We did it! Five and a half weeks of filming in Cebu! We held our 4 day consent retreat, filmed interviews with all eight of our protagonists, made two trips to neighboring Bohol island, filmed in a women's prison, squatter areas, offices, banca boats, boarding houses, and at a singing competition. We at a lot of pork and pinakbet, waded through sewage-tinged water, conquered two rounds of gastrointestinal distress, and made a report to the trafficking tip line.
I wrote a summary at the end of each day, and even that is too much. But I present an edited version here, in case you'd like to know a bit more about what our shoots are like.
Day 1: May 14. Arrival day : first stop is the mall for essentials: toothpaste, eggs and bread and of utmost importance: pocket WiFi.
Day 2: Dinner with the girls in our film! Everyone is late; much pork eventually eaten. The night ends at the ER with one of the girls’ sister, who is extremely dizzy and has chills. She leaves without being tested, because she's worried about the cost.
Day 3: Morning meeting with Cebu Sanctuary, a group that works with survivors to provide education and work - jewelry making. They are donating jewelry to the girls for the consent retreat!
Afternoon: filming with "Ashley" one of our protagonists who is now working for My Refuge House. She was buying office supplies for the quarter, so Hanz and I filmed her surreptitiously in department stores.
Day 4: Filming all day at My Refuge House's shelter. Today they have first aid training with the girls and staff… and then I had my own emergency, of the gastrointestinal kind. I usually try to hide any kinds of GI afflictions but I was dizzy and in a lot of pain, and the minute I asked for meds, the whole campus seemed to know. So grateful for modern medicine, hot showers and the caring and concern of everyone at MRH.
Day 5: Took the day off. In dance class, people always talk about “listening to your body” and my body was telling me to just stay put for a day. I feel a lot better, but got pretty tired when I went to the mall for white food (bread, udon, yogurt. Side note, the only real yogurt here is $16 for about 2 pints.) Still plenty of work to do --writing interview questions, prepping gear, coordinating shoots. Somehow I’ve managed to fill the day.
Day 6: filming with Hope and her siblings. She’s living in a squatter area that floods with sewage-contaminated water on a regular basis. Her neighbors run a meth den. It’s grim, yet we also found moments of joy - like the kids going crazy in a torrential downpour, jumping in puddles and turning cartwheels barefoot. On the way out, we had to wade through ankle deep water. I came back and sanitized everything. But still, my Western, soft feet broke out in a rash.
Day 7: Three hour interview with Cindy. Her life has been upended in the past three years.
Day 8: Interview with Ashley. I debated whether to interrupt her, to tell her that her tears streaked her makeup. She’s grown up so much, and for some reason, I believe that her long distance relationship is the real thing.
Discovered avocado soft serve at the mall. I want to eat this every day.
Day 9: Interview with Jonna Eleccion from Everfree, an organization that provides scholarships, job readiness training and job search counseling for survivors of domestic abuse, trafficking, and those at risk.
Jonna drew parallels between historical colonization and current efforts of people who come to "help” survivors without actually listening to them. She said that before you jump in with your ideas of what survivors need, you need to sit with them and get to know them. “You can have a conversation with a prostitute,” she pointed out.
I realized she was outlining the purpose of our film --for people to sit with these girls, get to know why they are where they are, and why your assumptions of them are probably wrong.
Day 10. Jethro arrived! He's our our creative producer and editor, and he's also doing some shooting.
Day 11: Shooting on Abigail's tiny island, we took a ferry and a banca boat to reach it. Abigail and her husband cried when recalling Typhoon Odette. Their island recently got solar panels but still has no fresh water. We brought food from the mainland but I stuck to PB&J because of my recent GI issues.
Day 12: Three people got sick, not sure if it was the food we brought from the big island. My PB&J of paranoia was justified. Abigail showed us how she harvests starfish and dries them. She has to gather 12,000 starfish to make 20 bucks.
Day 13. High anxiety all day — packing for Manila, but can we make it with the looming Super Typhoon Mawar? Will the prison cancel? Will the airline cancel? Will Hope be able to get her ID in time? Will we make it to the airport? I had to practice breathing exercises all day while doing laundry, packing, filming Ashley’s scholarship interview, anxiously awaiting Hope to go together to the airport. Long story short: by 11 PM, we are checking into our Manila hotel.
