Most readers of Positively Filipino know about Jessica, who was born without arms as a result of a birth defect, but managed to overcome her so-called disability to become fully independent. Jessica even managed to achieve fame (and a place in the Guinness Book of World Records) by learning to fly an airplane — with her feet. Now she was retracing a journey she’d made many times. You see, Jessica’s mother was born in Guiuan, and Jessica visited Leyte often as a child and still had family there. Her trip to Tacloban was not entirely personal, however, as NGO Handicap International USA had enlisted Jessica’s help, to encourage those affected or disabled by the typhoon.
My cameraman Bill Megalos and I filmed Jessica and her husband, Patrick, as they got off the plane at the half-ruined Tacloban airport, and for the next week we shot night and day, following Jessica as visited devastated neighborhoods and tent cities. We filmed as she comforted survivors and worked tirelessly to inspire Yolanda’s victims and bring a measure of solace. She would speak about her own life story and in doing so get across a simple message: if I could overcome such terrible hardship in my own life, think about what you might still be able do to in your own life, despite what you’ve been through and have lost. She also spoke on many occasions about her Catholic faith and how the spirit of the Visayan people — a warrior clan known for toughness in the face of adversity— had shaped her mother’s, and her own, attitudes about life. It was a message that survivors embraced with tears, prayers and often with smiles and applause.
One thing I was grateful for in Leyte: a video camera can be like a shield. When you’re holding a camera in front of your face, you can hide from what’s going on around you. Jessica had to hear some of the most heart-wrenching stories about the loss of loved ones, including spouses and children, and of whole families wiped out. She had to hear about the loss of limbs or mobility as a result of the storm and try her best to comfort and encourage those she spoke to, and not break down herself. I also tried very hard not to show emotion or to let the camera shake when I was filming Jessica’s encounters with survivors. It was the kind of experience that takes a psychic toll and in the days and weeks after we came back the challenges facing many of these people, and the concern that they might not ever have normal lives, haunted me.
Flash forward to August of 2017, when I found myself once again flying to Tacloban. This time I was coming by myself, and carrying a copy of Right Footed, the film I’d made about Jessica. I’d completed it almost two years before and had taken it to over 50 film festivals, and sold it for international distribution on National Geographic (and ABS-CBN in the Philippines). As a result, Right Footed had come to the attention of the U.S. Department of State. I was asked to travel back to Leyte and Manila to show it as part of the American Film Showcase. I was honored to do it, but at the same time I had some trepidation about what I might find in the Yolanda zone knowing that this time, at least, I would not be able to hide behind a video camera.
Yet, before my feet even hit the tarmac of the Tacloban airport I could see that the city was very much transformed. On my previous trip the roads were piled high with debris, the landscape was dotted with white tents, and all around were signs of calamity. Nothing like that was visible on the trip into the city. Instead the roads were thick with traffic and teeming with people, and it appeared that jobs and prosperity had returned. As my host former Rep. Martin Romualdez put it, “Yes, Tacloban was hit by a wave of water. But what you see today is that we were also hit by a wave of love and support that also came in the aftermath, from the international community.”
As it happened the first screening of Right Footed was at the Tacloban Astrodome, a concrete building where thousands of people sheltered during the typhoon. I’d seen its pockmarked, derelict-looking shell on my first trip. Now, I found it filled with local students eager to see the movie.
It was eerie to watch the portion of the film where Jessica visits the hardest hit areas of Tacloban, knowing that everyone in the audience had suffered, and recognizing that while the physical signs of the storm surge had been mitigated, psychological scars are different. The pain and loss people had endured was really unimaginable, and sitting there I thought for a moment that perhaps it was not appropriate or too soon to show the film here, just a few short years after the calamity. But as I sat there, I could also hear a murmur and then applause as people connected the images on screen and witnessed moments of grace and poise. Soon it was clear that the audience’s opinions were overwhelmingly strong, positive and real. It was obvious that the film reminded everyone there of their own toughness and fortitude and affirmed what they already know as Visayans -- that survival in the faced of tough odds is part of their historic identity. The cheers when the credits rolled, bouncing off the concrete interior of the Astrodome, were deafening.
It seemed like the single most important moment in the long journey of making the film, and so for once, I did not see any reason to hold back my emotions. With wet eyes I deeply thanked every one in the audience for coming, and sharing with me their strength and remarkable fortitude to rebuild their lives in the face of such tough odds, through their faith, courage, and spirit.
It’s a moment I’ll truly never forget.