Agony, Ecstasy, and ‘Dreaming in the Red Light’ with Direk Pabelle Manikan

Published October 15, 2020, 10:26 AM

by MB Lifestyle

SCREENCRUNCH: As part of the DAANG DOKYU film festival celebrating 100 years of Pinoy documentary filmmaking, this film looks into the still thriving sex tourism of Angeles City, tracing the lives of Amy, a former prostitute, and her mixed race daughter as they struggle to survive in the red light district. 

By Karl de Mesa

Amy is a former prostitute who worked on the popular “Walking Street” of Pampanga’s Angeles City. A German customer knocked her up when she was 16. Amy then had Tisay, who was born with the Caucasian complexion of her biological father, but the light brown eyes and flat nose of her Pinay mom.   

In director Pabelle Manikan’s full length documentary, we follow the arc of these two lives as they try to escape the gravitational pull of Angeles City’s red light district, the powerful orbit forged out of poverty, sex work, and ignorance of reproductive health that has afflicted those in the adult industry and their families—just like Tisay’s and her mother’s. 

When someone says “red light district” it automatically conjures up images of shadowy alleyways and narrow streets, likely a forbidden and physically separate part of the city, hard to get to and probably fenced off by some barrier or a secret handshake. In Angeles though, the district is right at the city center, sharing space with public parks and family restaurants—the big mall is a block away. 

‘At first I wasn’t really interested in the stories of the local sex workers, because it was a sensitive topic and there was some fear in covering it, but when I saw that there were mixed race kids in there I got curious.’

“See, the red light district, right across it is SM Clark,” said Manikan. “And you can see the couples with their mixed race children dining and playing. That’s when I first thought: Okay there seems to be a problem here.” 

While the teenage Tisay and her aging mother Amy’s story sounds like a garden variety one of woe and a dead end life that inevitably leads to prostitution, Manikan’s docu reveals layers of nuance in humanizing the sex worker. It’s in how her characters continually try to attempt to escape poverty, meaning, it’s not just the culture and lure of easy money in Angeles City’s Walking Street (still the same place that was formerly the stomping grounds of American troops stationed at the US military base) they fall into, but how they repeat bad decisions, like habit, in a pervasive issue that stems from a complex and calcified system of oppression of women—particularly poor, uneducated women.  

Throughout the documentary, the teenage, half-German Tisay always views her mother’s former profession with contempt and states that she never wants to go down that route. Her mother Amy always tries to encourage her too, to toe the straight and narrow, keep to her studies, learn a trade, get out of the district. As the film progresses their ambitions slowly waver. Despite Tisay’s declarations to the contrary, will Tisay end up just like her mother? Is it even a choice? Does anything change for the sex workers in this part of the city?   

Direk Pabelle Manikan started shooting her film in 2016 and followed her characters for a few years thereafter. She graduated from De La Salle College of Saint Benilde with a degree in Digital Filmmaking and is currently the editor for award winning filmmaker Ditsi Carolino

Here are excerpts from Manila Bulletin Lifestyle’s interview with Direk Pabs. Read it before you watch the docu or come back here after you do and get further glimpses of how she shot this story.  

How did you discover Amy and her daughter Tisay’s story? 

PABELLE MANIKAN: My brother was based in Angeles since he was studying at a flying school, in aviation, and his wife was a local. I was always there and I always had projects in the city. The Red Light District is located in the middle of the city. Madadaanan mo talaga siya

At first I wasn’t really interested in the stories of the local sex workers, because it was a sensitive topic and there was some fear in covering it, but when I saw that there were mixed race kids in there I got curious. 

My producer and I did some research and then we connected with the barangays and local orgs. That’s how we came to Hadrian, a squatters area community, the area where sex workers, bartenders, and folks who usually work at the district usually live. By accident, while my producer and I were walking in Hadrian, we got to know Amy and her daughter Tisay. Amy approached us because she thought we were NGO workers. Someone who could help her. First thing she asked was “Could you help find the father of my kid, the German father?”   

