Within the silences

Paris Zarcilla and Chi Thai discuss the legacy of colonialism and Raging Grace

by Jennie Kermode

Jaeden Paige Boadilla in Raging Grace
Jaeden Paige Boadilla in Raging Grace

A nail-biting thriller which looks at what happens when Filipina immigrant Joy (Max Eigenmann) and her young daughter, Grace (Jaeden Paige Boadilla), discover something seriously amiss in the home of a wealthy employer, Raging Grace combines elements of Gothic mystery with a sharp critique of racism and class-based exploitation in contemporary British society. It’s the work of writer/director Paris Zarcilla and producer Chi Thai, and it won a host of awards at SXSW, kicking off a highly successful tour of the festival circuit. It will screen at Edinburgh International Film Festival this month and recently, it screened at the Fantasia International Film Festival, and that’s where I got talking to Paris and Chi.

“It was written back in 2020 – a very chaotic year, I think, for many of us,” Paris tells me. “There was an opportunity to begin interrogating just who we actually are in this world. I really started thinking about my own identity, digging a lot further into who I am. And I started thinking about my heritage, and I thought about my Filipino roots. I realised I had pretty much spent my entire life rejecting my mother tongue and a lot of my own culture, and that was mainly because – from a place of love and protection – my parents had told me that, you know, ‘You have to try and get good grades. Don't be the nail that sticks out.’ Essentially, ‘Be the good immigrant.’

“During that time, it was very painful to realise I spent the majority of my life just sitting within the recesses of British society. And that was what I had done to myself. And it was conflicting. I mean, it was correlating with a lot of the rise of Asian hate, both in the US and the UK. And it was compounded by a lot of Filipino nurses in the NHS, who were dying on the frontlines of Covid. And when we had a government that still had this very toxic rhetoric towards immigrants, you know, the very ones that are propping up a very beleaguered NHS, I got angry, really angry – the type of angry that was quite dangerous. I didn't know where else to put that, other than on the page. So that's where Raging Grace came from.”

Paris Zarcilla
Paris Zarcilla

I ask if that’s part of the reason why Joy is a nurse.

“Well, yes. She's definitely got a nursing background. She's kind of based on my mum, who is a care nurse, but when she arrived in the UK, the only job she could get was being a cleaner for other families and stuff like that. This film is dedicated to a lot of the invisible pillars of British society. I feel a lot of that is the Filipino community within the NHS, nannies and cleaners.”

It’s interesting what he says about his parents, I suggest, because the relationship between mother and daughter is central to the film. Joy is obviously trying to protect her child, but Grace has a strong reaction to injustice and wants to tackle it head on.

“Many of the things that a lot of us have experienced the Eastern and Southeast Asian communities have been difficult to articulate, because they come in micro aggressions,” he says. “Sometimes they are outright aggressions too. But I knew for a lot of us, we didn't really have the language at the time to articulate what this huge discomfort was. Our generation that’s coming through, and the generation below us, I think we have a far better capacity and language with which to define what's actually going on.

“I wanted that to be reflected in the film, how there is this generational gap between someone who's arrived here and someone who was born here, you know? With a mother who's, from her own experiences, just trying to protect her daughter. But the person who is reflective of, I feel, a lot of our generation, she’s Grace. She wants to break out, she wants to be a part of society, she wants to belong to society, despite it being a very hostile environment.

“I was very cautious in how that was represented. I didn't want it to be - well, sometimes it was on the nose, but I want there to be nuanced layers where you can read into it more than just what you see on the screen. It's not just what’s said to them, it's how they say it, it's what isn't said, you know? It's what they experience within the silences.”

Chi nods. “From the production stage, and certainly when we were talking about how to get funding, we weren't creating this overly black and white film that was about, say, just two things. We would always try to talk about it in terms of presenting these tropes of the ‘good immigrant’ versus the ‘bad immigrant’, which are both deeply problematic in their own ways. In America they have the model minority myth, which sounds all good on the surface, but deep down it's a systematic way to keep people in line, to keep them quiet.

“Another thing that we tried to do in the film is a discourse around old white power and new white power. For us, that's something that's very much symbolised by Katherine and Mr Garrett. To Paris' credit, he created a really wonderfully dense but super accessible kind of piece that wrestles with all these things, where it's actually complicated and nuanced. And, again, coming from a place, especially in the UK, where there hasn't been a great deal of literature, whether that's verbal or written down, about the reckoning with our own identities, when you are children of the diaspora.”

I observe that there’s a difficult balance to be struck in the film because it has to speak to multiple audiences. People who are familiar with dealing with microaggressions might find it heavy handed but there will be other people watching it with whom one just can’t be heavy handed enough to get the point through.

Chi responds by talking about screenings in which audience members have discussed what the film meant to them, and have explained away comments made by white characters in the film which she – and I – had interpreted as quite blatantly racist.

“The range of audience understanding and knowledge is really spread out. But, you know, at the end of the day, we hope it's actually still an accessible piece that you can come to, where you can come away with something for each person.”

There’s also humour in film, which anyone can enjoy.

She smiles. “I think humour is Paris' superpower. He's heard me say that many times. I really think it is. I think the fact that he can bring that playfulness to it, and that multi-tonal shift, is a really special thing. I think it makes it easier to enter the discourse with that. You know, Grace herself is a lot of fun. She has so many amazing scenes, right? Where she's there but not there, the things that she does and everything. Humour is hopefully something that will really disarm people, but hopefully it's something that's really going to surprise people. I think for a lot of people that come to this it's really unexpected, but I think it's one of the most wonderful things about the film.”

