The devastating opening shot of When the Storm Fades – about Typhoon Haiyan, which hit the Philippines in 2013 – felt all the more powerful watching it the other day as the impact of another horrific natural disaster was unfolding in Asia. As I write this, the death toll from the Indonesian earthquake and tsunami has passed 1,400 people. A natural, immediate inclination for those of us far away in the West is to want to do something, anything, to help. Send money, food, hop on a plane.
This is a central theme in When the Storm Fades, which has its North American premiere at the Vancouver International Film Festival on Thursday. It offers an uncomfortable and unforgettable window into the disaster Filipinos call Typhoon Yolanda – and the impact of the West both at its roots and in its aftermath.
The film begins inside a house; the long, shocking opening shot revealing the ruins of a once-lively home – inside, outside and then beyond, across the neighbourhood.
Then, cut to three years later. The Anibong neighbourhood, closest to the water in Tacloban City on Leyte Island, is still in destruction mode. A boy explains what happened to his family that terrible day, describing how a cargo ship landed on top of a house, which provided refuge for some people to swim to as the flood waters rose, but consequently killed others.
“We definitely wanted to open the film with that sort of imagery. But I also wasn’t interested in making something that I would label as sort of disaster porn,” says director Sean Devlin.
“If you spend time in these places, you know that the recovery takes years if it’s ever able to fully happen. And we wanted to focus on that, not on the kind of shocking imagery of what the storm did; [but] on the way that these people’s lives were irreversibly changed,” says Devlin, whose mother is from Leyte.
In 2014, Devlin travelled there to make a short documentary for a storm survivors’ organization, and met the Pablo family. He returned two years later to make a feature film focusing on the Pablos (Naomi Klein is among the executive producers). But the film also brings in fictional characters – a couple of well-intentioned, but ineffectual, aid workers from Canada (played by Vancouver actors/comedians Kayla Lorette and Aaron Read). Devlin immerses them in this very real tragedy, where they interact with real victims and give the audience some laughs. It sounds bonkers – but it works.
“When I saw how much laughter was part of their grief, that to me seemed like a licence to try to bring humour into the story,” says Devlin, who drew on his own experiences as an aid worker in Ghana when forming these fictional characters. “And when I would talk [to Filipinos] about my experiences overseas and try to confirm this with their experiences of foreigners showing up, they got the joke immediately.”
Funds raised through the making of the film have gone to the Pablos, but there are others who also need housing, and Devlin would like to see the community remain together. He plans to launch a crowdfunding campaign to help accomplish that in the next few months.
In the meantime, he hopes the film, with its blurring of truth and fiction, will have an impact.
“There are many films about climate change that are full of important statistics, but it’s often overwhelming," says Devlin. "My intention was to make a film that wasn’t statistical, but sensual. I think facts help us know, but emotional empathy is how we understand. I wanted audiences to understand what it means to live on the front lines of climate change.”