Janice Villarosa: Moving Stories
Her documentary feature “Shunned” received very encouraging feedback last May at the Cannes Marché du Film screening, as well as the fest’s market screenings, a rare feat since it is not uncommon for the audience to leave within minutes into the films, owing to their busy schedules.
For Filipino-American Janice Villarosa, who shuttles between Los Angeles and Quezon City, the fact that people lined up after the film showing to congratulate her—after she spent “countless hours” editing the documentary so much so that she had become “immune” to its emotional facets—was a validation.
“When I saw a few teary-eyed people at the Cannes screening, I was pleasantly surprised and relieved,” said Janice. She knew deep in her soul that the film “had to come home.”
Shot in Cebu (where she attended film school at the International Academy of Film and Television) and in Manila, “Shunned” was the opening salvo at the Cebu International Documentary Film Festival held last month.
A Certified Public Accountant by profession, Janice’s interest in filmmaking came at the heels of a personal tragedy: she lost a friend to senseless violence. It was a major turning point in her life where she made a vow to give a voice to unheard of stories in pursuit of justice: thus Silent Voices Productions was born.
She went through a lot of birthing pains in the making of the documentary, which is practically two years of her life, but she just couldn’t raise the white flag because she was changed in the process of documenting the struggles and salvation of the LGBT community. Presently doing the rounds of international film festivals, “Shunned” is an opus of love with cinematographer Mark Celestino.
Janice sought to document the travails and triumphs of various transsexuals (including Mimi Juareza who went on to win Best Actor at last year’s Cinemalaya for Eduardo Roy Jr.’s “Quick Change”) and was changed by the experience. (OJC)
How did you get into documentary filmmaking?
In film school I was exposed to different genres, including documentaries. Honestly I thought making documentaries was going to be easier than making narratives. Whoever told me that lied! Big time! Depending on the documentary you are doing and your concept of your film, documentary filmmaking, for the most part, is hard. Often times you have an idea of what you want to do but you may end up doing something totally different. That’s what happened with “Shunned.” I started with a clear-cut idea of what I wanted to do but it did not work out that way.
I wanted to document discrimination; people’s reactions towards my cast, but I couldn’t. The only way I could capture discrimination was by having the casts walk around with a hidden camera. Since I couldn’t do that, I had to be more creative.
There was one incident though in Manila where we were in the right moment. We were shooting another project when, all of a sudden we saw a group of kids (about 7 of them) carrying this boy—around 9 years old. They had pulled his pants down, held his hands and feet, and was carrying him in the busy street, laughing.
We were all in shock that by the time I told my camera operator to shoot, and he managed to assemble the camera, the kids had already let go of him. So we just caught the tail end when he pulled his pants up. He pretended nothing was wrong and even made light of the situation on camera.
Growing up, were you a film or documentary enthusiast?
I was more of a narrative film enthusiast although I loved watching PBS, the History Channel, and National Geographic. I love watching different genres of film and TV.
What documentaries made the most impact on you?
I am fascinated by war films especially those on World War II. So movies like “D-Day Remembered“ and “Ann Frank Remembered” and other World War II films, I gravitate towards. The classic, “The Thin Blue Line” is so beautifully done. That film was in the forefront of changing the look of a documentary. It has great shots and camera movements and a narrative style of story-telling.
“Imelda” also stood out for me especially since being a Filipina, I find Imelda Marcos intriguing. Not only that, but since the film is directed by a woman director—Ramona Diaz, it was inspirational to me. I had the opportunity to interview Ramona at Sundance.
Aside from being a CPA, I also interviewed celebrities before I became a filmmaker. As a woman director starting out in a predominantly male environment, I had to prove myself.
She, along with other women directors, like Marilou Diaz-Abaya “Muro-Ami,” Kimberly Peirce “Boys Don’t Cry,” Kathryn Bigelow “Zero Dark Thirty,” Mira Nair “Monsoon Wedding” are inspirational to me. Kathleen Kennedy also inspires me.
She produced a lot of the movies I love like “Shindler’s List,” “Star Wars,” “Jurassic Park,” and “Seabiscuit.”
What do you think are the three elements of a good documentary?
For me, a documentary must be compelling. It should make people want to talk about it, even years later. I like documentaries that are cinematic in style. Editing, just like the narrative films, can also make or break documentaries. Documentaries should also be entertaining. Lots of talking heads—not so. Okay, that may be more than three.
So what got you to direct this full feature length documentary?
I like doing social issue films. My platforms include domestic violence and anti-discrimination. However, I found myself judging transsexuals since I did not know anything about them. I decided the only way I could change that, within myself, was to find out more about them.
This project started in 2010. My last shoot was actually only the end of last year. I am not a member of the LGBT community. I come from a very conservative family. So I understand some of the trepidations that the non-LGBT community may have and I believe, because of where I am coming from, the film is more relatable.
The documentary has an interesting mix of characters. How was it working with the cast?
I absolutely love them! I am extremely grateful since they gave so much of themselves with this project. It took me a long time to earn their trust. One of the ways is by showing them a short clip centered on the Miss Gay pageant. That was when they realized the anti-discrimination message of the film.
