“Kapwa" is a Tagalog word that cannot be expressed in a simple English translation, but it is one that perfectly embodies the unbreakable bond in Filipino families and their communities that is especially prevalent in turbulent times.
Kapwa implies a sense of interconnectedness and shared identity that is not easily broken through complex differences in opinions. Kapwa means togetherness, neighborliness and the “unity of the one-of-us-and-the-other.” This is the concept that guided director PJ Raval to explore unique Filipino American experiences in the U.S. in his documentary film “Who We Become.”
The film follows three young Filipino women — Monica Silverio, Lauren Yap and Jenah Maravilla — grappling with the emerging pandemic in 2020 as they develop their political consciousness while maintaining connections with their families.
“I think even the idea of having this word that doesn't fully translate into English already says something about the experience of a Filipino American, right?” Raval tells NextShark. “When I think of the United States, I'm always thinking about American individualism and exceptionalism. When I'm thinking about the Philippines, I'm often thinking about family structures and community.
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"And for me, this idea of kapwa, I almost see it as a bridge now. I've grown up in this environment that very much is rooted in individualism, and I understand my family comes from a culture that's very rooted in community, but I'm somewhere in between there, and I'm trying to figure this out. It became a really beautiful way to kind of explore the Filipino American experience in this film.”
Raval, who grew up in a conservative and predominantly white town in central California, saw a lack of Filipino culture in the area, leading to an isolating experience. The queer first-generation director did not initially aspire to become a filmmaker but would eventually become known for his documentary films about underrepresented subcultures and identities within the LGBTQ+ community. One of his previous award-winning and critically acclaimed documentaries is “Call Her Ganda” (2018), which follows three women galvanizing a political uprising to pursue justice after Jennifer Laude, a Filipino trans woman, was brutally murdered by a U.S. Marine.
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Shortly after working on “Call Her Ganda,” Raval found himself working alongside many organizers in the Filipino American communities that support various social initiatives and programs. He met more Filipinos and took interest in the younger generation’s outspokenness on issues conflicting with their families' views, such as political stances concerning former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s government.
“I recognized in a lot of my films there's often a scene where you have two people who are very close to one another have some kind of challenging conversation. There's some kind of tension there where there's a recognition of a difference of opinion and difference of perspective,” Raval explains. “But with Filipinos, they still love and respect their families even though there's this very clear distinction of difference. And I think that narrative seems to be dwindling, especially here in the United States.”
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This discrepancy intrigued Raval, leading to the “Who We Become” project that delves into the complexities of familial relationships, generational gaps and cultural differences within the Filipino American experience. The narrative aims to contribute to the broader American discourse on family dynamics and disagreements, particularly in the context of diverse cultural backgrounds.
Raval collaborated with Cecilia Mejia, the film's producer, in reaching out to individuals in their communities who might resonate with the idea. Yap and Silverio, known to Raval, expressed interest, while Maravilla was introduced by Mejia. Although the idea for the film came before COVID-19, the urgency of the pandemic added to the project's significance, prompting the filmmakers to delve into the lives of these women during a unique time of transition.
“I saw it as an opportunity on how to frame this,” Raval shares. “We were in a moment of self-reflection, in a moment of realizing what we've taken for granted and in a moment of really thinking about what are our values?”
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To document their struggles and transformations, Raval engaged in extensive conversations with the participants, exploring their thoughts, concerns and perspectives on the pandemic while allowing them to decide what they wanted to share as a way to foster an honest and authentic portrayal of their experiences. By featuring younger individuals, Raval aims to highlight the constant evolution and learning that occurs over time. Some events explored in the film include experiencing graduation through Zoom, attending Black Lives Matter protests, witnessing anti-Asian hate crimes and navigating political stances on the 2020 elections.
“Seeing your experience on screen or seeing something that you feel represents part of your experience is really important because, again, I didn't ever see or experience that. And I think in the process of making the film, I'm also thinking of it as a gift to people in my community,” Raval says. “Right now, we're living in extremely divided times. For me, making the film is a reminder that what's important is the love that we hold between us, right? It's that love that allows these conversations and these relationships to be there despite differences of opinions and perspectives.”
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Raval hopes that viewers will focus on the importance of love, allowing for conversations, acknowledging differences and strengthening connections. He encourages individuals to think long-term, grow together and realize that love can hold relationships together even amid disagreements.
“Who We Become” is available to stream on Netflix.
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