The documentary is perhaps the hardest genre of cinema. Here, when we talk of it, we’re not talking about the TV-style documentary which we regularly see on the National Geographic Channel—the type that almost always does not go beyond the layer of being merely factual. But when we talk of documentary for film, we’re talking about the type of genre in which stories of people, groups of people, or events are told not only factually, but creatively in order to strike not just facts but also a deeper, underlying meaning. Having said this, the documentary genre is hard precisely because you’re using a material which is mostly unscripted, and so you would have absolutely no idea where things would lead. It’s volatile, and it’s hard to make sense of something of that nature.
Curiosity, Adventure and Love, a film by Sunshine Lichauco de Leon and Suzanne Richiardone, attempts to convey meaning through the genre we have just spoken of. It’s primarily about the story of Jessie Lichauco, a 104-year-old woman who lives in a 150-year-old house in Sta. Ana, Manila. The film not only tries to put together her biography, but also attempts to encapsulate the voluminous amount of wisdom she has accumulated through a century in as little as an hour—a feat that is understandably applaudable.
What I appreciate most about the film is that one can easily see the amount of hard work that the filmmakers put in in making a comprehensive documentation of Jessie’s life. Her story was not told without context, and a great deal of effort was spent to portray the eras she had lived through. We see the nostalgic pictures and videos of the Philippine islands during the American occupation period; the energy and vibe of glorious pre-wartime Manila; the buildings and houses that were ruined in the fallout of the Second World War; and the images of struggle to rebuild a post-war nation as gradually the remnants come into filmic color. There was much effort to research on the subject matter, and the act of knitting them together to depict Jessie’s life from her halcyon youth to her aged days living beside an ancient tree is nothing short of amazing. In this way, the documentary film deserves attention.
Moreover, the film is brimming with wisdom; it is filled with insights from someone who learned from the best teacher (as the cliche goes): experience. We are injected with knowledge on youth, friendship, marriage, love, aging, and many more valuable lessons that are applicable to anyone regardless of his or her season. The film is therefore inspirational in many ways, and it not only encourages people to behave more like people, but also restores one’s faith in the good fight. In this sense, the film is commendable for its humanitarian message.
But this particular quality of the documentary is what could also be a source of a certain weakness. And it’s that, amidst the many sayings in the film, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what it is trying to say in its entirety. There are attempts to establish a grand theme, for instance when they talk about the ancient tree at the Lichauco house and the timeless river flowing beside it. However, in my opinion, this grand theme lacked its required pursuit, and if much more effort was done to develop a central meaning instead of opening up new sources of knowledge via Jessie’s proverbial sayings, the film could have struck a more profound meaning lying deep beneath her story. The sayings were interesting, and they are appreciated, but they could have also been limited for a much better purpose.
What I also have an issue with is how we get to see only one side of ‘Tita Jessie.’ I understand that this is a personal film, made by one of her granddaughters Sunshine Lichauco de Leon, so this might have had a rather subconscious influence on the making of the movie. But if we look at another personal documentary such as Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley, a film which Polley made about the story of her parents, we see that it is quite possible to detach yourself from your subject in order to have a more objective method of research. In that particular film, Polley does not only show the good and wonderful side of her mum and pa; she also spends a considerable amount of time dealing with the darker pasts of her family. Through this we become more engaged in her personal story and much more appreciative of the message she tries to convey.
I’m not claiming that at one point in her life, Jessie was a bad person. Of course not. I’m also not pushing the film to be ‘scandalous’ for the sake of audience reception. No! All I’m saying is, we can’t deny the fact that Jessie is a mere person who is also able to commit mistakes. And that if there are some things she had done that she is not particularly proud of, and she is willing to share these to the world, it might be easier for the audience to connect with her because then they would realize that she is as much as human as them. What I mean to say is, all saints have had their share of self-inflicted misfortune, and that is precisely what makes their stories convincing. Because as readers of their biographies, we get to know where they fell short and how they were able to redeem themselves from the miry pit. Thus, the lessons they learned and teach become weightier, and they become more relevant to another person’s life. This is exactly what could have been done to improve Curiosity, Adventure and Love.
I would say that despite these issues, the film is still good. Being 104 years old is enough detail to make any story interesting, and thus the film is still very much valuable. It’s also a very nice opportunity to learn something that one could apply in one’s life, and so I would still highly recommend the documentary to anyone willing to learn.
For its historical relevance and inspiring nature, Curiosity, Adventure and Love is worth a watch, and perhaps it would take a couple more to remember everything essential.
So if ever you do get the chance to see it, be sure to open your mind and prepare yourself to glean from an excellent student of the school of age—in which experience teaches.
Curiosity, Adventure and Love premiered July 2, 2016 as part of the World Premieres Film Festival which will run until July 10 at SM Megamall, SM North EDSA, Greenbelt 3, Uptown Mall, Shangri-La Plaza Mall, and Cinematheque Centre Manila. The film won the Special Jury Prize.