With his latest film When the Storm Fades, Canadian filmmaker Sean Devlin seems to have invented a new genre of film—a docudramedy. “We just kind of made the name up,” Devlin recently told VICE. “It’s the fewest amount of words we’ve come up with to try and approximate what the film is like.”
Pulling together threads from his career as a climate change campaigner and a stand-up comic, Devlin spotlights the real-life experiences of a family recovering from a deadly typhoon in rural Philippines. The film, which will have its North American premiere this week at Vancouver’s International Film Fest, is equal parts touching, emotional and hilarious. We’re introduced to annoying but well-intentioned aid workers as well as the communities that bear the brunt of disasters which we know increase with rising temperatures. Together, it’s a story about our interconnected global responsibility, and resisting the urge to look away after a dangerous storm like Hurricane Florence or Super Typhoon Mangkhut subside.
I chatted with Sean recently about the film, his motivation to make people laugh while grieving, the role whiteness plays in climate change, and what the future can hold for climate justice.
VICE: Tell me more about When The Storm Fades and the idea behind it.
Sean Devlin: My mother is from the Leyte island where we filmed, where Typhoon Haiyan fell in 2013. The year after the storm I was working for an alliance of storm survivors there, producing a short documentary and it was over the course of the production that I met the Pablo family and interviewed them for that film, and really just fell in love with them, their story and their personalities, and wanted to continue working with them on a project that would bring more of their experiences to light. So that’s how it started—knowing that I had a certain ancestral responsibility to that place and wanting to find a film to make there, and this was it.
This was a beautiful, breathtaking film Sean. What made you want to tell this story in this way—and focus on the aftermath?
Broadly speaking, there’s a lot of attention paid to these disasters, while they’re happening, the world watches and donations flood in, but then after a few days, the news cycle switches to something else and those communities are forgotten. I’ve been spending time in the Philippines since I was a kid and the more that I’ve seen the long-term impacts of climate change, the more evident it is that we need to be able to think about these things for more than just a few days, and more deeply than we are able to in those short news cycles. So I wanted to tell a story that was focused on the aftermath on one of those disasters, and something that would hopefully bring to life some of the nuance of what it’s like to endure unprecedented disasters in a place like the Philippines.
One of the things I loved about this movie is the way it tackles the white saviour issue. The white volunteers who come to help played by Kayla Lorette and Aaron Read are not unsympathetic people, but they also happen to be incredibly short sighted at times. Where did this nuance in the story come from?
Some of what is portrayed in that film and embodied actually comes from some of my own personal experience. In my early 20s, I was part of a volunteer mission in Ghana, where I lived for nearly a year working at an orphanage. At the time I thought that what I was doing there was really impactful, and it was certainly meaningful to me personally. But as I’ve matured, I’ve reflected differently on those experiences. But what’s interesting is that when I go to a place like Ghana and sometimes even the Philippines, I’m actually perceived as white because my father is white. So in a way I do have the experience of a white person, or of a certain white privilege in an impoverished community like that, so I felt I had some of that experience to share.
On top of that, I was raised in an international development household meaning both of my parents work in sustainable development for various Canadian government agencies and the private sector—my mother was actually an auditor of international development projects for the Canadian government. So her life’s work was looking at attempts at foreign intervention and actually trying to discover whether they’re helping or not. It was a very particular family context to grow up in, but I would say the simplest answer is that I grew up seeing films in which every time a white person went to a foreign country, they became some sort of saviour or heroic figure within the story and I knew for a fact that that’s not always the case when white people show up. So I wanted to make a film that would make space for some of that perspective.
You have a personal connection to the place shown in the movie, as well as a connection to the Yolanda/Haiyan storm that the protagonists are recovering from. Why use humour to show a very real issue that is many times not funny?
I think it’s is a device that is active in a lot of my work, but I really think that with something like climate change the problem is so daunting that it’s really hard for us to sit with it. Because it’s not only painful, it’s quite overwhelming—and that’s what I was hoping to do with this film, was to create an experience that made a bit of space for a reflective or meditative sort of state of mind, with which to sit [with] the grief of all that’s going on with this issue. I find that if you can pepper some laughter in there, it makes it easier to endure that experience.
While I was filming the first time around four years ago, I had asked in Tacloban if there were any live comedy shows, because there is a fairly large city there, and I was just interested to know if there was live comedy there somewhere. I was sent to a variety karaoke show, and the host was putting on a one-year anniversary karaoke party, and there were comedy elements to it, and I thought that was such an interesting thing to see on such a sad day. It should be noted that the week of the storm, November 8, actually overlaps with All Souls and All Saints Day which is November 1, which in in the Philippines is a big day of ceremonial grieving for loved ones who have passed away. So it is a week all about grief and this guy was doing a comedy show. He told me that through the whole year after the storm, he would host his karaoke nights, and at least once a night, someone would get up and sing a song—and everyone in the room immediately knew, that unconsciously this song was a loved one’s song, and he said that the person would usually start crying and then everyone would start crying and his responsibility would be to bring everyone back together and keep on with the singing.
