When the Storm Fades (Canada/Philippines, 2018) [VIFF 2018]

The ‘storm’ referred to in the title of activist-comedian Sean Devlin’s crowdfunded film is Typhoon Haiyan, or Super Typhoon Yolanda, the strongest tropical cyclone recorded in recent decades that occurred in November 2013. Most severely hit was the central Philippines, including the island of Leyte and its capital city of Tacloban. Devlin’s film is set in Tacloban, three years after the typhoon yet whose devastation continues to be acutely felt — be it mourning the loss of loved ones or living amongst the ruins of what had once been houses. But because the film was produced in adherence to Jemez Principles (as stated in the closing credits), it actively combats poverty porn and the patronising, exoticising anonymity that goes with it in following the separate but gradually intertwining strands of the Pablo family who survived the typhoon, a white couple visiting the area partly as tourists and partly as disaster relief volunteers, and local activists speaking about (misguided) efforts of post-typhoon recovery, reconstruction, and prevention. And contrary to its straightforward documentary prologue — an aural montage of newscasters speaking of the dire conditions in the aftermath; the link between climate change and the increased frequency of such calamitous typhoons; and the demand for international aid, not just (long-distance) attention, over an ever-widening shot of the damage caused by the typhoon — the film also intertwines documentary and fiction.

Occupying one documentary tier is the Pablo family: Nilda, Abner, and their children Lovely and Arnel. Sequences devoted to their lived experiences at times feature voiceovers of their witnessing of the typhoon, such as Arnel’s, who speaks of the roof of their house being blown away, being rescued by a cargo ship, and the deaths of a maternal aunt and her child. Rather than emphasising their hardships (already in plain view and so do not need to be spelled out twice), Devlin focuses on how life goes on. Nilda and her sister Imelda continue to cook and sell lumpiya (spring rolls) in their community, with one sequence even consisting of a comic deadpan exchange about other types of lumpiya that they could sell to rack up more customers. Lovely and Arnel converse about her upcoming college-related trip to Singapore; in this same conversation, Lovely mentions to Arnel to be nice to the ‘foreigner.’

The ‘foreigner’ in question is Trevor (Aaron Read), who with Clare (Kayla Lorette) occupies a fictional tier that becomes woven with that of the Pablo family. Initially, they are presented as completely disconnected from their third world surroundings. Following a scene of Abner and Arnel in their ramshackle house with the former asking how one could spend fifty pesos a day and telling Arnel to be more responsible with money, a cut introduces Clare jogging through a road as if in a different location altogether and Trevor awkwardly inquiring about fruits at a kiosk. In other words, an element of incompatibility or incongruity — driven by a lack of knowledge — characterises Clare and Trevor’s presence in this space. This incompatibility-incongruity gives rise to moments of dry (if predictable) humour: Trevor ‘teaching’ Arnel to play basketball or educating the family on the importance of a compost bin; Clare gifting something to Nilda or facing a question about religion from Lovely; or Clare and Trevor helping to replant mangrove trees in the shoreline but becoming more preoccupied with taking pictures of themselves. Such moments are not limited to their interactions with the Pablo family either. In tourist mode, they meet with another white couple that is clearly more knowledgeable, educated/trained, and experienced in their transnational activism — and also less prone to trumpeting it. But their incompatibility-incongruity with the Pablos and Tacloban is not immutable, particularly for Clare.

Another, though less prominent, documentary tier concerns local activists led by Marissa Cabaljao. Though appearing only several times in the film, Marissa’s presence/voice injects an activism-awareness that contrasts sharply with that of Clare and Trevor. This contrast is then subtly reflected when Marissa talks at a radio station about a foreign-backed tide embankment project undertaken without consulting locals, the money for which could have simply been given to survivors instead.

Each of these tiers possesses its own interest in the frank way that it addresses the everyday lived realities in Tacloban, the bumbling touristy gaze of foreign aid workers, or the swooping voracity of corporate interests after catastrophes. At the same time, the manner of bringing together these multiple tiers of truths/experiences is not entirely seamless. Scenes are at times so fragmentary and not allowed to breathe on their own and in their growing connections to each other that they are hardly memorable. Emotional and/or consciousness-raising impact is thus patchy at most.

When scenes are able to breathe fully, as it were, their emotional impact is strong, as in the sequence of Nilda showing Clare the ruins of her late sister’s house. The two women hold hands as Nilda speaks of her witnessing and feelings, with her most poignant words obliquely but powerfully expressing her grief and love for her late sister: ‘I can sing before; now I don’t know how to sing.’

When the Storm Fades is showing on October 7 at the Vancouver International Film Festival.