The importance of personal stories in Venice Atienza’s work
The documentary films of our Filipina filmmakers, Ramona S. Diaz, Alyx Arumpac, and Joanna Vasquez Arong did not get in the Oscars this year but we received good news that the first full-length documentary film of Venice Atienza, Last Days at Sea, is competing at the 71st Berlinale-Berlin International Film Festival Generation section, which will begin on March 1, 2021.
In an exchange with Manila Bulletin Lifestyle, Venice narrates her journey in isolated Karihatag, Surigao del Norte, where her film follows the life of a young boy leaving his fishing village. Poetic images are captured as a life is destined to transform forever.
Venice loved listening to stories as a child. Her grandmother was an avid AM radio listener. “I would listen to Sementadong Gubat with her, and in the night, we would listen to Gabi ni Lagim,” she reminisced. Although she almost never left the house, her world expanded because of the radio. Listening to Tiya Dely (Fidela Magpayo Reyes) and her letters made her very curious about the “outside world.”
The 31-year-old filmmaker and photographer met her subject, John Paño, nicknamed Reyboy, in one of her shoots in southern Philippines, where she was filming how people survived devastating storms. “I told him that one day, I would return and I promised myself that I would make films about the stories he shared to me,” she recalls.
Three months after she met him, she flew to Europe for a scholarship at the prestigious DocNomads Joint Masters in Documentary Film Directing (Erasmus Mundus).
After three years, the University of the Philippines (UP) alumnae returned to the village and kept her promise to the young lad.
Reyboy was uneasy with the camera following him. “My main tool as a filmmaker is the camera. I used the camera to hide my face or as a way to disappear into the background,” adds Venice. “Reyboy told me that he didn’t want to be filmed all the time. He also told me that when we were side by side, he felt fine and more at ease.”
She talked with her team to follow a new direction and experiment. “I was able to face Reyboy as myself, just as Venice,” she muses. “I wasn’t worrying about framing, or if something looked okay. I was able to have conversations with him as the person that I was. And I think this made all the difference.”
In making this film, I hope that I could share what knowing Reyboy, his family, and the people of Karihatag has brought to my life, which is to have the courage to face the difficulties of life with kindness and tenderness.
Their bond was based on trust. In an attempt to keep a record of childhood before Reyboy leaves, the 73-minute Bisaya and Tagalog spoken documentary filmed his last days at home. The two spent the days observing the clouds, and the nights gazing up at the stars, imagining life on Saturn. There is beauty in Reyboy’s definition of home but his paradise will soon fade away once he leaves for the big city.
Venice confesses, “And isn’t it what filmmaking is about? To connect, to hold each other’s hands as we walk in the dark.”
The Philippine-Taiwan production with Fan Wu of Svemirko Film Productions as producer received support from IDFA Bertha Fund, Visions Du Réel, DMZ Industry, BODA Media Group, Docs By The Sea, and Hong Kong Asia Film Financing Forum.
“In making this film, I hope that I could share what knowing Reyboy, his family, and the people of Karihatag has brought to my life, which is to have the courage to face the difficulties of life with kindness and tenderness,” says Venice, who is moving to India soon to build a new life there.