Note: The following blog was originally posted on emphas.is for our project backers, and is being re-posted here. Posted on 11/16/12 at 4:00pm
Thank you again so much for supporting this project! With the help of friends inside the cemetery and out, we are quickly making progress wrapping up the documentary.
We left Denver at 8 a.m. Sunday morning and arrived in Malate (Manila) just after midnight on Tuesday. We spent a couple of days adjusting to the new time zone in familiar surroundings, then moved to an empty hostel in Santa Cruz just around the corner from the cemetery, so we can spend most of our energy on our work inside and outside the cemetery (rather than getting there and back).
We're grateful to have found a location so close the cemetery. It's making a world of difference in our productivity and ability to sleep! (No Malate party crowd!). We don't have water most of the time so far, but that is another story and feels small compared to the access and privacy we have here.
With every visit, James and/or I always approach the cemetery slowly (i.e., we don't arrive initially with a priority to shoot, but rather catch up with friends and check in on how everyone is doing since the last time we visited). Also, the security at the gate is always changing...will they let us in? Demand a "tip" (bribe)? It's always uncertain. The first time we arrived in 2008 we actually had to get written permission from City Hall to even enter the public cemetery; it took a week!
Today was a breeze. Ray Alvarez, a kind and very honest guard who often escorted us around the cemetery in 2008, was on the front gate, and welcomed us back. (Hooray!) First anticipated hurdle: overcome!
Before we even got through the gate, we heard shouts of "James! James!" Lots of smiles and hellos. He has developed such a positive place for himself in the community. Warm welcomes were coming out of mausoleums and from children and their parents on the streets every few seconds.
We visited with our friends Jenny and Jerry Juan first, who are relatively well-off and incredibly influential within the cemetery community. We learned a few unsettling things there. One, that since my last visit—and as James visited last October—someone he considered a friend had started spreading "rumors" about James and Jenny, centered around an afternoon when he went to document her voting in the local Barangy elections (nevermind that there were other people in tow for the trip). We don't know exactly what the rumors were, but they caused Jenny great distress, and for her to distance herself from James the last time he was here, which he had mentioned to me. That was surprising and upsetting to hear, especially that anything involving her and her family's ongoing openness to us caused her problems. Apparently, the issue has been settled between the Juan's and their former friends, but not without some blows. Ouch all around. We ran into the gossiper today, and James treated him cooly. We hope that is the last we hear of that.
Jenny also shared some devastating news about her family and several great losses that they have endured since we last visited. We were very sad to hear, but grateful that she felt able to share her stories with us still, and hopeful that lending an ear, condolences and friendship eased her burden at least for a moment. Life can be so hard.
When we were leaving, a friend of Jerry's offered to escort James around some other low-income communities in the metro area to provide contrast to the cemetery community for the documentary, which we aim to follow up on...more on that soon.
Next, we visited Steve, his wife, children and 84-year-old mother, Angelina. They treated us to lunch and Cokes on the north wall. It was a joy to spend time with them. They are always incredibly gracious and kind. Steve said he saw the documentary trailer on YouTube, and said that it was "very good." Glad to hear, since he is featured in it! He is very cynical of corruption in government and lies from the media, so his seal of approval on how we represented him means the world to me. He also thanked me for sending him a YouTube video of his favorite song, "Let it Be," on Facebook a few months ago. I love Facebook for allowing us to stay connected to him and Jenny.
We also visited with LL, a young boy who played videographer for us on our last visit, and I hope will be doing some photography for the documentary as we ease into the project throughout the next week. He is more sickly than most, and his guardian immediately asked us for help getting medication for him again, which we of course agreed to do. He showed us his Gangnam Style dance, which was hilarious. (If you aren't yet familiar with the Gangnam Style phenomenon, I highly recommend clicking the link).
Rody, who was featured in our first multimedia piece in 2008, which won the Every Human Has Rights Award, is still working in the United Spanish American War Veterans Memorial part of the cemetery, where he cleans and "pulls the grass" by hand. He suffered a stroke a couple of years ago, but was in good spirits. It was good to see him again.
We'll continue in the cemetery with follow-up interviews from 2011, and more video work to feature the economy and larger communtiy there. I'm also hoping to start a photo project with three particular kids if they are interested, which would be a complement to the overall documentary. More on that as the project progresses.
Finally, we 're lining up interviews with people outside the cemetery who can speak to larger human rights, governmental and cultural issues which surround and impact the cemetery community and others here, in addition to population growth and the history of Manila and the Philippines. This will be important to give the voices and experiences in the cemetery much-needed context for a wider audience.
To date, we're meeting with a famous activist here this weekend, and hope he'll agree to lend his voice and perspective to the project (many thanks to Veejay Villafranca for that connection...fingers crossed!). We're also extremely grateful to Ben Rasmussen and Abby Kirkbride who connected us with friends here who are introducing us to experts in women's studies, culture and history. We hope to be able to schedule those interviews this week or next.
All in all, all is well. Thank you again for your support. Feel free to ask questions, make suggestions, or leave your comments below. We appreciate your support so much!
Jessica & James
Posted on 11/16/12 at 4:00pm