When I heard that, I thought it was such a beautiful thing. We knew we wanted to have some karaoke in the film, and there’s a gentleman who’s a neighbour of the Pablos, who dubbed himself the Filipino Clint Eastwood. His name is Carlito, and he’s the older gentleman in some of the scenes, and he was such a stoic guy, I hadn’t really seen him show any emotion, but I asked him if he had any karaoke he would want to sing. We borrowed this karaoke machine from a neighbour, and we set it up—and we were actually filming somewhere else at the time; we had scheduled a start time to film the karaoke—and we just heard him [laughs] on the other side of the neighbourhood, starting to sing… he didn’t even wait for us. So there’s a moment in the film, where he’s singing one of the songs that his loved ones really adored, and he was just singing that without us. So we showed up, and started rolling to be able to capture that moment but I think that felt like a special moment, because I’d known him for a couple of years but not too intimately, and I felt like in that moment, through his own singing, he showed more of his grief than he had in the two years prior.
This screening comes on the heels of Hurricane Florence, where people in North America are now thinking about surviving and rebuilding. How do we cope with the reality of more deadly storms while still retaining a sense of ‘normalcy’?
The more I become engaged in work around climate change—which is a little over 10 years now—the more I realize personally for me that I just needed to understand how grief worked because the further along this path we go, the more grief there seems to be there waiting for us. I mean that as a human family, as a whole, things are only going to be getting worse, at least for my lifetime and I think that the science says as much. I think we don’t collectively have a strong practice on how we grieve together. I think this film was just trying to explore that a little bit. I think the other thing to keep in mind is a quote from Naomi Klein, where she argued that “white supremacy is the whispered subtext of our entire response to the climate crisis” meaning as she says, if these kinds of storms were happening in Toronto for the past 20 years, maybe our climate change policy would look different.
I think for those of us who are far away from these events, we do have to really lean into looking at what’s going on there, and not just knowing about it, but trying to understand it at a deeper level, and I think that often involves a certain kind of emotional experience to understand, and not simply know. On top of that, I think there’s work I can’t necessarily do—which is that capitalism survives because of everything it externalizes, all the costs that it doesn’t count, and I think the human cost of climate change is at this point, immeasurable, and rarely does anyone ever try to measure this financially. I think if we as people at a distance from climate change do the work of trying to force our society, our governments, and our economies to really internalize these costs—these human costs—we would more quickly realize that this status quo is unacceptable.
What is your personal connection to this work? Sean Devlin is a comedy guy, as far as people know. Where does this climate activism come from, and why is Sean Devlin doing this?
I became more interested in it in my 20s as I just learned more about it, but a turning point for me was definitely seven years ago when my cousin lost her home to a typhoon called Sendong, which was similarly unprecedented for that region. She lost her home, and the land her home was on, was actually designed a “no value” zone. So they lost the home and the land they lived on, and ever since then I just viewed what was happening there as something that affects family and so I feel I have to not turn away from this, and also just a different understanding of the word responsibility, like the actual definition of the word as being one’s ability to respond and comedy and film are the abilities I was gifted with, so I do see it as an ancestral responsibility to create work like this.
You say that people are still losing homes because of storms that happened years ago. Is there a way to break that cycle? Who should pay to rebuild?
That’s a big question. Some of this is worked up in the themes of the film, but something that I don’t think is often acknowledged is when you look at a list on any given year of the countries most impacted by climate change, they’re also always countries that were colonized, or at least 90 percent of them are. I think it should be quite clear that it’s not a coincidence, that’s a consequence. The fact that these communities have such a hard time enduring these increasing disasters also has a lot to do with the social and economic conditions that were created in these countries by hundreds of years of colonization and capitalist exploitation. So all of these things are wrapped up together, and I think there’s a debt to be paid by Western countries who have benefited by creating this pollution, but that that debt goes back even further. There’s a lot of historic responsibility to be considered when we’re talking about these things.
Do you see a need for reparations? Who would decide something like that?
That’s a great question [laughs]. For instance, the Filipino representative at the UN climate talks, this guy Yeb Sano, became famous a few years ago for giving a really tearful speech; he became one of the strongest voices inside the UN, but a couple of years ago when he started to raise this point, specifically this language of historical responsibility, all of the countries, including the USA under Obama, moved to have him removed from the negotiations—so it’s a dangerous idea [chuckles]. At least to some people it’s a just idea, but I think a lot of people find it threatening and so at this point I think it’s up to people and artists who are trying to shape cultural conversations to try to bring this stuff into the debate because it’s being intentionally removed at the highest levels of power.
Follow Abeer on Twitter.
Sign up for the VICE Canada Newsletter to get the best of VICE Canada delivered to your inbox.