Even at the age of 36, filmmaker Jethro Patalinghug had never quite gotten over the gaping hole in his childhood: the perpetual absence of his mother as he grew up in The Philippines.
Virginia was an activist in the People’s Power Revolution of the 80s, and constantly away from home. Fearing for her life, she eventually had little choice but to leave her family behind and flee to the United States.
Twenty years after their separation, Jethro confronts Virginia about his sense of abandonment in the documentary My Revolutionary Mother. It’s not a perfect reconciliation, but it’s an honest conversation that helps them move on. We speak to Jethro about the film.
What were your expectations before diving into whole filmmaking process?
Jethro: I had my assumptions going into this film. I had clues as to what kind of answers I would get. But the process of talking to my mom, hearing her story and going back to the Philippines with her made it all real. I thought I already knew what this was all about, but it was truly different experiencing it.
The climax of the documentary is when you eventually get to the heart of the issue, telling your mother that you felt abandoned. In that scene, your demeanour is really calm, though I also sense that the questions you ask are very deliberately thought out. What was it like preparing for the confrontation?
Jethro: I consulted a psychologist just for this particular part, which helped me a lot in focusing on what my goal really was. I contemplated a lot and found it in me that all I really wanted was for me and my mom to have a better relationship and break the gap between us. So I went into that scene with a sense of control of what’s going to happen.
I surely did not want it to spiral into an argument, but I somehow knew that it was going to be emotional. So I had our photo, which was taken two years earlier, blown up and framed, and gave it to her when the situation became intense.
I find it very interesting that you were juggling the roles of a son and a filmmaker simultaneously. How do you feel about the experience of having the cameras rolling while you were on this personal journey?
Jethro: I felt a bit cheated by myself for controlling the situation, but I blame it on the director side of me who wanted to make sure I had some form of control. It was very challenging switching from an emotional son to a director in that particular moment. When I, or my mom was crying, it was very real. But the director in me would be saying “This is good, I hope the cameras are rolling!”
At the end of filming, I realised that I did this because I love my mom and I did not want to disrespect her through this film. This is truly a film to honour her.
Were there any moments you had to switch off the camera?
Jethro: I have footage of my grandmother in the hospital before she died, when my mom was taking care of her. It was tender moment that I thought was too personal to show on film, so I excluded it.
If you could go through the whole confrontation process again, what would you do differently?
Jethro: I wish I had allowed myself to cry some more and not think about the camera and my crew.
Making My Revolutionary Mother turned out to be cathartic not just for Jethro, but for his mother as well. Speaking to us through Jethro, she says that the whole experience was a “revelation” on her side.
“It was hard to admit the neglect I have committed, because I didn’t think it was so,”Virginia said. “But the confrontation was really a humbling moment for me. I was able to admit my shortcomings as a mother and was able to say that I was sorry.”
‘My Revolutionary Mother’ won the Audience Award at the Boston Asian American Film Festival, Best Documentary at Singkwento International Film Festival in the Philippines, Best Documentary at the Unofficial Google Film Festival, Honorable Mention Best Documentary at Asians On Film Festival in LA. It was in the official selection at the Center For Asian American Media Fest and the Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival.