By Jennifer Huang
It's 7 am at the Cebu airport and I can't believe the trip is over --except for the 24 hours of travel home.
I'll be honest, this was the most difficult shoot, the most difficult three weeks, of my life. Hearing the girl's stories is an incredible privilege, and I feel a huge responsibility to protect them, tell their stories effectively, and uphold the trust they have given me.
After holding it together all day, sometimes I would just sob before I went to bed --for the girl who has no family to visit, for the girl abused by her father at age 11, for the girl pimped by her mom.
Life in the Philippines is really tough for a lot of people. There are the immediately obvious discomforts -- terrible traffic and pollution, crowds, and bare-boned poverty -- whole communities living in squatters villages, makeshift housing on the edges of town. Many others without homes at all, including small children.
But I was also struck by the incredible hardships experienced by those born into better circumstances. MRH staffers commute for an hour, two hours, or more at times. One tried to hail a cab for 2.5 hours on valentines day, trying to get to the airport. One told me that when she was a student, her school building collapsed around her. She was trapped for hours, her legs pinned by fallen bookshelves. (Substandard building codes.) Another staffer's brother was randomly shot and narrowly escaped death. His farm was in an area plagued with ongoing separatist violence; they finally fled their family home.
For the residents of My Refuge House, the wheels of justice turn very, very slowly. Two court hearings for the girls were scheduled during my stay, both were canceled --one, because the lawyer got sick, the other, because the judge failed to show up. Several of the girls have cases ongoing for three or four years; none have been resolved.
There was a beast within me that had an insatiable hunger for footage. Any time we weren't shooting I would kick myself for missing a joke, a sweet moment, or just ordinary houses or markets -- images that are anything but ordinary for us Americans. Of course that is just crazy making and leads to exhaustion, especially in the heat.
So I have resolved to improve next time -- sticking to a more reasonable schedule, bringing more help, clearing the legal issues that arose this time in advance.
I don't mean to sound like I am complaining though. I am so happy with the shooting we accomplished and the training we did. The girls are so ready to learn, they just sucked up the material and took possession of the cameras almost immediately. They are taking responsibility for them and excited to use them. They have already brought them on home visits and to a church youth event.
We were able to document the girl's everyday lives -- chores and school work, singing and dancing, home visits and church. It is rare that they allow a visitor such open access -- in fact I believe it's unprecedented.
My favorite memories are of just sitting around talking with the girls -- about their crushes, their crazy lives before they came to the house, or the very real changes they recognize in themselves in the months and years they lived there. They are so open, far beyond my most optimistic dreams in fact.
So I am being very cautious about what I share -- I want to make sure I don't expose a girl's identity or story before she is ready. This means it will be a while, quite a while, before the film will come out. In the long run I believe it will be worth the wait.
I am now at 22,000 feet, hoping they will serve breakfast. Someone near me keeps farting, and I just received a newspaper with the Oscar winners on it, which seems utterly bizarre (though I am happy to hear that citizenfour won for documentary.) I feel like I am too old to be utterly changed by an experience now, but this could very well be an exception.