Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Asia's Titanic from NatGeo's first Filipino director

In 2004, advertising industry colleague and friend Yam Laranas survived a grueling screening process conducted by executives of the National Geographic Channel (NGC) to select an exclusive circle of filmmakers and producers who would create NGC's next batch of highly-acclaimed documentaries. More than 300 from all over Asia had competed for the NGC grant, with 29 being invited to pitch their stories at the NGC headquarters in Singapore. Of that number, only 15 including Laranas, were offered the spot to produce their work for the prestigious network.

"Facing the NGC panel was very intimidating, much tougher than facing the most demanding advertising clients," recounts Laranas. "My job was to convince the NGC panel that we had the best story and that we Filipinos have the ability to produce it and to meet the very high standards and hallmarks set by the NGC."

But when asked in 2004 what the winning story was about, Laranas shrugged apologetically with his reply, "NGC keeps its future programming confidential."

Yesterday, August 18, I was invited to the press viewing of the documentary produced by Laranas and his all-Filipino team. Dubbed, ASIA's TITANIC, the film recounts the story of the world's worst peacetime maritime disaster--the sinking of the MV Dona Paz just 5 days before Christmas in 1987, after the passenger ship had collided with an oil tanker off Mindoro island in the Philippines. About 4000 perished during the tragedy.

Laranas's film dissects the event through re-enactments, first hand accounts from survivors (there were only 24), transcripts from the Philippine congressional inquiry into the tragedy, and archival footage and photos. The director explains, "We were not tasked to do an investigative piece, and were made to ensure we remained true to the facts." As such, the Filipino team was mandated to corroborate the stories of the survivors with actual accounts published in newspapers, congressional transcripts and other printed documents. Andrew Roque, the documentary's producer, clarified saying, "We had no room to editorialize or politicize. NGC provided us with a thick bible on what we could and could not do while making this film."

In truth, a documentary is defined as a movie, television, or radio program using images or interviews of people involved in real events to provide a factual record or report. After the press viewing and during the Q&A, I was tempted to ask if Laranas, while fulfilling his mission of piecing together a factual story, had aimed to weave in his point of view surrounding the tragedy. But there was no need. A master at his craft, Laranas cleverly juxtaposes physical occurrences during the event with raw human emotions expressed by survivors to evoke a specific response from his viewers.

Those who catch the documentary will read between the lines.

ASIA'S TITANIC, the first NatGeo documentary produced by an an all-Filipino team, debuts on Tuesday, August 25, 8pm, on the National Geographic Channel. You can also catch it on these dates and times:

August 26, Wednesday, 4am/9am/1pm/9pm
August 30, Sunday, 9pm
August 31, Monday, 1am/5am
September 5, Saturday, 6pm
September 28, Monday, 8pm
September 29, Tuesday, 1pm

A scale model of the ill-fated vessel greets guests at the press preview in Rockwell.

Yam meets the press.

I and my sisters Eileen and Audrey hangout with an old friend.
Hmm, I even look taller than the event's big man.

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