A disappearing way of life…
Gitte Hasseltoft Hansen’s film, The Sea Gypsies of the Sulu Sea will be showing at the Road Junky Film Festival on Saturday 29th May in Berlin.
RJ: How did you first hear about the sea gypsies?
Gitte: In 2005 I stayed in the Philippines for a longer period, – teaching poor children on streets and dumps. During my stay i read about the Badjao tribe and my imagination raced at the images described. The whole waterworld seemed amazing – and so many great pictures came to my mind.
RJ: How did you come to make the film?
Gitte: I applied for funding via the Danish foreign ministry of Denmark. Among hundreds of applicants, we were granted a sum, that made us capable of planning and shooting the film.
The opportunity to live side by side with these water people, and getting to record, observe and portray was suddenly possible.
RJ: Did you have any difficulties in being accepted by them? Were they happy for you to document their way of life?
Gitte: At first they were very curious about the camera and microphones. Especially Elmond, the youngest boy who loved the “dead cat” (mic). So many of our early shot couldn’t be used, because they couldn’t stop starring straight into the camera.
Finally they started to relax, and they seemed proud to show us how they live. The more questions we asked – the more confidence they seemed to have in us. As if they saw that we respected them and their culture.
To them, white people are very important and influential – and it was obvious that they respected us – maybe more than we even cared to know.
RJ: Do you think your film can make a difference?
Gitte: I think the film shows a different world of today. A world that not many people knows about. I’ve been showing the film in cinemas, schools etc. and young people in particular react strongly about their lifestyle. – they’re amazed about the lack of privacy in the lives of the Badjao and having to stay so close to the parents all the time.
In these environmental times i also believe that it’s a film that shows how closely tribes around the world live with nature, what an important and respectful relationship it is. If the climate changes – there’s no doubt that their livelihood conditions will be directly affected.
On a another level, the film also portrays a classic dilemma. Is it fair for the Badjao to live away from land, to continue to live as a tribe even though times have changed – they lack vitamins and the children never come to school…at what cost shall the tribe traditions continue?
RJ: How long did you spend with them and what effect did it have on you?
Gitte: My film buddy Christina and I stayed with them for about a month. The film was shot in only 2 days, where we stayed with them on the boat.
During our first night our boat sank. We had to swim in the dark to a desert island, bringing the destroyed equipment. Everybody survived but the incident created a very strong bond between us and the family. A week later we went sailing half a day to finish the recordings and the father kept staring in the water for signs from the sea gods – to make sure that we were safe and not exposed to danger again. Very emotional!
RJ: Do you plan to go back to see them? Are you still in touch?
Gitte: Only about a month after we returned from shooting the film, we got the news that there had been a typhoon. Our translater told us that the family’s boat was totally ruined and that they now lived on the streets of Puerto Princesa.
My first thought was to go straight back and find them – to help out.
However, I realised that the money for my flight could have been better spent on helping them so I ended up sending some cash to the local priest who, together with a translator, helped out the family.
Unfortunately, the Philippines is a country with many typhoons, hunger and many people in need. You can every day save a person’s life in the philippines.
RJ: What can we learn from them? Do you feel your film captured their way of life?
Gitte: I truly believe that we see the essence of their lifestyle. We see how related they are to the sea gods and the complexities of their apparently simple lives – the increasing bureaucracy, piracy etc.
It’s a very honest family, with humor and closeness. Everybody does something that’s important for the family and everybody is concerned about each other. No one talks about personal goals or dreams – and maybe that’s their challenge as well? Is it possible to live in a tribe like that and still fullfil your personal ambitions?