Chi Thai
Chi Thai

There are some great scenes with Grace sneaking around the house, trying not to be noticed, which remind me of suspense thrillers from the Forties and Fifties.

“It’s funny you mention that,” says Paris. “I mean, movies of that era, because I was watching The Servant, with Dirk Bogarde, which I found amazing. I really loved it. And I had some really odd influences. I think people find it odd that I took a lot of inspiration from Danny DeVito’s Matilda – very specifically a scene where Matilda and Miss Honey are trying to escape from Miss Trunchbull’s house. I think that's a master class in tension building. It's so eerie. I watched a lot of horror films when I was younger a that was one of the scenes that stuck with me so much.

“Just to go back on, like, how you balance those issues with our intended audience and some new audiences that come in, Chi mentioned the importance of humour. I think to really get audiences beyond our intended audience, to really lean in, it's important that stories like this are being told from a more blended genre space. The stuff that immigrants deal with is often horrific, but it can't be the only thing that we tell. It can't always just be about their trauma.

“We're not just about trauma. For a lot of the Southeast Asian community, in particular, with Filipinos, we deal with trauma with humour. It was really important to be able to balance that humour out, but also use it in ways to kind of emphasise or punctuate the drama without having to undercut it.”

The humour also works very effectively to highlight the absurdity of the whole situation, in terms of the power imbalance and how some people see fit to treat others.

He nods. “Yeah, that's the thing. So many of the scenes, in a lot of ways, feel theatrical. Especially sometimes in how they might be delivered. But the real absurdity of it is that it’s true. That, you know, a lot of what has been said in on the film has been heard by a lot of us.

“Claire Danes was an inspiration for Katherine, for something that she said, which was that the Philippines, when she went there, she thought it was a disgusting place. She said Filipinos have no arms, no eyes. Really bizarre things. We actually tried to work that into the script verbatim, but it sounded so dumb and unbelievable that we couldn't get it to work, so we actually had to tone it down. Sometimes the reality of it was more than the film could actually handle.”

Were attitudes like that an issue when it came to getting the film funded?

“It was really, really hard,” says Chi. “Looking at the broad strokes of how Raging Grace has arrived in the world, in many ways we had like a fairy tale arrival, in the sense that Paris wrote this during the first lockdown and we were filming in the second lockdown. I think some of that speaks to the fact that we've been filmmakers for a long time and we've been able to capitalise on certain things. But the truth is, we didn't get any support from our home country to do this. We see it very firmly as a British film but we never got any support. We actually got funding through a US financier, and without going into details, the making of the film was also a rocky, kind of challenging kind of thing.

“We never had enough money. I think what we delivered was incredible, but it could have easily done with a little more. We lost, a lot of our strategic supporters in the process of making the film, and by the time we had finished making it and we were trying to find a place to launch it, we were pretty much on our own. So we were this very small, microbudget feature film that was really struggling. You have no idea how happy we finally were to be programmed for SXSW. We swept the board at SXSW, and had a great reception into the world.”

She’s no looking forward to a North American release, she says, but sadly the film still hasn’t received that level of support on home ground.

“As British filmmakers, making British films that we feel are really relevant to audiences today, we would love to see support from our home country, but at the moment, we're not getting that. I think that says something about the difference between being POC filmmakers in the UK versus, say, America, where they're definitely much more ahead in terms of understanding the value. And this is what it comes down to at the end of the day: the cultural and economic value of the films that we make is something that is just not valued. That's one of the really heartbreaking parts of it. There's nothing more important, when you are a British filmmaker, than to have the support of your home country.”

Max Eigenmann in Raging Grace
Max Eigenmann in Raging Grace

I note that there are screenings coming up in Edinburgh and at Frightfest, so at least there’s some support out there – but does she think that the overall lack of support in the UK is why we're behind in having those conversations about race and power?

“I think personally I feel that pain so much more, because we have very firmly made a film about race and power,” she reflects. “But I think there's a number of things. I think in the UK, we don't have a great tradition of genre. We are definitely way behind in valuing films made by racialised people. I think when you have that combination of things together, in the marketing industry that we have today, it's tricky. There are three different forces acting there that can make it really hard to see any kind of meaningful success in the UK. But, you know, we love genre. We love being British lawmakers.”

So does she remain committed to making more films of this type and raising these kinds of difficult conversations with people?

“For sure, I mean, I'll let Paris answer for himself but, you know, when Paris wrote Raging Grace,, it spoke to everything that I'm really committed to producing as a filmmaker, the kind of messages but also how he tells them. It speaks to my priorities, to my values.”

“I absolutely intend to continue making films that challenge colonialism and railing against new and old white power,” Paris says. “But like Raging Grace, in an entertaining way, in a way that isn't there to necessarily point the finger or teach a lesson to an audience. It just has a very strong undercurrent of a lot of the themes that have been expressed in Raging Grace. And Raging Grace is the first of three films in a rage trilogy. I’m quite literally 10 or 15 pages away from completing the next script, which is called Domestic.

“It's a blended genre affair. It's an unlikely heist film about a young Filipino couple, set in Nineties London. They’re running a café and setting up covert rescue missions to rescue domestic workers being abused by their employers. It's a drama, but it's also got comedy in its bones. It's absurd, which is where we find some of the comedy, but it's having a look at another very serious issue that’s still happening right in front of our eyes, which is modern slavery, indentured servitude, you know? We think a lot of this stuff is relegated to the past, but it really isn't.

“It feels like thriller, horror, is the place in which a lot of these stories belong, unfortunately, but it doesn't mean that that's all it goes on to say. It isn't just about the horror and the trauma. It’s more about the collective community, the care, something called kapwa in Philippines, which is like a mentality of kindred spirit, and celebration of heritage.”

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