So from there she started recounting her story from when she got pregnant at 16 years old. We came back the week after and started shooting. That birthday scene at the start of the docu was the first scene. That was when Tisay turned 18. 

‘I was asking myself at the end, when we went into post production, whether I was missing or misunderstanding something. Was it Tisay who was naïve or was it me? Is morality really important here or does survival swallow everything? What weighs heavier in this kind of situation?’

One of the most interesting and revealing phenomena in the docu is how the characters always say they want to escape poverty, sex work, and the red light yet fall right back into them.  

PM: Amy always goes back to the cycle that she’s stuck in. So we were there and we also tried to help her by offering to fulfill her wish of working abroad. I would stay for five to 10 days shooting with them. Then I’d go away and then come back to find they’d gone back to zero and had had no progress. 

She has ambition but it’s so hard for them to break their pattern. Nahihirapan sila. Even with the young Tisay, she had so many dreams and ambitions at the start, but when she finally faced real life she would fold. She would always say, “Ayoko maging tulad ng nanay ko!” (I don’t want to be like my mom) but observably she would do otherwise. 

Tisay and Amy
There did seem like a big sense of hopefulness and ambition that would later get dashed. 

PM: Plenty of times Tisay would get employed at odd jobs. Like when Tisay became a cashier at a second hand Chinese brand store. She tried so many things during the years we were with her but she would always resign and never last since the salary was small and she’d always get tired from the daily grind. She’d get in debt too, palaging umuutang

Some of the challenges stemmed from that. Like when we were shooting in the places where she’d get employed for a short time. I would ask permission and the store owner would day yes then retract the permission when we were already shooting. I’d think to myself, maybe I can do it guerilla style? But I was afraid, too, that Tisay would get fired because of me. ‘Di ko siya kayang buhayin! 

That must have felt frustrating for you as a filmmaker? 

PM: Tisay’s timeline wasn’t very surprising. We saw it coming. She’s very certain about things and she knows what she wants to do and what she doesn’t like to do. If she thinks she’s sure about it, you can’t stop her. 

For example, I tried talking to her about going back to school and how that’s important. At the same time, I didn’t want to sound just like her mom so I tried to do it in the tone of a friend. But then she started defending herself, raising her voice, and we almost had an argument. So I stopped myself when I felt resistance. 

After our last conversation with Tisay, I was asking myself whether it wasn’t her but we as filmmakers who were naïve. I haven’t worked closely with the sex workers or haven’t been exposed to them unlike the local NGOs, but I was always fascinated with going into people’s lives. So I was asking myself at the end, when we went into post production, whether I was missing or misunderstanding something. Was it Tisay who was naïve or was it me? Is morality really important here or does survival swallow everything? What weighs heavier in this kind of situation? 

For your part, what are the important takeaways from this docu?  

PM: After I finished the film there were some things that became sure in my mind. Like for sure education is important, especially since in these communities, like Hadrian, they just don’t see it. At best education is an added expense which could just go to putting food on the table or making the rent. If you work, you don’t go to school, you just work more hours. “Mag-aaral ako pero wala akong kinikita? Mag aaral ako pero wala akong pang kain?” (I’ll be studying but I won’t be earning? I’ll be studying but I’d have nothing to eat?) 

Reproductive health education in particular seems lacking and yet direly needed by prostitutes and sex workers, right?

PM:  There must be government support for education. There must be government support for employment, especially for these with no basic education and haven’t finished high school. 

We really have very little support with reproductive health in a place like that. They have no concept or frame of mind with basic protection, condoms and contraceptives. Nothing. Then you add in religion where it’s taboo to get an abortion. 

In my four years there at Hadrian I saw many of their neighbors would be pregnant. And then I’d come back next year and they’d be pregnant again! Plenty of that. I was very frustrated. But I’m hopeful that this film can shine a light on the people there, especially the women who are in need. 

Dreaming in the Red Light can be viewed starting Oct 16 on the Daang Dokyu film festival website for free.