Photographs and memories: Carl Joseph Papa’s Ang ‘Di Paglimot ng mga Alaala (The Unforgetting)

This August my late mother visited me in my dreams for two straight nights. The dream and the image of her in that dream were so vivid it was almost scary. It has been years since I last dreamt of her. And it is always during the times when I forget her birthday or her death anniversary is nearing. I realized that I did forget her birthday and more than a week has passed. But something about the dream struck me more than my forgetting her birthday; I realized that I might soon continue to forget future birthdays and death anniversaries on the days they should be commemorated, that I might soon forget the way she looks and moves lifelike even just in a dream. I want to visit her birthplace (the first was when she was still alive, the second almost 10 years ago) but this time I want to film it and talk to more relatives who I haven’t met but who could say a lot about her, with the hope of learning how she grew up, what part me is from her.

Ang ‘Di Paglimot ng mga Alaala (The Unforgetting) would have been a portion of that film I would’ve have made about my mother. Somewhere in there could’ve been that film had I been Carl Joseph Papa, the director. I experienced the same loss (I was about 12 when my mother died of breast cancer), something similar to what happens to the main character in the film, a daughter (Pia Franco), whose attempt to deal with the loss is depicted in an assemblage of old photographs, a chronicle of memorable moments, a slideshow of huge smiles and happy faces. The experience of loss is specific but it is the personal-universal dimension that makes Papa’s innovative approach to storytelling profound and compelling.

The slideshows appear at the beginning and midway of the film resembling the form of a first-person documentary. It certainly has the feel of it, yet it is not. These slideshows followed by online conversations, video logs (vlog) if you may, with Pia and her aunt Nancy (her mother’s sister) in the US, following a linear timeline that suggests the deteriorating condition of the mother (who we also never see though in one conversation we hear her call for her daughter). While the details about her mother’s condition figure prominently in their conversations, Pia also tells Nancy about her work and other seemingly trivial topics like famous US TV shows she watches with her mother. We only get to see Pia, and it seems like she’s also talking to us, like we assume the role of Nancy.

The specificity of this experience is magnified by the use of the video technology as a storytelling device, challenging our notion of how stories in film are told. This is where Sarah Polley’s engaging Stories We Tell comes to mind. It is a character-driven narrative in the form of documentary with Polley interviewing relatives and friends and using what seemed as stock footage of her mother, in the hope that she learns and discovers something more about her. Like in Polley’s film, Papa trusts the uniqueness of his story and doesn’t attempt to amplify the drama or attempt to elicit a cathartic moment from the audience by drawing up tears. The confidence in his experiment and approach is something that is both courageous and admirable.

Ultimately, The Unforgetting is film as memory. It explores and expands the same theme of loss and longing in Papa’s short films, the lovely iNay (Mother, 2013) and the elegiac ‘Ti Panagawid (Homecoming, 2013). His use of animation in iNay deepens this sad longing, while the latter’s brevity (at two minutes) serves as a fragment of enduring memory. Papa recognizes the power of memory and the power it holds over our thinly-built walls of fortitude, how we latch on to nostalgia as an escape and coping mechanism, unmindful whether we come out of the experience in a cathartic moment or lead us to more suffering. This power, the cycle of remembrance, makes the process of unforgetting a futile attempt – eventually we are cursed by our painful memories, forever doomed to a lifetime of unremembering.

– Jay Rosas

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