Five years since embarking on their documentary-in-progress, Unseen, Set Hernandez Rongkilyo is finally starting to feel seen as a filmmaker, and as a person. “It’s taken a lot of transformation,” says the 29-year-old director, hinting to both the evolution of the film’s approach and their own evolution as an artist. “My existence as an undocumented person and queer person and a person of color in the US is so political, and sometimes to the point that it’s like, gosh! Exhaustingly political! I don’t think that is a bad thing, actually, but I also want to find ways to communicate the political in a way that is artistic, poetic and impressionistic.”
After immigrating to the US from Caloocan, Philippines as a child, Rongkilyo grew up in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley with two siblings. One of their earliest inspirations was watching their mother document their day-to-day lives.
“My mom has these photo albums of me and my younger siblings when I was little in the Philippines. And I remember when my youngest sibling was born, she would stamp the soles of their feet and imprint [them] on this photo album to remember ‘this is how big your foot was when you were born,’” Rongkilyo reflects. “My mom is the OG documentarian that I know—the archivist, rememberer, blogger…That really served for me as a model of the importance of remembering.”
A day Rongkilyo will always remember is the day in high school when they realized they were undocumented. Like their peers, they had sent off applications and taken their SATs, with college dreams abuzz in their mind. But a counselor confirmed that a long-expired visa would prevent them from applying for college financial aid, turning possibility into what felt impossible. “I was 17 and I just didn’t really understand,” Rongkilyo says, recalling feeling alone and helpless. “I thought I was the only person in the entire universe who didn’t have a social security number. But that was naive of me because I grew up in the San Fernando Valley… in my family and my community, there were a lot of undocumented people growing up, but no one ever talked about it.”
Thanks to extraordinary fundraising efforts spearheaded by loving friends and teachers, and under California law AB-540—which allows qualified nonresidents to pay resident tuition, Rongkilyo was able to start at UCLA, where they majored in linguistics and film. They began community organizing with IDEAS (Improving Dreams, Equality, Access, and Success), a campus advocacy group for undocumented students, and even produced their first film about their family’s immigration status, planting seeds for conversations where there had once been silence.
Years later, Rongkilyo’s most recent work is COVER/AGE (screened during CAAMFest Forward in 2020), a documentary short which follows two community leaders in California as they fight for access to health care for people in the US who are undocumented. As an impact producer, Rongkilyo says they were trained in the straightforward, didactic formula of “Here’s a call to action, here’s a story, here’s people struggling and this is how you can help!” Political work is often “fast-paced, reactionary and urgent” but over time Rongkilyo wondered: “How can I leave room for poetry in my existence as a political person? How can I leave space for reflection, for introspection, for breath?”
Unseen, a 2021 recipient of CAAM’s Documentaries for Social Change Fund, is the product of those musings. It follows the story of Rongkilyo’s friend Pedro as he navigates life as a blind, undocumented immigrant in the US, along with the intense mental health challenges that come with building a career as a counselor and social worker. The filming began during one very hot summer in Las Vegas in 2016 (“when Barack Obama was still president!” Rongkilyo exclaims), and during a time when Rongkilyo navigated their own challenges as an emerging documentarian and a one-person crew.
“When I first started filming Pedro, I was very much a newbie and didn’t always feel confident using the camera,” Rongkilyo says. “Of all the roles I play in filming, sound and cinematography are the things I am least fond of and I am not very confident in, but they’re the most important parts!” they say, with a laugh. “There were times when I would film and it’s just not in focus, and I’m like, ‘Oh gosh, this is a disaster!’ But then I realized this might actually be something we can play to our advantage.”
While films are inherently visual, Rongkilyo knew that they had to creatively use other elements to make this particular story resonate. They had a primary audience in mind: Pedro. And the approaches they have developed are an attempt to emulate, or at least conjure an idea of, what Pedro experiences as he walks through the world. Pedro was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a disorder that results in progressive vision loss over time. “I just see some colors, shapes and light,” Pedro says on camera. “Everything is very blurry.”
At the suggestion of cinematographer Kristy Tully during a recent fellowship, Rongkilyo embraced their out-of-focus footage and began experimenting shooting without lenses, putting gaffer’s tape over the camera’s aperture, and poking a tiny hole in the tape, just big enough to let a little light through. “It captures shapes, light, motion, but not much beyond that,” Rongkilyo explains. In a scene where Pedro is catching a bus, “you don’t have really have a strong sense of what you’re looking at, but when you hear the sound, you can infer, if you’re a sighted person, ‘Okay, I kind of hear a bus, and that looks like a silhouette of some type of bus.’”
