By Kathy Trieu // Twitter: @itstrieu
IT RUNS IN THE FAMILY features a young gay Filipino-Canadian artist, Jay Cabalu, along with his sister, Joella, travel across the globe to meet their other queer relatives. Afterward, Jay creates a new collage art piece and reflects back on his journey and its impact on his struggle with being gay and Roman Catholic. It Runs in the Family is an intimate exploration on acceptance and what the modern queer family can be in the Filipino diaspora.
Since its completion in 2015, IT RUNS IN THE FAMILY has been shown in multiple film festivals across the continent. The feature documentary film, though Joella Cabalu’s first, has been well-received and is making its way from Vancouver to the Houston Asian American Film Showcase on July 9th, 2016. But first, I talked to Joella Cabalu about IT RUNS IN THE FAMILY.
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HOUSTON ASIAN AMERICAN FILM SHOWCASE
JULY 9 // 7 PM // 800 AURORA ST // HOUSTON
Kathy: So I learned that your documentary was inspired by the film, For the Bible Tells Me So. Could you tell us a bit about this inspiration?
Joella: Sure back in, I believe it was 2007, I saw a film. It was produced by PBS and I saw it at a film festival. It was called For the Bible Tells Me So, which follows 5 American Christian families and how they each dealt with the coming out of their child. I found the timing of watching this film to be very apt because my brother, Jay, who is the central figure in It Runs in the Family, just before I watched For the Bible Tells Me So—maybe a couple of days before that—Jay had come out to me. In the film, I expressed I was fearful of when he had come out because of our religious upbringing. So I found it to be very timely that I was watching this documentary. And it made me think about what it would look like for our own family. I noticed that the film had, out of the five, only one family was a family of color and they didn’t get that much screen time. So the majority were White Christian families who were portrayed. I was curious what would that story of coming out look like for an Asian family, an immigrant family. That’s kind of where the initial idea for the film came. But that was back in 2007 and I didn’t really do anything about that idea until I went back to school for film production in 2013. That was when I started to actually put the story into motion.
K: What were you doing at that time then?
J: In 2007, I was finishing my bachelors at the University of British Columbia in Art History. I just really loved film. I just found over the years that I gravitated toward documentaries, when I picked my five films I wanted to watch at a film festival. I just noticed that, so it was interesting. And then after I graduated I worked as an administrative assistant in corporate and then nonprofit industry. So really I wasn’t doing anything in the arts. Just to back up a bit, I made my first short film when I was fifteen years old at a film camp and it’s interesting. Something happens as a women of color and as a teenager going into the real world. I had originally wanted my degree to be film studies, but then the 20-year-old Joella… I convinced myself that I wouldn’t be good at it. The reason behind that, I just listed all the things that I needed in order to be successful in the film industry, which were I needed to be extroverted. I needed to be aggressive. I needed to be arrogant. Most of all, I needed to be a man. Over the years, I’ve been reflecting on that and I think that’s subconsciously what happened… That’s why I decided to do Art history instead. Film has always been a passion of mine. It’s just… I just didn’t believe in myself. I didn’t see myself represented behind the camera or in front of the camera, so why would I even bother right? So that’s kind of where my journey began.
K: You had this idea after watching this documentary and talking with your brother. Was that the thing that really propelled you to pursue film making as a career? Or were there other things going on?
J: So there were two things going on. The main reason—I think people can relate to this. The last job I had before I went to film school. I really loved it. I was working at a nonprofit, again I was working as an admin assistant. There was a restructuring and my department got axed and half of my colleagues were laid off. That was really the catalyst with me. I said I hadn’t been doing anything with arts or film and when they announced the restructuring in my head, I was like: “that’s it! I’m going back to school and I’m going back to school for documentary.” That was 2012. I think once I found a school I wanted to go to, I already knew that I wanted to do this story on my brother. So I was just of the belief, that if there was one story I had to make, it would have to be this one about my family. I watch a lot of films (laughs). I went to this Women in Film festival in Vancouver. One of my colleagues, she had previously worked in films—which I found to be interesting—she produced this one doc that was being filmed. The film was made by a middle-age Japanese woman. When I saw her do the Q&A, I just related so much more. Again, it comes back to that comment I made before, you can’t be what you can’t see, right? So that was the first time, looking at this woman who had this kind of quiet strength about her that I related to. If this woman can go back to school at her age, and create a feature documentary, certainly I could do it. That realization happened and then several months later there was the restructuring at my work. You know… so it’s all these little events in my life that made me wonder I wasn’t meant to work in an office all my life.
