Two French Filmmakers Want You to Protect Taal Lake from Pollution
There are many reasons two European bachelors would want to spend time in the Philippines. Filming insects in make-believe stories is usually not one of them.
Michael and Alexander Whitener, French filmmaking brothers who come from a small village in southern France, had this wacky idea of casting insects in a movie, but they needed to travel to the tropics for its high insect diversity.
That’s how they ended up in Batangas for a year, raising eyebrows among locals as they rummaged through the vegetation surrounding Taal Lake so they could point macro lenses at tiny creatures. That was where I met them.
Some of the Whitener's footage for their insect film 'Mikro'
They went back to France in 2017 with hours of nature footage, but their unique project was still without a script or even a storyline. And how would these creatures communicate? Would they be dubbed by human voices to accompany moving mouths and body language, I asked them by e-mail.
“The insects will be making all kinds of surreal sounds, but no human-like communication except for the rare appearance of a narrator,” replied Alexander, the younger brother at 35. “The film will be more of a contemplative one, with no explanations or clear plot, but mere hints in order to stimulate the audience’s imagination.” (For his projects, he uses his artist name “Alexander Weidner.”)
Among the many Philippine insects starring or making cameos in their upcoming film are tiger beetles, jumping spiders, weaver ants, weevils, termites, and honey bees.
Acknowledging a lot of “self-questioning, trial and errors, and late-night arguments,” Michael (artist name: Michael Perfect), 41, said, “We are getting closer to the message we want to convey: cultivating curiosity towards the taken-for-granted, in order to eclipse our typical human behavior of always needing more new things to feel satisfied.”
Dogged by uncertainties about thespian insects, they were sure of just one thing: They missed the Philippines and needed to return.
“We missed the people, the friends we made there, the culture, the contrast in lifestyle,” said Michael. “I think we would be very happy if we could spend half of our time in France and the other half in the Philippines.”
In mid-2018, as my wife and I were having dinner one night at our house at Taal Lake, the brothers suddenly walked in (our ground floor doesn’t have doors), having survived a harrowing experience at the airport where immigration authorities seemed suspicious about two Frenchmen who weren’t short-time tourists but also didn’t have employment.
They asked us what they could do while in the Philippines, not for livelihood but to help. As we had a common interest in documenting nature (although I never saw insects as potential actors), we discussed the need to create awareness about the precious lake environment we had all come to love. We came up with the idea of producing short educational videos that would discuss problems in a persuasive but light-hearted way.
My wife and I invited them to stay on our property in a small house made of earth (“superadobe”) that was still unfinished. They went to the Visayas for a few months, and came back in mid-2019 when the house was done to begin shooting.
They spent much of that time exploring the region, interacting with locals, and learning about the problems that afflict the lake. They tackled unpleasant and rarely discussed subjects head on, like human and animal waste, determined they could communicate these in a serious but inoffensive way.
Michael and Alexander exploring Taal Volcano Island
They got to know two elderly former nuns, Sisters Emma and Isyang, two ecological pioneers in nearby Quezon province who showed the brothers a clean, organic, and stenchless way of raising pigs. Piggeries are a major source of pollution in the lake. The former nuns, clean and dirty pig pens, sewage, and much of the information they gathered made it into the engaging educational films that accompany this article.
But so did an iconic sight in the region that would soon change forever, Taal Volcano. Many of the scenes and gags in their quirky videos featured the familiar gentle slopes that concealed the crater lake of Taal Volcano Island.
But all that was before the eruption last January 12 that sent a humongous firehose of ash into the atmosphere, falling on communities as far as Bulacan, forcing the evacuation and lockdown of entire towns, and spreading terror of an even greater disaster that was forecast to follow. The volcano has since quieted down, but its shape has changed, and the inside of the crater’s caldera is now visible from lakeshore villages. The government has permanently banned human settlement on Taal Volcano Island.
Before the Whiteners returned to France last November, Michael decided to make a last trip to the lake and visited the still-placid volcano, rising before dawn to catch the early morning light.
“As soon as the bangka (small boat) docked, I noticed a crow coming in my direction and flying 360 degrees around me. Then from the view deck, the only birds that could be heard or seen again were crows,” Michael recalled. “If like me you believe in certain mythological signs, you’ll imagine the kind of subtle pre-disaster atmosphere one could sense when standing on that land. There was something about the ambiance, maybe the calm, the dampening of the fauna sounds, the overall stillness, that was quite peculiar, maybe foreshadowing.”
When the volcano erupted at midday on January 12, they were in their tiny village in France.
“I couldn’t believe it,” said Michael via e-mail. “I thought it wouldn’t happen for at least a few more decades. We kept on checking the news throughout the days to stay updated on the evolution of the situation.”
Alexander added: “For having been in the crater and lived on its lake, even from the other side of the planet we felt very concerned about the amount of damage that was caused in towns nearby, and about the population’s freedom to make informed decisions on leaving or staying.”
So their videos, aside from their educational value, are a record of Taal Volcano and its lake region just before the 2020 eruption and during a period of tranquility. They have branded their video project, “Pinow,” which features four episodes that call to stop pollution, adopt sustainable farming, and protect Taal Lake even after the eruption.
All four episodes of 'Pinow'
Meanwhile, Michael has just gotten married in France to a Filipina named Francine whom he met in Iloilo during his stay there.
He and his bride and younger brother Alexander are all eager to return to the Philippines soon to live out their dream of dividing every year between the two countries.
“Europe and Asia are so diametrically different that experiencing both alternatively stretches our perspectives on life in both directions,” Michael said. “Coming from an ‘older’ country like France, the Philippines feels like everything is fresh and many things are still possible. In the western world, because of the weight of the past, most bases of society now seem in place, but in a country like the Philippines, many aspects of development are still in their first stages. It feels like Filipino society still has a chance of going in many different directions. Our hope is that Filipinos will make better choices than we did, and create a better society of their own.”