Day 14. This is the day. Since 2015 I have been wanting to interview Hope’s mom. She's in prison for trafficking her daughter. Jethro, the champion, managed to get us permission to interview her, and to bring Hope as well so she could see her mom for the first time since the pandemic.
The visit was really intense. Her mom sobbed at length, often, prompting ongoing tears from Hope as well. Later, Hope dreamed that her mom got out, but it was a dream of anxiety. “What if it happens again to my daughter?” She asked.
Day 15. Lloyd, the father of Hope’s child, died during the pandemic. She has never met his mother, never been to Manila. This was her chance. Lloyd's mother lives in Quezon City, near a spot called Smoky Mountain. It looks like a forested hill but it’s actually a trash heap that grew over.
Hope was really nervous to meet her mother in law, but the mom was welcoming and kind. She gave Hope some of Lloyd’s toys to bring back to their child.
Day 16. Travel back to Cebu today. Still some anxiety that the typhoon will change our travel plans, but we have had sunny skies and and smooth sailing. Hope was so happy to come back to Cebu. We bought Jamaican Patties in the airport and ate them on the plane.
Day 17: Today we interviewed Noemi Truya Abarientos, a lawyer from the Children’s Legal Bureau, and Leny Ocasiones, a community organizer with Gabriela and a professor of Anthropology, Sociology and History. They gave us such great context --of the socio-economic, colonial and historical environment the girls are in. My only regret is not booking a studio to record them, as we were dealing with the sounds of dog fights, hammering, yelling, roosters, saws, and of course traffic.
Day 18. A day off! Of shooting, anyway. My therapist encouraged me to schedule rest days and I was resistant, but I have to admit that it was good to recharge, workout, have a nice long lunch with Jethro. We still worked —coordinating shoots, meeting with some of the girl’s employers, planning details for the consent retreat, prepping gear, etc. but it was good to have a day without many obligations.
Day 19. B-roll day! We got up early to catch kids going to school at 7 am… then filmed on a bridge that one of the girls walked on for three days straight, contemplating suicide after her abuse.
In the afternoon I filmed Carrie, who is working at a social enterprise company that provides life skills training (budgeting, etc,) and medical care in addition to job training and experience. She was initially embarrassed to have me film in her home, saying her place is messy with lot of drug users around. I pointed out that we have gone to many places like that with other girls. Even with the job opportunity, it’s still a struggle. I'm so impressed and touched by how hard she works for her kids.
Day 20. Officially the mid point of the shoot. Our interview today was cancelled. The girl said she was sick but I found out later that she isn’t. She’s having a hard time. The book The Body Keeps The Score has really helped me understand this behavior — often it seems self sabotaging or illogical, but it is the brain’s protective mechanism after years of feeling constantly unsafe. My heart bleeds for these girls.
So it’s an admin/self care day. I actually work out!
To read about the second half of our shoot, including our consent retreat, click here to continue!
This is part 2 of a capsule diary of our seventh shooting trip to Cebu. Please read part one if you haven't already.
Day 21. We went to the south of Cebu Island, about three hours in a rickety crowded bus with no AC. We went to give Ashley's mom the chance to respond to the claims that she had been abusive when Ashley was a child. Ashley volunteered to go with us, a pretty brave thing to do.
We were surprised that the mother opened up and admitted that she was abusive, explaining that she, too, was violently abused by her brother as she was growing up. She asked for forgiveness for the first time.
It was a huge turning point and very emotional.
Our return required a 30 minute motorbike ride through green mountain passes, the best four bucks I have spent in Cebu. What a thrill! No, of course there are no helmets for us, but that meant we felt the cool mountain wind in our hair as we zipped down passes with ocean views. Ashley said that this was the first time she'd gotten to ride as a solo passenger, how free she felt.
Day 22. Back in the city. We had our interview with Carrie, someone who we’ve seen go through traumatic ups and downs. She is proud that she is able to provide for her family, and can relieve her mother of the job that she had before, which was cleaning shells with acid, using her bare hands.
After an almost 3 hour interview, we took her to lunch. Afterwards, I said, “do you want some ice cream?“ And the smile she gave broke my heart. She ordered a single scoop, her indulgence so modest.
Filmed with Amber in the morning --whose baby just turned one month old! Her partner seems sweet, baby-faced and cradling the baby in the bedroom while we did the interview. In the afternoon we filmed Carrie and Cindy at their first full-time jobs at the social enterprise company.
Later, I met Ashley at the MRH office, and we went to Colon Market to buy three guitars for the consent retreat. Each guitar cost about $57 USD; these were the higher-end guitars made of better wood with some nice inlaid work on them.
Day 24. Filmed with Sara at her home. She cried when I told her this is the last shoot. She wanted her story to end with success, but she says she just has problem after problem. We had a long talk. I explained that her ongoing childhood trauma means it could be difficult for her to make long-term plans or to always act logically, and encouraged her to get counseling.
Her neighborhood flooded before I left (a regular occurrence) .. meaning, to depart, I had to walk through a sludge of garbage and sewage-laced water. I donned some (leaky) plastic leg covers, and returned to my condo to disinfect and shower. I am painfully aware that Sara, Hope, and hundreds more in the squatter community walk through this almost every day, and don't have a hot shower at the other end of the trip.
Day 25. Three interviews today. We learned that Jackie was trafficked at age 11, but thankfully, rescued before she arrived at the brothel. We also interviewed the girl who cancelled before. I have realized on this trip that she covers very well, but lives with daily fear, anxiety, and flashbacks from her abusive past.
In our hotel we see old white men with young Filipinas every day. It's a painful reality of power and economic disparities. But today I saw a girl who looked about 13, with a man with white hair. I made a report to the human trafficking hotline.
Day 26. Departure day for our consent retreat! Our facilitators arrived from the US and the Netherlands. I was worried about all the moving parts, and in fact there was a mixup: the van company sent only one van, instead of two. But eventually we were able to load up all the kids, the luggage, the participants and the crew... But I completely forgot our guitars. Nonetheless, we finally all arrived safely.
Day 27: Our first full retreat day, and the first time the girls are watching their stories. They were each given their own room to watch about 90 minutes of footage. Several were triggered, and I was grateful for the group therapy, which they left with much lighter attitudes than when they arrived.
The girls told us what they wanted removed from their films -surprisingly minor things, like a girl who was singing the wrong lyrics to a song, or another who didn't want to be seen criticizing her friend. One participant does want some major traumas excluded from the film because she still fears her perpetrator and stigma from her family. Of course we will respect their wishes.
Day 28. The girls watched the rest of their footage, followed by another round of group therapy. The girls all agreed that having therapy and being supported as they watched their footage was critical. I am seeing some places where I could have improved the program, in spite of the dozens of hours of planning we did. And our songwriting workshop is in jeopardy unless I can find a way to get our three guitars that are an hour down the mountain, locked locked in my condo.
It felt like folding a corner of the universe with the concerted effort of Hanz, Jethro, Sharon, and the brother-in-law of one of our participants, but we got the guitars from my locked condo to our hotel (an hour away) in time for Jethro to teach his songwriting workshop. Truly a group effort.
Day 28. Today is a big day: an attorney is coming to go through the girls' rights, the clauses in the consent agreement they signed back in 2015, and the changes they would like to make. The biggest request they had: they are concerned about security and would like to add a security protocol to the consent agreement. This is a fantastic idea - for us to consider and prepare for security issues that might come up for the participants when the film comes out.
Day 29: Family day: I was so happy that the families of our participants made it! We wanted to have an informative and engaging session, but also some fun. So Omar led zumba, and Maitet and Sharon led a fun icebreaker... and, we changed the schedule so that everyone could swim.
By nightfall everyone made it home safely, (though I witnessed a few close calls). Exhausted, I cried several time during dinner.
Day 30. Took the day off to recover… but still couldn’t sleep. Downloaded footage, sent out my laundry, went shopping, but was semi catatonic.
Day 31. Follow up interview with Hope, then we went to the cemetery to visit the grave of Lloyd, the father of her child. His grave was collapsing and crooked, and someone had stolen the decorative tiles from it. You rent plots here for five years and if you don’t pay to renew the lease, they remove your bones and replace you.
Day 32. B-roll day: Filming the former workplaces of Sara, plus the hotel where a girl was rescued. It was depressing, a seedy budget motel with tiny rooms and aging fixtures.
