Documentary Review: Volunteers “helping,” or getting in the way “When the Storm Fades”

You know the old saying, “The road to Haiyan is paved with good intentions.”

Super typhoon Haiyan, one of the most violent cyclones ever to make landfall, tore up the Philippines in 2013. “When the Storm Fades” is a docu-dramedy about survivors picking themselves up to carry on, predatory international capitalists swooping in for beachside land development, and earnest aid workers trying to help but lucky if they don’t make a bigger mess out Tacloban City before they move on to the next catastrophe.

It’s about First World/Third World inequality, climate-changed superstorms, cultures clashing and virtue signalling volunteerism. So it’s tragic and infuriating and yeah, kind of funny, when you look at it.

A trio of older sisters dream of opening a sari sari store, a place to sell the spring rolls that they’re peddling to make ends meet, three years after the storm.

Teen siblings Lovely and Arnel Pablo are trying to a new start, with their father, recovering from the shock and taking training to better their chances to get out from under the grief and hardship hurled upon them that November three years before. Their dad Abner still seems in shock.

Everybody there lost someone, saw and smelled death for months and months. And as a local activist notes (in Filipino, with English subtitles), “When you have no livelihood, every day’s a disaster.”

And then there are the foreigners, aid workers, “experts” building this replacement sea wall “without consulting” anybody local, planting mangroves on a piece of eroded shoreline where an old man has already rebuilt his marsh stilt house. He chats with the aid worker supervising the planting, notes he’s planning to add on to his house, hears out the “you’ll need permission to cut these trees down,” and shrugs that off with the thought that by the time he has the money, the trees will be big enough “so I can use them for building materials.”

The EveryForeigner characters the film focuses on are a Canadian couple, Clare (Kayla Lorette) and Trevor (Aaron Read, hilarious). She seems earnest about this volunteer trip, “helping out.” Trevor is forever taking photos, ineptly “helping” with woodwork and learning all about mangroves, which he relates to every other foreigner he meets. The work is just something standing in the way of his next meal.

“You feeling lunch? Anyone feeling lunch?”

Sean Devlin’s film amplifies the cultural divide as visitors are quick to judge Filipino practices that First World folk call “barbaric,” hunting whale sharks, for instance. They’re eager to see helplessness and impose “solutions” on the locals, or prey on them when they need cash and have land to sell.

But accepting First World responsibility for climate change, and offering to pay for rebuilding? Not so much.

Making Trevor, and to a lesser degree Clare, as poster pasty-faced people for Virtue Signalling — Trevor’s “Look what we’re doing, aren’t we righteous?” social media posts — is funny, on its surface. At least Clare experiences growth, from a Canadian ditz who thinks a gift of lavender cuttings is what somebody living hand-to-mouth needs, to a person who recognizes the scale of the problem and the injustices that created it.

But it’s hard to see great harm in people offering to pitch in, spending money to get there and getting a first-person experience in another culture’s crisis, even the ones who brag about it on Facebook. And climate change may be imposed on poorer countries by the richer ones, but clearing mangroves and dynamite-fishing reefs are kind of a Filipino thing, magnifying their own calamities.

And let’s face it, there’s virtue signalling in the film itself. It was made — a closing credit says, abiding by The Jemez Principles, sort of a Hippocratic Oath for First World people and organizations trying to “help” those in crisis or simply “less fortunate.

Righteous intent and funny spin on volunteerism aside, “When the Storm Fades” is entirely too brief a film to wrestle with the many issues introduced in any depth.

Being a docu-drama, there’s a lot of compelling footage of real people just getting on with life. The “messages” come from the actors — showing what NOT to do or say, or getting into arguments that lay out, in plain language, the stakes and villains of such situations.

But even as Devlin points out the lack of easy, simple solutions and the foolhardiness of some “good” intentions, he makes the case that wanting to help is human, that lives and lifestyles have value, and invites us to root for those struggling, even if the best thing we could possibly do for them is write a check.

MPAA Rating: unrated, drug use, profanity

Cast: Arnel Pablo, Kayla Lorette, Aaron Read, Lovely Pablo, Ryan Beil,

Credits: Written and directed by Sean Devlin. A 1091 release.

Running time: 1:21

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