K: So then, at that time you had already shared this idea with your brother?
J: No… (laughs) I think so maybe [it was] when I started going back to school at the end of 2013. Part of the curriculum was that I had to make three films in the span of four months and your grad film would be like ten minutes. So I knew that I wanted to make a film about Jay and so I (laughs) I originally told him when I was starting school that I had this idea. I told him and he was totally on board, but later on when he started to dig deeper into the struggles he’s had, I think he was kind of surprised. He had dealt with them already and pushed them aside and it was a bit of a challenge. Jay was thinking it was going to be this fabulous portrait of himself (laughs), somewhat superficial. So there was a lot of discussion to do that. I have to preface though, the film I am talking about, that I made for school is called Stand Still. I filmed Jay and my parents talking openly for the first time about their conflicting beliefs. That film is completely separate from It Runs in the Family. But Stand Still is essentially the jumping off point for me to explore all the other relatives in my family, in my extended family, who are also queer-identifying.
K: I know that you expressed this desire to share a story that could resonate with many people by sharing something that was close to yourself. Now that the film has been completed and released, what kind of response have you received from different individuals from LGBTQ communities of color that you could share with us?
J: I think [there’s] one thing that has been surprising. This journey for the film I had that I conceived [of, but] didn’t do anything about the idea until 2013. [I] started off with a short film that was very emotionally challenging and also a steep learning curve because that was my student film. In 2014, I got commissioned by a TV broadcaster out here called OUTtv; they commissioned me to make It Runs in the Family. We completed the film in 2015 and since the beginning of 2016, we’ve been shopping the film and presenting it in festivals. The last three years have been such a journey and like I said emotionally challenging because it’s [such a] personal topic, very sensitive issue but as well this is my first broadcast hour-length documentary so there’s a steep learning curve. I don’t know I think… maybe I’m just a bit cynical and I just focus on all the challenging and negative parts of this journey… So it was a good reminder when we premiered. Our U.S. premiere was at the Seattle Asian American Film Festival, someone in the audience who is Asian and gay, mentioned that it is so refreshing to see a positive representation of the Asian community with respect to LGBT issues. Cause I think there is a stereotype– and I think it’s true to some respects—but it’s the only or the most popular representation out there that Asian communities are just monolithic and are conservative when it comes to LGBT issues. So I think that has been a thing that that resonated with Asian communities and queer-identified folks that you know here’s something that is inspiring, especially when it comes to your family can be something that is challenging and risky topic that comes up. I think it was hopeful for people to see that there are families out there in the Asian community, in the Filipino community who are accepting and progressive. So I think that has been one of the most surprising things for me because I’m so mired in all the challenges of making the film and then it being so close to me as well.
K: As of now, what do you have on your plate, what kinds of projects are you working on?
J: Right now, I’m co-producing a short documentary. That’s being produced by Bravofact Canada and it’s called Repairing Society. It follows a movement, a volunteer run movement called Repair Café, where a team of volunteers who are called Fixers meet monthly and people from the public go to these monthly events with their broken household items and get them fixed by fixers (laughs) so it’s a way to divert broken items from the landfills but it’s also kind of a representation of the best of humanity. Being able to connect with people in your community and also learn how to fix things. Because I think we’re just so used to saying “if it’s broken, I’ll just go buy something new.” So that’s currently what I’m working on, and I am developing a documentary short series on interracial dating from the perspective of the women of color.
K: Thank you so much Joella for making time for this interview and thank you for sharing your family’s story with us. We’re so excited to show your film here in Houston!
BUY TICKETS NOW
HOUSTON ASIAN AMERICAN FILM SHOWCASE
JULY 9 // 7 PM // 800 AURORA ST // HOUSTON