From Small Screen to Big Screen:
The Roots of a Documentarist

Howie G. Severino

In Yamagata, Japan last October, I attended my first documentary film festival. As a broadcast journalist, I had produced a 45-minute report for The Probe Team, a television news show back home in the Philippines. Colleagues began calling it a documentary, and I was pronounced its “director.”

Most reports on my show are 12–15 minutes in length, already a long time on television news shows. But I had come upon a story in a remote part of the Philippines that was so rich in dramatic material, I believed, and that had such a personal effect on me, that I asked for, and was given, the entire 45-minute show. I followed Auraeus Solito, a young Manila-based experimental filmmaker who discovers that he has tribal roots, as he returns to his ancestral home to lead his tribe in a non-violent struggle against a commercial pearl farm that was taking away their fishing grounds. My report conveyed that the story was not only of Auraeus’s tribe, but, in a larger sense, of all indigenous people coping with the pressures of the modern world.

I also placed myself in the plot, by recounting my own coming of age in America and subsequent return to the Philippines, the country of my birth. I wove my personal perspective with that of Auraeus’s, in effect saying that the search for cultural identity is shared by many people the world over.

Its unusually long length for a TV report and its personal tone qualified my work, in my colleagues’ eyes, to be called a documentary. Throughout my career in journalism, I had always viewed myself simply as a reporter telling a story. But in this instance, I had become a director. This was how my film, Return to the Tribe, and I ended up in Japan.

In Yamagata, I was gratified by the audience’s reaction to my documentary. The drama seemed to strike a chord. Many in Japan mourn the loss of human connections to nature. I was touched by both their interest and their knowledge.

People in this small city in northern Japan actually pay good money to watch documentaries. It was a revelation to me to watch the other films shown there—many had no narration, some were in black and white or were shot on Hi-8 and similar so-called low-tech. Most were creative and powerful.

In the documentary White, Japanese documentarist Hirano Katsuyuki rode a bicycle alone to the harsh winter of Hokkaido and documented himself without a crew with a small camera. It was very well shot and edited and captured one man’s lonely confrontation with the elements. I was so fascinated by what he had done that I borrowed the tape and watched it again, alone. In an encounter I had later with the filmmaker, with whom I did not share a common tongue, he demonstrated with clownish body language the precarious positions of his camera while riding his bicycle. The both of us laughed.

Despite the politeness of the audiences in Yamagata, I was still reminded of the flaws in my work. While they liked the story, some documentary fans criticized the technique. The cutting of Return to the Tribe was too fast, and the shots were too short, a few said. Others opined that it looked too much like television, apparently a kind way of saying commercial, a disdainful word at an event that represented an alternative to conventional cinema.

I made no apologies for that, of course. My documentary was TV, made for TV, and made by a TV journalist. As far as I know, ours was one of the few entries to come from mainstream TV. I am glad that I even got the chance to show it to a such a specialized audience.

In commercial TV, rarely does one have the option of long shots, slow editing, or even harboring artistic or experimental illusions. It is hard to imagine, for example, not using narration to drive my story forward. There is a price to pay when one works in mainstream TV. We’re limited by so many things: the format of the show, the amount of airtime we have, and the demands of a fickle mass audience that will not hesitate to use their remote control to zap you out of their consciousness. We understand that to get people to pay attention we have to make our technique and story as captivating as possible to a mass audience. And if that means cutting fast and shortening shots, so that our audiences don’t switch to BBC or HBO or the Cartoon Channel, so be it.

But my great consolation in making artistic compromises with commercial TV, is that every week, I get the opportunity to show my work to potentially millions of viewers. With electronic mail, many are able to send us feedback almost immediately. More than a few of their comments get aired on our show.

In this day and age, there is almost no limit to our access to people. Through cable and satellite, our show produced in the Philippines, for example, reaches Indochina, Indonesia, and North America—even if it is in our national language. For good or ill, television is also spreading to the remotest corners of our archipelago, and often brings the first images of the outside world. If you want to highlight the importance of a particular issue—such as the need to stop dynamiting our seas—there is no more powerful medium for doing so.

