Paris Zarcilla is a British Filipino BIFA-nominated film and television director-writer who aims to create meaningful, profound and genre-bending stories. His debut feature, Raging Grace, won the Narrative Feature Jury Award and Thunderbird Rising Award for Best Debut at SXSW 2023. His award-winning short film Pommel has screened all over the world at leading festivals. In 2020, Paris wrote and directed the primetime TV drama The Century Egg (Starhub) produced by the Emmy-nominated studio Refinery Media. Zarcilla currently resides in London.
I love and am fascinated by storms. I find myself completely compelled by their power and chaos but also by their surreal and terrifying beauty, which leaves an indelible mark wherever they land. My love of natural forces also lies in their unapologetic ability to express what I have often been unable to: fury.
I was born in London to two immigrant Filipino parents who ran a greasy spoon frequented by the locals and people from the surrounding businesses. The cafe sat on Lisson Grove, dead center at the divide of wealth and poverty, where its customers were a cross-section of the working and middle classes of London. My mother helped my dad, but she was also a cleaner for many middle- and upper-class families in the area, and when I was a young boy, she would take me along with her. It was in these gleaming houses and the greasy cafe that I saw my parents, the most powerful people in my universe, denigrated and reduced by the racism that hardened their outlook on life.
They taught me to assimilate, to excel but not to stick out, to not rock the boat. To aspire to whiteness, to be one of the good ones. To be the good immigrant, the model minority. It was intended as protective wisdom, formed from a place of survival. These are lessons many children of the diaspora are familiar with and it has had a profoundly devastating effect. For me, it laid the foundations and brickwork of a mind that housed my self-hatred, my self-racism and an embarrassment that stopped me from forming any meaningful connection with my culture.
In 2020, when the U.K. was in the grip of the pandemic and in its first lockdown, many of us were experiencing an introspective journey of self discovery. I was being confronted by the long-growing discomfort of assimilation. For the first time ever, I was becoming fully conscious of a deeply colonized mindset that spent years willfully rejecting my heritage and my mother tongue. It was like discovering I was in The Matrix, but my construct was coded in colonialism. And with that discovery, I felt the gathering of my own clouds.
In the right conditions, a storm can be aggravated drastically by an exceptionally rare combination of circumstances. It takes the confluence of natural phenomena to create a situation where a “perfect storm” will occur.
I was incandescent with a rage that had nowhere to go and was beginning to feel dangerous. In a bid to find clarity, I read as much as I could on the history of colonialism, especially its presence in the Philippines. It wasn’t long before I stumbled upon a poem called “The White Man’s Burden” by Rudyard Kipling.
It is a poem that seeks to exhort the American people to conquer and rule the Philippines. It significantly influenced the moral argument for white imperialism and colonialism that led directly to the annexation of the Philippines. The poem is about colonial conquest and defines colonialism in moral terms, as a “burden” that the white race must take up its divine duty to help non-white races develop civilization. For all their moral grandstanding, colonizers still used fire to burn down our cultures. I remember laughing hysterically, maniacally even, when after finishing the poem I recalled my Filipino dad expounding the virtues of being the Good Immigrant to me and my siblings, to not be a burden on British society, and later singing along to the beloved songs from The Jungle Book, based on a book by the same Rudyard Kipling.
“The White Man’s Burden” disgusts me, but I’m grateful for it because it stoked the ancestral embers within me back to a raging fire. This fury led to me writing and directing Raging Grace. It’s a film about an undocumented mother from the Philippines and her British-born daughter forced to hide in a society they both desperately want to be a part of. That is, until they meet Mr. Garrett, a seemingly dying old man brought back to good health by the young Filipino mother. But is he friend or foe?
Joy, the main protagonist of Raging Grace, is based on my mother, and her experiences during her time as a domestic worker. The research and writing period was a constant reminder of how paramount immigrants are to the fragile foundations of our colonial systems. So many Filipino domestic workers and immigrants are the invisible pillars that hold up families, institutions and society, yet go unseen and unnoticed. We’ve woven ourselves into the fabric of societies without our beneficiaries knowing that immigrants are often the thread that helps hold their tapestry together. Our existence is vital, but rarely recognized.
I often got pangs of terror and anxiety writing and making Raging Grace. I still do. It carries the concept of metaphorically and literally burning down the master’s house. Every day is a conscious decision to go against everything my Asian parents taught me about assimilation. Every day is a conscious practice in dismantling my own master’s house, which I built myself. I try, and frequently fail, to confront the fear of appearing ungrateful or hateful toward a country that often expects gratitude from its former subjects. As I approach the theatrical release of this film, I still tussle with the fear of no longer being one of the “good ones.” Even now as I write this, I steel myself with positive affirmations before I sit in front of an audience. I’ve sometimes been confronted at Q&As by someone’s discomfort unearthed by the film’s themes.
Many of us come from a place where colonialists tried to suppress and erase our culture with fire, many of us come from ancestors who fought colonial and imperialist forces. Today, I remind you what Nikita Gill puts so eloquently: you cannot burn away what has always been aflame.
Raging Grace is about going beyond trauma, to move toward healing – the place we land when we transgress against our masters. It’s a cathartic spectacle that explores the trauma of being an undocumented worker, but most importantly, it’s a celebration of Filipino culture and our place in this world.
I believe that sometimes chaos isn’t destruction, it merely precedes rebirth. I hope Raging Grace is the confluence that creates the beginnings of a perfect storm, the winds that begin to dismantle the master’s house within us all.
Featured image, showing Paris Zarcilla on the set of Raging Grace, by Ruth Tien An Whittle; all images courtesy Paris Zarcilla.