My cast members are resilient, strong women. No matter how much discrimination they face, they still manage to pick themselves up and face the world with smile on their faces. I am honored to have them in “Shunned.” I have great admiration for them. They inspire me.
What would be your dream project?
I have such a personal attachment to “The Sound of Music.” I’ve never seen a movie so many times in my life! It is my ultimate favorite since it is the movie that my grandma, who raised me and I watched together, many times before she passed away. My dream project will be working with such icons as Julie Andrews and Anthony Hopkins. I met him when he was a guest speaker at my acting school. I met Ms. Andrews at her book signing. I was just in awe and a bit emotional since she reminded me of my grandma whom I miss so much.
Sometimes as filmmakers you make sense of things in lives through your work. Do you feel you do that?
I constantly work. Even when I am on vacation, or whether I am just going to the store, I find myself constantly observing people. I think of stories. I may be dancing at a party then all of a sudden I am thinking of possible scenes. I always want to shoot. The camera is like an extension of my hand. Sometimes I wake up to remember that my dreams had a lot of awesome camera shots and jib and dolly moves! I become like a “mom” to my cast—no matter how old they are.
Since I come from an acting background, I understand where they are coming from. I constantly have my casting hat on. I tend to look at people and see whether I can cast them for a specific role or if there is anything I can do with them down the line.
I do not have qualms about casting non-actors. I like to find the gems and “discovering” a jewel, like Mimi Juareza. I saw a casting notice for a film in Cinemalaya. I told her and my other cast to audition. She won Best Actor last year. She now has been acting in other movies and in TV shows.
You manage to capture extraordinary moments of raw emotion and drama with your characters in “Shunned.” How do you manage to be there for these very personal exchanges?
By asking the right questions and really listening to what they are saying and building off that. I am genuinely interested in what they have to say. I made a promise to use this film as their voice so I really had to make sure I did that and to make sure this is a film they can be proud of.
Making this film has been a tremendous journey for me. I was even shunned and I think the journey in itself helped shape the film. I had to go through some of the things they go through.
There were so many times, I’ve lost count, when people asked me if I was a transsexual. Depending on their tone, I could tell whether they were curious or malicious. When they were genuinely curious and non-critical, I would answer “Thank you. They’re beautiful!” But there were malicious people who would even demand that I prove my gender.
I experienced just a little tiny bit of what transgenders go through. I can not imagine what they go through their whole life! The film was also shunned because of its topic. It’s been a long process. Many times I wanted to wave that white flag but I could not since I made a promise for the film to the be the voice of my cast.
I was actually very apprehensive at the Asian Premiere at Cebu International Documentary Film Festival in Ayala Center since it was the very first time my cast saw the film. I wanted to make sure “Shunned” is a film they can be proud of so I was watching their reactions.
At the end of the film, everyone went up on stage, some of them were crying and all of them were very thankful—for me, all the years of hard-work and the journey of making “Shunned,” it was all worthwhile. I fulfilled my promise.
How were you changed by “Shunned?”
If I can just start the process of helping society understand transsexualism and, through that, lessen the discrimination, then I’ve done my job. Most of us have preconceived notions about other people. I still struggle with that myself. If we just continue to work on our ourselves, I believe the world will become a better place.
Often we see documentary films that deal with difficult subjects in our society yet they don’t really provide a solution. Do you think “Shunned” somehow holds an answer to discrimination and violence, even though many unanswerable questions might remain?
No. That’s too much pressure! I cannot say that at all about “Shunned”—that it holds an answer to discrimination and violence. I can, however, hope that it would lessen the discrimination. And at the same time, empower those who have been bullied or wronged. Even those who are not LGBT. These are my hopes.
On the OC (obsessive compulsive) scale, how do you rate yourself?
Haha! I guess I was a bit neurotic since I am a bit of a perfectionist. Well sort of. I do want to do the best job I can. Since I also edited the film, I had to step back so many times, asked a few people’s advice. It took me a long time to be completely satisfied with the film. I kept tinkering with it until I finally stopped and decided to let it go—just this year. I guess that’s the fall back of artists. You are never completely satisfied with something that you do. That’s also the reason why often times I get apprehensive about watching my own films, especially the ones I’ve edited. I’m afraid to see something and I’d want to change it.
What did you learn about yourself after doing this documentary?
Since I also edited the film, and I’ve been working on the film for years, this documentary has definitely changed me. I have more compassion. Not just with LGBT but with everyone in general. I have also become very close to my cast.
What motivates you to keep making films?
While I was taking Meisner acting classes, my acting teacher, Tom Patton, said something that resonated with me: “If you are reading your obituary today, what will it say? Do you like what it says?” At that time I felt like I did not have anything worthwhile to show for. I did a lot of self-evaluation. I actually did not know I had a talent for filmmaking. That was never in my realm of reach. But then I had all these ideas of films and projects I wanted to do.
I kept asking my filmmaking friends how to go about making it happen. I finally decided to go back to school so I will stop bugging my friends. It was not until then that I realized I had a knack for it. I found that no matter how many sleepless nights I had, I still absolutely loved it. I am a workaholic. I give my projects 120 percent.
I found my passion. I want to make sure that my obituary will have something good to say. I’m still working on that.
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