It is for this audience and potential impact that I made the switch to television journalism from print, where I had worked for newspapers and magazines for eleven years. As a journalist, I have been guided by the goal of making what is important interesting to as many people as possible. The word important is what makes journalism different from all the entertainment found on my new medium.

What I am discovering is that the advances in video technology are giving television journalists like me many more options and enriching our material. I had switched to television to take advantage of its reach. I have since found that the advent of digital technology and cheaper, better and smaller equipment has also broadened the range of my self-expression. There are so many elements one can use—digital photographs, computer graphics, crazy transitions, images downloaded from the web.

The increased variety of shots and digital effects—especially the way different shutter speeds can simulate the reality of movement—serve to capture audience attention, while giving me more leeway for experimentation. As a journalist trained in the methods of information gathering and synthesis, I used to think that artistic creativity would just get in the way of the facts. As I give closer attention to the camera work in my stories and feel a growing desire to present a personal vision through this medium, I am seeing how creative technique can add power to the message. After Return to the Tribe, I wear the label “director” proudly.

Lately, I have been shooting my own TV stories with a palm-sized camera that can record in very low light and fit in an assortment of tight situations, such as the inside of a refrigerator or the bottom of a trash can. I used it in fact to produce, without a crew like Hirano Katsuyuki, a mini-documentary about the film festival in Yamagata that was broadcast on my show. About ten minutes long, the story attempted to show the range of documentary styles represented in Yamagata and to inform Filipino viewers accustomed to soap opera entertainment that non-fiction films can be as powerful as feature films, and are often more so.

Technical advances can help journalists like myself evolve into documentary directors. But these changes have also made broadcast video more accessible in general and are democratizing our field. Communities and amateurs can now aspire to document for public consumption vanishing customs, changing ecosystems, endangered species, and even human rights violations. Journalists have been accustomed to feeling that we own this role of documentor and public explainer. Technology is giving many others the power to perform this service.

Those of us in commercial or mainstream television must encourage and embrace this development, by using and paying for this material. This technology coupled with the rise of cable television can lead to the more benign livelihood of video documentation in many rural areas in the developing world where common livelihoods, such as some methods of slash and burn farming, are increasingly harmful to the earth.

The experience of working with our video team has since inspired Auraeus Solito, the young filmmaker who was the subject of my documentary, to return to his village again, this time with video equipment to work on his own documentary together with his tribal clan. It will be about the effort by experts and the community to map the tribe’s land and seas for the first time, an important step in asserting their legal claim. Our television documentary had helped convince the experts that this was worth their time and energy.

Auraeus’s documentation will be used to show other remote communities how to do their own mapping. He is also using his skills to record the thoughts and memories of village elders, especially his grandaunt Upo Majiling, the last person in her community who can still write the tribe’s ancient script. I had interviewed her as well. After she first saw herself in our documentary explaining their vanishing script, she was heard to say, “How lucky I am to be alive today and be able to live on in this way.”

Howie G. Severino

Howie G. Severino has been a journalist in the Philippines for the past 12 years. Specializing in the environment, he worked for newspapers and magazines before switching to television in 1997. He is a producer and reporter for The Probe Team, Philipine television’s longest running public affairs program. He is presently on a year-long sabbatical while pursuing writing pursuits in Berkeley, California.

Writer Health in a Dash of Salt (UNICEF documentary on goiter; 1988)
Writer Hadlok (UNICEF documentary on children of war; 1991)
Writer Yearning to Learn (UNICEF documentary on tribal education; 1992)
Writer/Reporter Fast Track to Poverty (PCIJ documentary on island ecology; 1992)
Writer Mobile Teachers in Ifugao (UNICEF documentary on mountain education; 1993)
Writer/ reporter Basura! (Garbage!) (GMA-7 television documentary on Manila’s solid waste crisis; 1999)
Director Return to the Tribe (1999)