U.K. coming up to me and saying: “I didn’t know that was a typhoon! We don’t have these really.” So I find it so fascinating that different people told me different things. But they found it universal in terms of the whole idea of trauma, of not being heard. This was before the pandemic blew up. I think it also touched a nerve because of what was happening with COVID.
It played and resonated in developed and developing countries. Maybe not necessarily because of the typhoon, but because there was some kind of corruption happening and affecting everybody at a local level. In general, they could relate to either the personal story — the idea of the whole grandmother or mother or secrets — or the typhoon itself because they had gone through something similar.
What do you hope to do with your filmmaking?
I'm always interested in so many different stories. But one thing I’m careful of is I don’t want to repeat exactly what I’ve done in the past. It cannot be exactly the same. You can almost take a formula and apply it to another story, and I don’t want to do that.
What I will take away from this experience with “To Calm The Pig Inside,” as cliche as it sounds, is that my most honest films, the ones that took a part of me, are my first film ("Neo-Lounge") and this film. Not that my other films weren’t honest! But a film reveals a lot about the filmmaker. I do know that I’m drawn to stories of cycles and trauma. I didn’t realize that until now.
Looking back now, with my first film, I ended up in competition at Karlovy Vary! But I was too busy being busy that I didn’t appreciate it. Now, many years later, I have no idea whether I’ll end up making another film. So, you might as well put yourself in the film or the story.
“Ang Pagpakalma Sa Unos" (To Calm The Pig Inside) is available for viewing on the World Press Photo website until April 17, 2021.