Straddling two realms: An interview with Jean Claire Dy

To be a woman is to live at a time of war” opens Joi Barrios’ famous poem with the same title. For Jean Claire Dy, she has chosen to wield her camera and pen to speak about the different wars that are present now. A weaver of tales, she uses words and images in her works, being a writer of the essay and short fiction, and fairly recently, a filmmaker. She negotiates between truth and fiction. Before the short narrative Paglubad (Unravel, 2017), she made Pagrara Sang Patipuron (Weaving A Circle, 2017), a documentary she directed with Manuel Domes, following a group of Aeta women weaving artists in Nagpana, a small village up in the mountains of Barotac Viejo, Iloilo, in central Philippines. 

In this interview, Kath Banal explores Jean Claire Dy’s artistic processes that are rooted in her experience of cross-cultural, cross-ethnic engagements as an artist of multilayered identities.

Kath Banal: How do you choose which format to tell your story?

Jean Claire Dy: I consider myself a storyteller first and foremost. My short fiction pieces and even my essays have always been “cinematic” and very aural and visual. it was only late in my life that I realized some stories can be made into films or experimental video art pieces. Recently, I figured that some stories should be told through a documentary format when it requires a kind of “realism” that would allow the audience to engage in the life-likeness and truthfulness of the story through a human face. Adding a human face by making documentary subjects (for lack of a better word) speak for themselves is something I really value. But there are stories that require more imagination and exploration into themes that are hard to tell if told through a documentary format, especially those that tackle historical pasts that are entrenched in the quagmire of deep wounds. The complexities of these stories can only be explored through a fictional genre like a narrative film. I’ve always been fascinated with short stories. When I was living in China, I came across the form “wei dian ying”, which is loosely translated as “mini movie” and I fell in love with that kind of brevity. that’s why I have been doing short pieces.

KB: How did you come find the subject of Paglubad?

JCD: Manuel Domes and I are currently trying to finish a full-length documentary film titled A Memory of Empire, about an Ilonggo woman who migrated to Cotabato in the 50s, and married a datu who later became one of the founding members of the Moro National Liberation Front. She later returned to Iloilo when she thought her husband died in the war. Years later there was a knock on her door. Her whole story, as we envisioned, will be told using the backdrop of the history of the Mindanao conflict and how it is linked with the history of migration and interface between the Panay island and Mindanao. In the course of our research for this documentary, it was inevitable to tackle the history of the “ilaga” (Christian paramilitary group in Mindanao) as it always crops up even among Ilonggos who returned to Iloilo after living in Mindanao. I stumbled on a source who mentioned that some former members of the ilaga returned to central Iloilo and moved on. It was difficult for us to locate these individuals so the reports are unverified. As an aside, I should say that more difficulties came up in terms of funding our documentary because I suspect there is a scarcity of interest in the topic we chose, but we are still plodding on.

When we did our initial research on Ilonggo migration in Iloilo, we found out that there was a scarcity of scholarship on this topics in Iloilo itself, and that there are a few Ilonggos who know the history of migration and how the presence of Ilonggo settlers in Mindanao are part of its history of conflict.

One day, when we were in Sultan Kudarat, we met an Ilonggo who was a former ilaga member. That’s when I thought that I should make a narrative short film like Paglubad. In a way it is a prequel to A Memory of Empire but in narrative film format that also plays with the concept of straddling the realms of nonfiction and fiction.

Paglubad is my way of opening up that dialogue or engagement between both islands in the framework of “dealing with the past” in a more compassionate way. Not to open up old wounds and incite anger or misunderstanding, but in a way to understand why things are the way they are.

KB: Before you became a filmmaker, you were a journalist and literary writer. Through writing, we can show that it’s possible to connect with other people, especially in telling the stories of Mindanao. Can cinema help with that?

JCD: In early 2016, I founded Stories Beyond ( with the help of Lendz Barinque and Manuel [Domes]. Through fiction and nonfiction storytelling, Stories Beyond envisions to tell restorative and transformative narratives of people and communities; beyond what Chinamanda Adiche calls “the single story”. We continuously explore ways to tell stories effectively and efficiently to inspire people to move and think, to find solutions to problems, to achieve a sense of social justice, to dialogue, to become better at interacting with one another and the environment they live in.

Stories Beyond believes that we need restorative narratives to mobilize people and communities in ways that traditional “if it bleeds, it leads” news stories can’t. The short narrative Paglubad, which I wrote and directed, is a film that can function as platform for dialogue around a largely forgotten part of history. In the experience of peace advocates, artistic approaches such as films are soft, yet important, venues for dialogue about sensitive issues charged with historical tensions.

KB: What do you think is a story of conflict in Mindanao that people need to hear/see?

JCD: There are a lot of stories about the conflict in Mindanao. And I feel inadequate to comment in a prescriptive nature what should be told. But in my opinion, most narratives of conflict always tend to tell stories in the framework of truisms, and “large” narratives that tend to frame the conflict as “black and white”. much the discourse on conflict is always about groups and institutions and rarely about the “little stories” of connections, bonds, amidst the divisiveness.

There has been little outreach and engagement with Ilonggos in Panay to discuss the root causes and histories of conflict in Mindanao, despite the role some Ilonggo settlers played in the conflict. This lack of knowledge and prevailing prejudices against Muslims in the Philippine are major stumbling blocks for a lasting peace that addresses historical injustices. This is where I think I would like to focus on.

KB: There are only a few successful female directors in the Philippines (three of them make documentaries -Ditsi Carolino, Babyruth Villarama-Gutierrez, Sari Dalena). How do you wish to contribute to the female voice in Philippine cinema most especially because you have a slew of hyphenated identities (of Chinese descent, a settler in Mindanao, a woman)?

JCD: I would like to say that I am a huge fan of the female directors you mentioned. They have been filmmakers whose works I have closely followed. I am also aware that there are a few female directors I could look up to in this country. I came into filmmaking at late stage in life because personal circumstances that most Filipina women have to deal with within the realities of a developing country. But even if I am delayed, I would like to be part of the current increase of female filmmakers doing work outside Manila. Our vision must be seen and heard as well because we come from a different milieu and context.

I embraced and I am aware of my subject position as a hyphenated female and I always don’t want to lose track of that awareness when I do my work. Even when I am doing fieldwork in Mindanao through the documentaries Manuel and I are finishing, I am conscious that I am female, with Chinese descent, and most of all a settler. And I problematize that positioning in terms of the lens I am using to tell a story. As a feminist, I want to try to be able to ensure female representation that veers away from cinematic stereotypes of women. As a third generation Filipino-Chinese, whose roots can be traced also in Mindanao (my grandfather migrated to Northern Mindanao from Southern China), one of my preoccupations has been to deal with the history of this identity and i have started with my experimental work Walay Naa Diri (There Is Nothing Here) in 2015.

I would like to add that one of my mentors, a Filipino-American media artist and filmmaker Angel Velasco Shaw who deals with themes of war and post-colonialism, is someone who inspired me to set this path. Her film A Momentary Enemy (2008) really influenced my decision to focus on the subject of war/ conflict and the ramifications of such phenomenon. I also want to tell stories that are hard to tell, narratives that people just whisper about in gatherings, but not often told in a films. Currently, I am trying to finish a screenplay about a young girl selling spiders for war games, and this coming-of-age story will be set against the backdrop of the New People's army purgings in the 1980s. Lastly, through Stories Beyond, I hope to be able to contribute to telling more restorative and transformative narratives through film. I don’t know if I will be as successful as the female directors you mentioned, but I will try my best.

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