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Interview with Emma Rossi-Landi, co-director of LEFT BY THE SHIP

SDAFF executive director Lee Ann Kim chats with director Emma Rossi-Landi about her documentary (co-directed with Alberto Vendemmiati) about the untold plight of Filipino Amerasians.

Congratulations on the success of your film, LEFT BY THE SHIP, which has been traveling to festivals around the world! Emma, tell us about Alberto and yourself and how you became co-directors of LEFT BY THE SHIP.

Alberto and I met at a film festival in Italy in 2006. We had both been working as documentary filmmakers for about ten years. I had seen one of Alberto’s films, The Person de Leo N., and loved it. We soon found we had many things in common. In particular, we had a very similar way of viewing documentary filmmaking. We both like films with strong narratives that tell stories from an intimate, personal point of view. To us, the best way to convey a message is through emotional involvement. Because of our personal histories, we are both compelled to tell the stories of outsiders, stories that concern identity issues and family relations. Soon after we met, we started working together on LEFT BY THE SHIP. It has been a very intense experience, the whole filmmaking process took almost four years, with a lot of ups and downs and several arguments too, but in June 2010 we got married!

How did you come across the story of Filipino Amerasians in Olongapo and what compelled you to tell their story?

I am half American and half Italian. Because I was born in a western country, it was very easy for me to get my “blue passport”. Having grown up between two cultures, though, I am familiar with the feeling of not belonging. When we heard of the injustice suffered by the Amerasians in the Philippines, I was very touched on a personal level, and both Alberto and I immediately felt it was a story that had to be told.

Our journey started thanks to some family contacts we had with the director of Buklod, the NGO led by the ex-sex-workers in Olongapo. So it was through the mothers that we met the Amerasian children. During our first research trip we interviewed more than 30 ex-sex workers and more than 50 Amerasians of all ages. The thing that struck us most, from the very start, was how the plight of Amerasians is not only a political, economic, or sociological one, but most of all, a personal, intimate one.

Having not been recognized by your father and/or the country he came from really shapes your personality. The fact that everyone can see it by just looking at you — and can see that your mom was probably a sex worker — greatly undermines your self esteem. It feels like you have no way out, it’s a really big weight to carry, and it’s not your fault.

In the Philippines, family is very important. It helps people cope with poverty and inequality. Filipino Amerasians have no family and obviously feel that the whole world has rejected them.

The film is narrated by one of your subjects, Robert, who leads us through the film in a letter written to his unknown father. I found him to be such a bright, passionate, and driven man. What was your experience in working with him? And do you think making the film changed his life in any way?

Contrary to what it seems, Robert came in at a later stage of the film. We met him by chance, through a common friend, while we were interviewing ex-US servicemen who retired in the Philippines (that did not make it to the final cut). Since he works as a journalist, Robert had several contacts with people in Olongapo we were interested in interviewing. We made friends and after a while it was Robert himself who offered to become part of the film. He was very keen on it, so we accepted. We love his way of writing and we felt it would be good to have someone like him in our film, someone who has reacted positively to the hardship he had to suffer as Amerasian.

Soon we realized that Robert was hoping to keep a rational, intellectual point of view on the issue. That was how he had always coped with being Amerasian. He had studied hard all his life, won scholarships, got himself a degree, and managed to improve his situation thanks to his intelligence and clarity. But that alone was not going to work for the film.

It took a while for Robert to open up and come to terms with his emotions. It was not always easy for him and neither for us. He says it was a stirring experience for him. I think that can be seen on screen and felt in his writing. Up to now, he is still not so keen on speaking about his being an Amerasian. We are very fond of him and we are sure he has a bright future ahead.

You spent two years documenting Robert and three other subjects in the Philippines. Can you share with us your approach in selecting these subjects and gaining the trust of JR (a gang member), Charlene (18), and 13-year-old homeless teen, Margarita? Especially considering how much discrimination and poverty these three have been through.

We spent a lot of time in Olongapo, hanging around in people’s houses, passing time together and giving our protagonists time to get to know us. We also had a wonderful assistant, Linda, who helped us with communication issues and kept the relationship going while we were away.

At the very beginning, we feared it would be difficult to gain the trust of our protagonist because of language and cultural differences, but that was not at all the case. Almost all the Amerasians we met were happy to be part of our film because they hoped it would let the world know about their plight.

Also, it somehow improved the way they perceived themselves.  No one has ever been interested in these kids, they have always been discriminated and laughed at. The fact that someone would want to make a film about them made them more secure of themselves and proud. Their peers, neighbors and friends would also look at them differently.

When done respectfully, we believe that filmmaking can really be a therapeutic experience to all involved.

