Baby Ruth Villarama on researching and filming “Asia’s Titanic” for National Geographic

Asia's Titanic - NatGeo poster for 2009 film

How and where do you begin to tell the story of the biggest peace-time disaster at sea in modern times — where only 24 people survived and more than 4,000 perished within an hour or two?

That was the challenge that my Filipino filmmaker friend Baby Ruth Villarama and her colleagues faced, when they made an hour-long documentary, Asia’s Titanic, which National Geographic TV broadcast in mid 2009.

They came together to tell the world an under-reported and relatively less known story from their country: the tragic mid-sea accident that sank MV Dona Paz on the night of 20 December 1987.

Former television journalist and now an independent TV producer, Baby Ruth Villarama specialises in story research and documentary producing. Runs her own production company, Voyage Film, based in Manila but active across Asia.

Ruth was the researcher and assistant producer of Asia’s Titanic, directed by award-winning Filipino director Yam Laranas.

A few days ago, I asked Ruth for her own memories and reflections. This is what she shared with me, in her own words — the moving story behind the moving images creation:

With the Doña Paz story, sharing their memories was the most difficult part of covering it as the tragedy is something they’d rather not talk about – and, if possible, forget.

I spent a year ‘off-the-record’ understanding the holes in their memories. I felt I had to retrace the steps of these 4,000 souls and learn the relationship of man and the sea.

They’ve lost their children, parents and comrades on Christmas eve over a sea mishap – drowning and burning in the quiet water. We can only imagine the pain they went through.

The tragedy is the peak of memory they have left of their loved ones too, so every Christmas, some relatives of the dead gather together to live the lives their loved ones would have wanted to continue.

I joined that gathering for about three Christmases in between my research efforts. It was then that I began to understand the rabbit holes in each one of them — and the rabbit hole I had in me for not knowing my mother personally.

We started sharing pains and the “what-could-have-beens” of those lost memories. That was the connection they were looking for: to be able to speak of the pain to a stranger, or worst, to a group of filmmakers who would broadcast their story to millions of households around the globe.

This documentary was initiated not just to tell their story but to attempt to fill a hole of justice to the many casualties and their families.

It was through them that we were able to speak to the remaining living survivors. We became part of that annual gathering. Despite the requirements of the studio and my director to deliver deadlines, we tried my best to balance their readiness to speak. Good thing NatGeo was willing to wait 3 – 5 years in the timeline…

I remember visiting a survivor in his sleepy town in the province of Samar sometime in 2005. He owns a small sari-sari (convenient) store then. He said that it took him a year to speak again after the tragedy — and another year before he could eat properly because he couldn’t swallow soups and liquids right.

He never really set foot outside his island again – always fearing for fire and water, including the air as he vividly remembers how it added fume to the fire on that fateful night at sea.

After a while, he started talking about the details of that trip. He stopped, wept and couldn’t carry on anymore. He couldn’t breathe and seemingly battled against the air.

A huge part of me personally felt wrong seeing him again but I know that if we do not tell this story, no one will — and the world will just forget about this huge ‘mistake’ in navigational history.

I’d like to think that the impact of the story outside the Philippines is to remind the world fact that Titanic is not the worst maritime disaster — that somewhere in South East Asia, there was a small ship that killed more than 4,000 lives. It created maritime talks in international forums and the fact that accidents in this magnitude didn’t occur anymore — I think people are more careful now.

It’s a shame that Doña Paz was not as celebrated as the Titanic. One big difference between the Titanic and Doña Paz, aside from its route and technical specifications, is the status of passengers.

The Titanic carried a large number of wealthy westerners. Those who boarded the Doña Paz were mostly average Filipinos — no names, no status in society, even in their own country.


Related post: Remembering Asia’s Titanic: The Doña Paz tragedy that killed over 4,000 in Dec 1987

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