Day 33: Hope's daughter's preschool graduation. Why would you ask preschoolers to sit for hours and listen to speeches by politicians for their graduation? Teachers and administrators actually did a dance to celebrate how they hope Cebu will become a mini Singapore.
In the evening, MRH Director Rose Ann and I meet with Attorney Ian Manticajon, who is such a gift. He provided his consult with the girls pro bono, and then offered to help amy girls who needed legal help, which we took him up on right away.
Day 34: Filming with Cindy, who wanted to share a story of early childhood abuse that she had never told anyone else before. It was pretty intense.
Day 35. Took a 2 hour ferry to Bohol to film with Sara and her girlfriend, Liberty. They have been together for 10 years, but they have the banter and teasing of puppy love. Liberty says she believes that same sex relationships are a sin, but that Jesus came for sinners, so there is still hope for her.
Day 36. Hanz and I went to Jackie’s home in the morning to film her daily life - cleaning, drawing, hanging out with her boyfriend.
In the afternoon we met Hope to film her at her childhood home in Lapu-Lapu, a pink concrete building that has been turned into a church. The last time she was there, she was moving out with her family in the dead of night to avoid the back rent due to the landlord.
We also visited Maggie, Hope's best friend who gave birth a month ago. Maggie had declined being in the film but now asked if we could include her! I have always wanted to have her story be part of the film but at the end of our last shoot, it’s just not possible.
Day 37. I went with Ashley to film her registering for the new semester! After three years of hiatus from her education, she is returning with a new scholarship from MRH!
Dashed to the business park to film Jackie and Hope going in for their job interviews. I hope this will be transformational for them. Then dashed back to MRH to interview Rose Ann.
Later, went to Ashley’s boarding house to film her drafting architectural plans. It was a simple house but showed how much technical understanding and knowledge she all ready has from just a few semesters. I have high hopes for her.
Day 38. Departure day. I went for one last time to film Hope and her siblings. Her new job prospect might turn things around, not only for Hope and her daughter, but also for her three sisters, brother-in-law, two nieces and nephew, and on-the-lam brother. It’s a lot of pressure.
Came home, showered, packed, and went to SM Seaside mall for dinner with Sharon and her family. She’s been a bright spot on this trip, someone who really understands where the girls are coming from.
2 am flight to Tokyo. We did it. I’m going home.
Author is a survivor and alumni of My Refuge House. Here, she shares her experience of starting a new family, and quickly losing her partner at the start of that journey. She explains how she is persevering in building the family network through tragedy.
This article has been lightly edited for proper translation and clarity. Names have been changed.
When George was still alive, he would tell me about his life in Manila and how it was to live there. George was born and raised in Manila Quezon City. If ever he had children, he planned to raise them where he grew up. I met George in 2017 when I was 19. It wasn't love at first sight - there was absolutely no spark at all. He was merely a friend of a friend of mine. I often went to the Urgello neighborhood to visit one of my friends and would always see George hanging out with his other friends. I was surprised when George approached me one day and started a conversation. From that day on we became friends and then a couple.
Everything went really fast. Within a month of being together I got pregnant. We moved in together after that. I wasn't really thrilled to get pregnant or excited to have a child. I experienced a lot of traumas in my childhood years from my mom so becoming a mom myself was really not in my plans. I couldn't stop my tears when my pregnancy test came back positive, and I was hysterical when I showed the test to George. The first thing that came to my mind was that he was going to leave me like the rest of the men before him. But he stayed and comforted me and assured me everything was going to be alright and that having a child isn't that bad. I was only a couple months pregnant when he contacted his family and let them know about the news of him becoming a dad. His family wanted us to go to Manila and live there right away. I didn't want to go to Manila and never experienced travel outside of Cebu.
George tried his best to provide in the beginning months of my pregnancy, he got a job working as a System Administrator in a company named Direct 2 Guest. Things stabilized with George's work, and all I had to focus on was my health and our baby's health who was still inside me.
Part of George's job was traveling to different resorts in different parts of the Philippines, installing cable boxes for resort customers to watch movies on the television. When I was seven months pregnant I got to go with him to Surigao. It was my first time flying on an airplane. George and I talked about what to do on our trip. We weren't really going to have fun in Surigao, the purpose was only for work. After that we would travel to Ormoc Leyte then by there we would get a public van for hire (v-hire) to travel to Borongan, Eastern Samar, Leyte to visit his cousin and the hometown of George's father.
The day of our flight to Surigao I got everything prepared. When we were about to get on the plane I suddenly had pain in my stomach. I couldn't understand the pain. I was sweating and George was concerned and wanted to take me to the hospital but I knew it was too early for me to be in labor. The flight attendant wanted me to sign a waiver before I got on the plane and so I did. All the way on the flight going to Surigao I never got the chance to focus and enjoy the flight. I was too concerned with the pain I felt and hoping everything was going to be okay.
It was a quick flight to Surigao. George and I went straight to the resort and George went straight to work while I was left in the room alone. Thankfully the pain that I was having finally disappeared. As I lay on the bed all I could do was read. I learned that I was having what they call Braxton Hicks, very normal to experience during seven months of pregnancy.
George and I only stayed in Surigao for one day. We took a few trips to the park and got a few photos of Surigao City, then we started to get ready for our travel to Ormoc Leyte. It was a short 2-3 hour ferry ride going there. It was raining really hard and many roads were closed because of landslides. Thankfully there was a v-hire that went straight to Borongan Eastern Samar. Traveling to Borongan was an unforgettable trip. We passed by the San Juanico Bridge - the longest bridge in the Philippines. The bridge was wide and long and red, and it looked really amazing. On the ride, I was feeling a bit nervous to meet George's cousin and other relatives for the very first time.
As we arrived in Borongan it looked like a small province in Cebu. There weren't many cars or any traffic at all. The place was very peaceful and the people were all smiling. I was really shy and nervous as we arrived at the house of Lloyd's cousins. It was hard for me to converse in Tagalog or even Waray (the main dialect spoken in Eastern Leyte). George hadn't seen his cousins for years since his college days. They already knew that we were coming and they greeted us with excitement. I wasn’t sure if they were excited to meet me or to see George after a very long time or maybe both.
They had a room prepared for us upstairs. The house was two storey with 3 rooms with a living room, dining room and a kitchen. They even have a backyard. George said the house is owned by his aunt (his father's sister) who had never married or had children, and worked her whole life in London as a Nanny. She was the one who supported George's education until he graduated college with a degree in Computer Engineering. It felt really great to be part of his family and learn his family history.
George and I stayed in Borogan for a few weeks. I got to know a few of George’s cousins and the places he used to go to with them. George took me to the beach and to some restaurants. The food was amazing and different than anything I have never tasted before. I felt I belonged in Borongan. His cousin gave me newborn clothes for the baby to wear. They even wanted me to stay in Borongan and give birth there. I didn't want to make any promises to them about giving birth in Eastern Samar but I assured them we would come back and they would get to meet George's baby soon.
At that time, my sister was also 3 months pregnant. I got a call from her saying she already had symptoms of labor. I told George about it and we went to get a ticket going back to Cebu. The plan had been after Borongan we would travel to Manila so George could introduce me to his mother and show me the place where he grew up. But I didn’t want to miss my sister giving birth for the very first time and I wanted to be there for her so George and I went back to Cebu and got there just in time for my sister's delivery.
Fast forward, I gave birth to a healthy baby girl that her father named Cora. It was love at first sight for me. Somehow time stopped when I held her in my arms. I loved her even when she was inside me and when she was in my arms, I felt complete and that nothing could ever compare my love for her.
Motherhood was a struggle for me and for George as well. We both didn't have any idea how to take care of a baby, even the basic stuff like changing a diaper or how to bath her. I wanted to ask for my mother's help but I couldn't since my mom has been in jail for a very long time and she wasn't with me growing up. George's mother was very far away in Manila and they weren’t in communication through call or through text.
George and I made it through the first months of sleepless nights, a lot of arguing about who had to change diapers, feed Cora, who had to put Cora to bed, and not to mention the endless fights about not having money. It was quite a journey with George. Even though he passed away so soon, I will never forget him and he will always be part of Cora's life.
Never did I expect to be offered to go to Manila to visit my mother and also visit George's mother for the very first time. George and I had planned on it for a long time and I finally got to make it happen. I was really nervous to meet George's mother without him by my side but I knew if I didn't do this I would never get to have this chance again. I had so many things to say to her and ask about George's childhood and what he was like growing up.