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After Haiyan: Stanford med student makes film about post-typhoon Philippines

Multi-talented Stanford Medicine student Michael Nedelman has been featured on Scope before for his filmmaking and storytelling abilities. His new film, "After Haiyan: Health narratives in the aftermath of the typhoon," is a series of vignettes about the November 2013 disaster in the Philippines. The film, which will be released soon, connects socioeconomic and structural issues of access to health in times of crisis.

It was filmed primarily in Tacloban, Leyte, in July and August of 2014, and Nedelman made a follow-up visit in November and December to premiere and promote the project. Despite his busy end-of-school-year schedule, Nedelman answered some questions for me about his work in a recent email exchange.

What was it like filming in the wake of a tragedy? 

Phil Delrosario said it best. He’s the cinematographer and editor I met here at Stanford. Knowing when to turn on the camera was a “huge balancing act” between our drive to document the truth, and our obligation to be compassionate storytellers. We couldn’t ignore the emotional weight of Typhoon Haiyan, and we couldn’t ignore the fact that we weren’t part of the communities we were documenting. So we sought out people who not only wanted to share their stories with us, but who could also provide some insight as to how they wanted those stories to be seen... For one of the videos, Deaf advocates like Noemi Pamintuan-Jara reached out to us first, not the other way around... That was really special for us, to be able to work alongside a community that has been promoting Deaf accessibility and culture long before we ever arrived on the scene. And we had these new partners who could give meaningful feedback on our filmmaking decisions.

Filming in the wake of a tragedy doesn’t mean everything is tragic. The shadow of Haiyan is still there, but there’s also a sense of living in the moment and moving forward. All over the city, you’ll see posters and graffiti that say, “Tindog Tacloban!” (“Rise Tacloban!”) That’s something that really resonated with our team and the ethos of our project. You can’t tell the full story of Tacloban without optimism and resilience.

How does this film link storytelling and health, and what is special about that for you?

When I was first discussing the project with one of the producers, Roxanne Paredes, we asked ourselves a similar question: How would our project add to or nuance the coverage of the typhoon? Right after the storm, Haiyan was all over the news. Tacloban was in survival mode. But months later, after many of those cameras had left, there was a different set of long-term challenges and a focus on recovery. Those were the issues we wanted to explore, which tend to be less covered by the media but still have profound implications for community health and future disaster preparedness. In short, just because the cameras stopped rolling doesn’t mean there weren’t more stories to tell. That really broadened the way in which I think of health stories.

Why did you decide to make the film a series of vignettes?

There are a few reasons for this. One was dependent on resources like time, funding, and crew. But on a broader note, going into a project with the intention of producing a series of short vignettes, rather than one long video, gives you a lot of freedom to follow stories that you might not have anticipated. We wanted to go into this project with an open mind.

Logistically, it also gives us some flexibility when it comes to exhibiting the project. With one of the leading programs in Philippine Deaf education, we screened one vignette as part of a workshop that teaches medical students the basics of Filipino Deaf culture, disparities, and sign language. We were also able to screen our videos at an annual event put on by Manila Doctors Hospital, which catered more to an audience from medical, government, and global-health organizations. From an advocacy and distribution standpoint, it’s useful to be able to package these videos in different ways.

On a more artistic level, the pieces can exist on their own, but there’s some overlap that hints at how interconnected these stories are. It’s our way of acknowledging that none of these issues, health or structural, exist in a vacuum. And you can watch the vignettes in any order and pick up on these connections. There is no end or resolution. It’s a call for action — a subtle reminder that Haiyan may have been the strongest yet, but it won’t be the last.

How did you negotiate the demands this project placed on you? 

The kind of art that I produce is very collaborative, so I’m never doing it alone. I’ve found a lot of great partners and mentors here at Stanford, especially among our global health community and our program in the medical humanities and the arts. This includes one of my professors, Julieta Gabiola, MD, our project advisor who runs a global-health organization that works in the Philippines and was herself one of the early medical responders to the typhoon. She was right there with us in Tacloban when we started filming.

Our project was mostly produced over about five months, and even now we’re still fine-tuning and adjusting the videos for different screenings and events. But as you might expect, very little of that time was spent shooting footage. We had a big team to coordinate over many time zones, four languages to cover, and a ton of outreach to do once we landed. And I think, being the only non-Filipino person on the project, as well as a hearing person working with the Deaf community in Tacloban, I had a lot of learning to do off-camera in order to better reflect the stories and personalities of those featured in the films.

Check out the trailer above.

Previously: SEMPER team reflects on relief work after Typhoon Haiyan and On the ground in post-typhoon Philippines
Image in featured entry box - a screenshot of film trailer - courtesy of Nedelman

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