Rongkilyo describes Unseen as an audio-based feature-length film which will also be condensed into VR and audio-only components. “We’re using experimental cinematography and more diagetic, environmental sound to really communicate the information,” they say. “Instead of seeing where we are, we hear where we are. Instead of seeing who is talking to us, we hear who is talking to us. We’re inviting people who are sighted to use their hearing more as they experience the film.”
Captions are also an integral part of the film experience—and not ones you can casually turn on or off. “We’re trying to make the captions not so much technical but artistic and poetic,” Rongkilyo says, noting it is part of their continuous approach to de-center audiences without disabilities.
Filmmaker PJ Raval, who hired Rongkilyo as an assistant editor and impact producer on his documentary film Call Her Ganda, has enjoyed watching Rongkilyo carve out their path in the industry and expand boundaries with Unseen. “They were recognizing how the film itself, the way it’s being made, the perspective that it was portraying, and even the artistic approach could also be a vehicle of decolonizing the film industry,” Raval says of seeing Rongkilyo’s early samples. “To me, that’s really exciting, someone who is acknowledging the true potential of storytelling.”
Every film has its own learning curve, and Rongkilyo is grateful to Pedro for personally educating them on the different ways people with disabilities consume media, from audio description to assistive technology when navigating phones and computers. They credit filmmakers like Rodney Evans and the creators of the documentary Crip Camp, for elevating the larger recent conversation on disability and accessibility in film. “There is no ‘one size fits all’…no one methodology will be able to encompass all the needs of different people who have different disabilities,” Rongkilyo says, “but we’re trying to make the experience as meaningful as possible for everyone.”
As much as Pedro encounters obstacles due to his limited vision, there are even more that come with being undocumented. As a filmmaker, Rongkilyo continues to face obstacles of their own in telling stories like Pedro’s. Production companies shy away from hiring undocumented workers, and applications for film funds often require US citizenship. Despite groundbreaking work of groups like Dreamers Adrift and UndocuMedia, this was still a largely ignored issue within the documentary community—until March 2019. Tapping into their organizing roots, Rongkilyo and four others built upon their informal Zoom meetings to launch the Undocumented Filmmakers Collective. They wrote an open letter to the American filmmaking community about the challenges of being hired, getting projects funded, and the frustrations of seeing a plethora of film about undocumented immigrants that never include undocumented crew or creatives on the project teams. Today, the collective is comprised of 50 members across the country and their focus is providing a safe, nurturing space for members to connect, collaborate, build skills and community.
Undocumented Filmmakers Collective co-founder Rahi Hasan says Rongkilyo has always prioritized one’s own storytelling style and aesthetic over expected norms that might lead to industry success. They’re proud to see Rongkilyo making more powerful, creative choices in their work that they may not have been comfortable with earlier in their career. “When you think of the word leadership, you instantly associate power with it—kind of like someone who is taking power,” Hasan says. “But Set redefined leadership for me. Entirely. Everything about their leadership is empowering others.”
CAAM was the first organization to fund Unseen and it all stemmed from a conversation Rongkilyo had in 2018 with Sapana Sakya, CAAM’s Talent Development & Special Projects Manager, about their inability to apply due to citizenship restrictions. Rongkilyo credits Sakya for ensuring the Documentaries for Social Change fund became accessible for undocumented filmmakers, part of a changing tide in the industry.
Since receiving funding from CAAM, Unseen has received three other awards to date. “The reason that I’ve been able to get to this point in my life is because I’ve received so much love and kindness,” Rongkilyo says, who often pauses to note the names of people they are thankful for at every turn of their journey. But it’s their mother who remains the biggest influence in this new approach to their political work. “When my mom captures these moments, she doesn’t capture them because she wants to go to Congress someday and say, “Here, look at these photo albums, this is what undocumented immigration is like. That’s not her point in remembering…she’s remembering because she just wants to remember her family, and how we’re navigating our lives.”
Thinking of a time when their mother may not be around to carry out these simple acts of remembering brings tears to Rongkilyo’s eyes. “I really believe that when you don’t know your history, it’s so hard to know who you are,” they say, lamenting on how frequently the experiences of queer, undocumented people of color are left out of history books, and film in particular. “For months I was figuring out, ‘What is the best way that I can contribute to my community and really experience justice for my community?’ And as a queer person from the Philippines…I think that remembering in the face of erasure is one of the most political things that I can ever do.”
Rongkilyo hopes to complete Unseen by the end of 2022, with a release in early 2023.
Lauren Kawana is an independent documentary filmmaker based in Oakland, CA. She is a member of A-Doc and Brown Girls Doc Mafia.