While the film is not overtly political, it certainly questions US policy (the Amerasian Act) which excludes Filipino offspring of American servicemen from automatic citizenship. Why did you choose not to explore this issue more in the film? And why isn’t there more outrage about this exclusion considering how much Filipinos have contributed to the US military?

We interviewed several people — lawyers, activists, experts — but we were unable to find a clear explanation on why the Filipino Amerasians were excluded from the 1982 Amerasian act. There seems to be no real good reason.

One person told us that Filipino Amerasians were included in the law till the very end, but were eventually cancelled, allegedly because the Philippines was not a war zone and Amerasians here were not as discriminated against.

But as the film shows, this not true at all and actually Filipino Amerasians led a very hard life here and deserve to be recognized as much as others do. Vietnamese, Thai, Korean, Cambodian, and Laotian Amerasians are recognized by the US government and can easily apply for citizenship. Why not the Filipinos, who have been a colony, commonwealth, and ally to the US? Why exclude America’s most important friend in Asia from such a law?

The only explanation could be found in the historical ties between the countries. The United States has largely influenced the Philippines in the last century. Its political and economic aspects have been shaped by the USA. And it seems that the US has not always fully honored its ally. But to talk about this in a straightforward way would have required a much more notion-based, historical film.

When we met with our Amerasian friends, we felt the duty to make a film about their world instead. We were interested in showing how it is always the poorer, more vulnerable people who bear the brunt of global policies, mostly women and children who become victims of strategies they know little about and can do nothing to avoid. This is a form of exploitaion that mirrors itself all the way down into interpersonal relationships and sometimes, like in the case of the Amerasians, it shapes your personality and your future.

To us, this is just as political, but more universal, and a more enticing way to get the message across.

I read that it took a year to edit down 200 hours of footage into the current film.  Any precious moments or stories that didn’t make the final cut?

We had at least three other characters which we followed, but could not fit into the film. Some stories were really interesting, touching, or funny, but choices had to be made! Mainly though, the people who are in the film are the ones who wanted to be part of it the most. We had a few characters who were willing to be part of the film at first, but then became too busy or shy.

There is a large component of chance in documentary filmmaking, which we love. It’s more like our main characters chose us, rather than the other way around. It’s really something that we did all together.

I’m curious if there’s a different in reaction to the film by Filipinos vs. non-Filipinos?

As soon as they hear about the subject matter, Filipino audiences are always more curious and interested. Filipinos are in fact the ideal audience for our film, because they can read through the layers and understand a lot of the subtext, implications, and jokes in a way that is different for a Western audience.

On the other side, it is good to see how some Western audiences, who knew nothing about the topic and hardly anything about the Philippines, react after seeing the film. People come up to us shocked and teary-eyed and thank us for letting them know about this untold story.

In general, we get the feeling the film touches viewers deeply, which, we hope, will make them remember Amerasians in the Philippines and get to know a little more about how people live in non-western countries.

Ultimately, what do you hope the audience will gain from LEFT BY THE SHIP? And what’s your hope for the estimated 52,000 Filipino Amerasians left behind?

It is never too late to correct an injustice. It might seem unrealistic, but we believe it is still possible to amend the Amerasian act, or to work on other laws to improve the lives of Filipino Amerasians. To us, recognition is the most important thing of all.

Some NGOs and groups have lobbied to obtain US citizenship in the past and many Amerasians today dream of moving to the US. We know life in the US is not always easy and many Filipino Amerasians are not equipped with the tools to live in such a competitive and individualistic society. But these children are half American and they have a right to be recognized.

Even if Filipino Amerasians were never to go to the US, already being recognized without being awarded citizenship could be a first step. People would look at Amerasians differently if the US government had acknowledged their existence and their life in the Philippines could improve.

In 2009 President Obama acknowledged the Filipino Veterans of World War II. Hopefully, it will not have to be another 70 years before Filipino Amerasians will be recognized as children of the United States.

Do you still keep in touch with Robert, JR, Charlene, and Margarita? If so, how are they doing?

Charlene and I write regularly. She is in the USA, supporting her family back home by working at Taco Bell and is saving to bring her son to America with her. JR is back in Olongapo and has become a father.

Margarita was kicked out from the “troubled girls home” shortly after we finished shooting. She went back to Olongapo where she is still living in the streets and unfortunately, she is now working in the bars. Robert is working as a journalist in Olongapo.

Finally, what’s next for both of you?  Will be you be collaborating again?

We are researching our next projects. I am looking into something about immigration in Italy and Alberto is reading a lot about the secrets of the Catholic Church. We will still be collaborating, but in different roles, and it will probably be on two different films.

Watch LEFT BY THE SHIP on Sunday, Oct. 23 and Wednesday, Oct. 26. To see the trailer and purchase tickets for the film, click here.