In a world without COVID-19, documentary filmmaker Drama Del Rosario would currently be prepping for the first public screenings of his latest film, I’m Okay (and Neither Are You). He would also be continuing his travels around the country, conducting interviews for a film he’s working on about the mental health of patients with rare bleeding disorders, for the production company Believe Ltd. where he has been working since the beginning of this year.
In the midst of the pandemic, production has come to a halt and as of mid-March, Del Rosario is sheltering-in-place with his partner at their apartment in Los Angeles. The good news: I’m Okay (and Neither Are You) had its first screening as part of the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival Virtual Showcase and will be featured next during CAAMFest Online: Heritage at Home.
As surreal as it is for him to see the world suddenly stand still, he’s more so disappointed by the racism aimed towards the Chinese that’s emerging from his native country of the Philippines. As he said in a video interview via Google Hangout, “I see these posts about how ‘Let’s pray the virus away. God will save us. Do not shake hands with anyone from China.’ It’s so hard to catch up with people back home, when these are the kind of posts that they’re also seeing.”
That conservative and prejudiced outlook is not lost on Del Rosario. Growing up in Quezon City and Manila, Del Rosario was a young gay boy who was constantly surrounded by a religious and heteronormative environment, both at home and at the Catholic school he attended. His form of escapism – and his budding interest in non-fiction storytelling – came in the form of reality television.
“I watched a lot of these MTV, E! Network reality shows and I just saw how interesting real people are and how fascinating real life can be outside of that Filipino Catholic bubble,” he remarked.
Del Rosario also grew up around the media makers that are his parents. While his dad would film everything from birthdays to family vacations, his mom has albums of photographs she took of these same events.
As far as hands-on experience goes, Del Rosario got his start during the emergence of YouTube. “I grew up in the generation of vloggers and YouTubers and people navigating how to use editing software. That’s really how I got my start in hands-on filmmaking; just experimenting with these basic video-editing software.”
Del Rosario has a unique style when it comes to his approach to presenting his interviewees; he removes the fourth wall by having them look directly at the camera, rather than at an interviewer off to the side. He credits filmmaker Errol Morris – who’s known for a lot of crime and investigative documentaries – for the inspiration.
“I know that a lot of people are worried when the whole interview subject looking at the camera aesthetic because it feels like a news report or an announcement,” he said, “but I feel that with this whole selfie and vlogger generation, more and more people are becoming more comfortable with speaking to a camera, as opposed to a camera being on their side. And I feel that with this whole coronavirus, more people are going to be speaking to a web camera.”
Sometimes, it’s Del Rosario himself who finds himself in front of the camera; most notably in I’m Okay (and Neither Are You) and his 2018 documentary, In This Family. Despite being the one telling vulnerable stories of his past, he does find the experience very therapeutic, especially after growing up in an environment where he was forced to repress his feelings.
“Just doing it on camera has been very healing and very helpful for me,” Del Rosario explained, “to actually give myself permission to voice out things that I have long buried and long repressed because I’ve pretty much been silenced my whole life with the way that I grew up.”
Making films about his personal life proves to be especially difficult during post-production when he’s spending hours repeatedly playing back soundbites and is having his team critique his work.
On the other hand, putting out his personal stories has been well worth it when young queer people and parents come up to him at screenings, telling him how necessary his films are. “It’s just a great feeling to have that sense of assurance,” Del Rosario said, “That’s definitely one of the best things about making these documentary films.”
His work has been earning him accolades. Last year, I’m Okay (and Neither Are You) won the inaugural British Academy of Film and Television Arts-Global Student Accommodation (BAFTA-GSA) Commissioning Grant, whereas In This Family became the winner of the Loni Ding Award for Social Issue Documentary at CAAMFest37.
Del Rosario has fond feelings for the latter honor, as well as how CAAM has provided a platform for his work. As he enthusiastically elaborated, “Doing my screenings within the Asian community is always the best experience for me. I get the best Q&As, I get the best audience responses, and CAAM has just been so supportive with all of that.”
He also wound up with opportunities through CAAM that he never thought he’d achieve as an independent filmmaker, including having In This Family submitted – and accepted – into this year’s PBS Online Film Festival and being made available for viewing on Alaska Airlines. It has all been surreal to him.
A lot of Del Rosario’s aspirations for the future all come down to continuing the work he has been doing already: continue working in Los Angeles, continue working for Believe Ltd., and hopefully have In This Family and I’m Okay (and Neither Are You) be the beginning of a series of short films documenting significant experiences in his life.
In the present, Del Rosario hopes that filmmakers of color use this period of being sheltered-in-place to explore opportunities to show their work outside of film festivals when so many of them are being cancelled.
“As POC filmmakers, why are film festivals the only avenue where we can thrive? Let’s think about other avenues we can thrive in,” he challenged.
Join us at CAAMFest Online: Heritage at Home for a screening of Drama Del Rosario’s I’m Okay (and Neither Are You) on Wednesday, May 20. The screening is free, but reservations are required by going to CAAMFest.com.