Spring in Cebu
By Jennifer Huang
Hello patient readers! Long overdue, I am finally sharing a few days from my shoot in February and March --far from comprehensive, but a snapshot of a few days. I am sorry it took me so long, most of my energy has been going to editing, grant proposals, and working with Sarah, our summer intern (more on that soon!). Truth is, I have learned in this age of social media that I am not so good at putting myself out there. So six months later, here you go!
The sun is sparkling over the blue ocean on the horizon, birds chirp cheerfully in competing tunes, and the Girl Scouts are discussing domestic and sexual violence on the pavilion.
It’s just a typical Wednesday at the compound of My Refuge House. The gardener has planted tomatoes in the beds that surround the pavilion -- the heart of the shelter where meals are eaten, Zumba is danced, meetings are held and visitors are welcomed. Most of the girls are up the hill at the original house (above left), which has been transformed into classrooms. Some of the older girls, wearing their girl scout uniforms, are doing a training with one of the ispeak advocates. iSpeak is My Refuge House's outreach and violence prevention program, providing free training on abuse and trafficking prevention for any corporation, school or organization that requests it.
All of the girls I am following in The Long Rescue documentary have graduated to senior high school or college, or have been "reintegrated" back into their communities. One of the young women is actually working for iSpeak as an intern. Three others are starting families. A few of the girls that decided not to be in the film are actually going to graduate from college next year, an MRH first.
It's a few days later and I am sitting in a karenderia -- a simple canteen restaurant where customers can sit down quickly with premade food and piles of white rice. Although karenderia are everything they warn travelers not to eat -- food that is precooked and then sits at room temp all day, I have found them to be better than fast food in terms of offering vegetables, and it's usually pretty salty so that's gotta have some antibacterial effect, right?
I had planned to meet one of the reintegrated girls this morning here in the port on the island of Bohol and head together to her tiny island about 30 minutes offshore. But last night at 11:30 she texted to say she actually wasn't on the island but would leave early in the morning to meet me. When I asked where and when i should meet her, she replied, "just text me." Then, radio silence.
So I woke up at 4 am, got onto a boat that left at 6:30, and now here I wait. In past years I might be freaking out. Is she going to show up? When? Will she be able to find me? Should I just go back to Cebu? Should I hire a boat to cross to her island?
But I guess I have learned something from my years working on this film, because I am oddly calm. Whatever happens happens.
It's my fifth trip shooting trip and I have seen the girls of My Refuge House grow up. Things change fast in the years between 16 and 20. I have seen some very questionable decisions and some regrets, and I have also seen hope and optimism in spite of setbacks.
I've had more scheduling snafus like this than I can count or even remember, and I often think about something I realized back when working on Standing on Sacred Ground -- the cost of every minute of this film is not counted just in dollars or pesos, but in frantic sprints through airport terminals, mosquito bites and sunglasses dropped out the bus, physical therapist visits and plates of pinakbet, and most of all, tense shoulders, stomach acid, tears shed and held back as I learn more and more about the struggles these girls continue to face. That all of it could be reduced to 52 minutes seems impossible.
4 hours later, at 10:15 and no answered calls, I took matters into my own hands and hired a boat. Somehow I ended up on the ricketiest boat on the pier -- and that's saying something. I thought about backing out but it seemed so rude, to be like, um actually your boat doesn't look seaworthy, bye. I couldn’t bring myself to say it, though I know I should have.
My fear was born out when the boat couldn't manage a crawl and the driver kept bailing buckets of water from his feet. And it was really confirmed when, on the return trip, as we pulled away, the engine suddenly cut and a lot of yelling followed. Apparently his propeller fell off. I was told that because he had waited for me for the return trip, I should now wait as he went diving for his propeller and made his repair. But I had to catch the last ferry out on the other side. So I threw money at the problem, paid the guy half of the return fare ($2) and we took off on another boat.
But I’m burying the lead. I managed to find Abigail! Her phone had broke, and though we were at the pier at the same time, somehow we missed each other. Once I made to her island, I was able to see her and the new home she and her partner rent for 20 cents a day. Like other homes on the island, it’s built out over the water. Unlike other homes, the walkway to it has mostly washed away, leaving only narrow strips of wood poking at seemingly random angles to act as a makeshift bridge. I did gymnastics in high school, but these planks were less than half the width and thickness of a balance beam. Abigail crosses these many times a day, though she is pregnant. So I wasn’t about to miss seeing her home, and teetered precariously across with my camera and gear --probably not my most successful shooting (and that’s saying something) but a rather proud moment of balance accomplishment.
Abigail was always considered one of the most musically talented girls when she lived at MRH, and I am hoping to use some of her original songs in the film. So I commissioned her to compose some music, and this time we went to a real recording studio, where she got to sing in front of a microphone with headphones on. She said this had been a dream since childhood that was actually coming true.
Other highlights from the trip: I got bit by a dog (one of MRH’s dogs so it was rabies-free), filmed two of the staff to make make short films about them (more on this later), climbed a coconut tree, and did a drone shoot (with a drone pilot). It was also the first time my husband Doug came out to join me, and I was glad he finally got to meet all of the people I’ve been talking about for almost 4 years now.