Vancouver filmmaker focuses on storm’s aftermath in Philippines

Climate change and ‘voluntourists’ collide in docu-dramedy When the Storm Fades

Even by typhoon standards, Yolanda was a monster.

By the time Typhoon Yolanda made landfall on the Filipino island of Leyte at 4:40 a.m. on Nov. 8, 2013, its winds were clocking in at 315 kilometres per hour. The storm surge that followed devastated the coastal city of Tacloban. Thousands drowned in their homes and in evacuation centres; thousands more were swept out to sea.

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Yolanda was stronger than Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy combined. Its death toll — still undetermined five years later — is believed to be upwards of 10,000.

Immediately after the storm, international news crews arrived in Tacloban and trained their cameras on the flattened, debris-strewn neighbourhoods and traumatized survivors.

Filmmaker Sean Devlin watched the typhoon coverage from his home in Vancouver. His mother was born and raised on the island of Leyte — both of his parents worked in international development. Devlin knew that one day soon the international news crews would leave, and the arduous process of healing — and navigating corruption and exploitation — would begin in earnest.

And this process is what Devlin’s docu-dramedy, When the Storm Fades, unpacks with audacious authenticity.

“I find that these storms and similar disasters, they’re in the news for a few days, and we get images of huge swathes of people, and then the story disappears,” says Devlin. “To me, it always felt really detached and statistical, and part of the impetus for making this film was to render something that was more sensual and emotional to give people a chance to experience some of what it’s like to live on the frontlines of climate change at a very personal, intimate level.”

When the Storm Fades screens this week at the 2018 Vancouver International Film Festival. Filmed on location in Tacloban in 2016, it’s fiction in as much as actors are presented playing out scenes, but for the most part, those actors are members of an actual Tacloban family — the Pablos — and they’re reenacting moments from their own lives, from the months and years after Yolanda destroyed their home and killed their loved ones.

When the Storm Fades screens at the Vancouver International Film Festival.
When the Storm Fades screens at the Vancouver International Film Festival.

For Devlin — an artist-activist who co-founded the website Shit Harper Did — it was critical that the Pablo family had a say in how their story was told.

Devlin had participated in workshops led by Filipino artist Merlinda Bobis in which she argued that stories should be handled “in the same way that we handle the remains of a human.”

“Stories need to be treated with that respect, and when someone passes away, there’s a certain logic and hierarchy to who has the right to speak on that person’s behalf to tell their story,” says Devlin.

Which is why Devlin asked the Pablo family to script their own dialogue. “I really didn’t feel comfortable putting words in these people’s mouths, and so the script was developed based on them sharing their own experiences and interactions that they had,” says Devlin.

When the Storm Fades includes a darkly comic subplot about a couple of young Canadian “voluntourists” (comedians Kayla Lorette and Aaron Read) in the Philippines purportedly to help the Pablos but who seem more intent on crafting the perfect Instagram shot.

Devlin drew inspiration for the Canadian characters from his own experience as an aid worker in Western Africa 12 years ago.

Those characters, he says, are present in the film to “provoke thought, especially among white audiences, because in most films where we see characters travelling overseas, the white folks are often framed as saviors. I wanted to poke holes in that myth.”

Devlin ran an IndieGoGo campaign for When the Storm Fades before filming began in early 2016. Half of the funds went directly to the Pablos — to rebuild their house, open a market stall and finance Lovely Pablo’s education.

“We were interested in making a film that wasn’t simply going to raise awareness about the struggles this family was encountering but was also going to provide some support in overcoming them,” says Devlin.

But his main goal with When the Storm Fades was to give a human face to the climate crisis.

“I think here, we tend to think of a lot of melting ice caps and polar bears, but the fact of the matter is that people in communities like Tacloban have been dealing with the impacts of this for decades and it’s only getting worse,” says Devlin.

“I think people don’t necessarily think about the socio-economic conditions of people in the Philippines as being connected to pollution we create here,” he adds. “There’s a debt of sorts that needs to be repaid one way or another.”

When the Storm Fades screens Oct. 4 and 7 at SFU Goldcorp as part of the 2018 Vancouver International Film Festival. More info at viff.org.


sabrina@yvrscreenscene.com

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