Pass the message

Ria Limjap takes us behind the scenes of the film Off World, directed by French director Mateo Guez and set in Tondo.

I'm taking a break, celebrating the end of summer. One season over, another one begins.

I'm on the magical little island of Mangenguey with Mateo Guez, director of Off World . He's here right now because we're working together on the behind-the-scenes documentary for Off World. Photographer Juan Caguicla shot the footage, I wrote the words, and Mateo is basically putting everything together. It's going to be a 45 minute documentary and we've got 19 hours of tape to go through.

Of course, we're also enjoying ourselves a bit on Mangenguey–eating Helena Carratala's wonderful food, swimming in the salty Palawan waters, watching the sunset and soaking in the creative vibe of this place. (By the way, it sounds romantic, but it's not. Honestly.) We're still working–because the work is never really done–but in a way we're also celebrating our collaboration. We went into the trash together, shot a beautiful film, and now we're on the brink of a whole new adventure.

Smokey Mountain: the overwhelming filth, misery, and unceasing ugliness of the place
Smokey Mountain: the overwhelming filth, misery, and unceasing ugliness of the place

I still cannot quite fathom how I survived our Smokey Mountain shoot: the filth, the misery, the paranoia of having so many people around, the unceasing ugliness of the place was kind of overwhelming. But watching the behind-the-scenes footage I saw that we were a tight and happy cast and crew. We partied with the locals, we hung out in the dump site and it felt vaguely like a beach holiday, we made jokes behind Mateo's back (mostly aping his French accent), but we pulled ourselves together and finished on schedule and relatively unscathed.

Mateo Guez, director of Off World
Mateo Guez, director of Off World

As executive producer, I also wrote lines, helped with crowd control, bought ice and water, collected toys, and basically made sure everything ran pretty smoothly. I think it went smoothly enough. (I'm sure Mateo would say otherwise but he can be a whiny guy.) One very early morning, we arrived at Vitas Pier 18 to shoot a sunrise sequence. Mateo ordered three bangka which mysteriously disappeared in the night. Then there was a gigantic garbage barge parked right where we were going to shoot. Mateo was freaking out as much as he could in the smoky darkness (there's constantly burning wood in this area of the dump site), while our priceless Production Manager/First Assistant Director Dawn Dizon went to hunt down thebangka. I had to wake up some dude in charge of garbage barge logistics and ask as politely as I could if we could move the barge. As it turned out, the three bangka went back to Navotas for fear of being smashed against the rocks, and the garbage barge was easy enough to move.

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The Pier 18 dock
The Pier 18 dock

I stood on the dock of Pier 18 watching the barge sail away (behind a ridiculously small tug boat) and I realized that this part of Tondo must have been a lovely little seaside town once upon a time. Known as Barrio Mandaragat (for the root word dagat or sea), it was mainly a sleepy fishing village. When the Department of Public Service started dumping trash there in the mid-50s, everything went predictably wrong. Manila dumped it trash in Tondo and the 12-storey heap of garbage became a national embarrassment. Now the old Smokey Mountain is more like a grassy hill, and there's permanent (but still inadequate) housing for the informal dwellers. In fairness to the place, it's not as bad as it was 20 years ago, but there's still another dump across the highway, ironically called Aroma Dump. And there's still a lot of poor people living in inhuman conditions in the dump site and the temporary housing area.

Barrio Mandaragat, once a sleepy fishing town before the Department of Public Service started dumping trash there in the mid-50s.
Barrio Mandaragat, once a sleepy fishing town before the Department of Public Service started dumping trash there in the mid-50s.
I don't pretend to have any solutions for the situation. There are lots of organizations already working in Smokey Mountain, but it's going to take a lot more than that to improve things. I want this behind-the-scenes documentary to help raise awareness and convey the nature of the people of Smokey Mountain–their sense of humor, their ability to survive, and their resilient spirit. I hope we all get the message.

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