film directors

How Paris Zarcilla confronts the British-Filipino diaspora in SXSW winner ‘Raging Grace’

Lé Baltar

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How Paris Zarcilla confronts the British-Filipino diaspora in SXSW winner ‘Raging Grace’
'Writing dialogue that has been used to hurt and denigrate Filipinos is painful, and trying to understand why a character would say those things is exhausting but important work,' shares the director

CALOOCAN CITY, Philippines — Paris Zarcilla was enjoying the spring sun at Kew Gardens in New York City when he responded to my written interview. “It’s so peaceful here,” said the director. Meanwhile, over 13,000 kilometers away, I would read his responses while battling Metro Manila’s blistering heat.

Zarcilla is the mind behind the British-Filipino film Raging Grace, winner of the Narrative Feature Jury Award and Thunderbird Rising Award for Best Debut at the 2023 South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival.

British-Filipino film ‘Raging Grace’ won top prizes at this year’s SXSW Film Festival. Photo courtesy of Manuel Vazquez and Ruth Tien An Whittle

Top-billed by Filipina actress Max Eigenmann (12 Weeks, Verdict), Raging Grace follows Joy, an undocumented immigrant worker, who flits from one job to another just to get by and do right by her daughter Grace (Jaeden Paige Boadilla). The film, according to Zarcilla, is the first installment in his “Rage Trilogy,” a project that parses the everyday horrors endured by thousands of overseas workers.

But even before his debut feature, Zarcilla had already shown promise. His short film Pommel was nominated for Best British Short at the 2018 British Independent Film Awards (BIFA), and screened to acclaim at several film festivals such as the East End Film Festival, Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, and Short Shorts Film Asia. His first short film, 2013’s Feel Flows, also screened at the London Independent Film Festival and Cannes Short Film Corner.

‘Raging Grace’ is the first film in Paris Zarcilla’s ‘Rage Trilogy.’ Photo courtesy of Manuel Vazquez and Ruth Tien An Whittle

Apart from this, Zarcilla has lent his artistic eye to various projects, working as a shadow director for the first season of BBC Studios’ fantasy drama series His Dark Materials, writer-director for mini series The Century Egg, and second unit director for Sally Wainwright’s The Ballad of Renegade Nell. He has also directed music videos for British artists Cass Lowe, Nimmo (formerly Nimmo and the Gauntlets), and Raheem Bakare.

In my interview with him below, Zarcilla talks about putting Raging Grace to the screen, confronting the British-Filipino diaspora, and finding a language to “rage gracefully.”

Paris Zarcilla and the ‘Raging Grace’ team at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival. Photo courtesy of Manuel Vazquez and Ruth Tien An Whittle
How did you learn that your debut feature had gotten into this year’s SXSW Film Festival? 

I had just woken up from a terrible night’s sleep and checked my phone to find an ecstatic message from my producer that we had got it into SXSW. I was so happy I went back to bed and slept like a baby. 

Can you tell us more about your beginnings as a filmmaker?

I was left alone a lot when I was younger, and once I had grown bored of doing all the things a young boy shouldn’t be doing (setting things on fire and killing bugs), I made my way through the shelves of VHS tapes at home. It’s where I found my proxy family onscreen and eventually my calling to be a filmmaker.    

‘Raging Grace’ centers on a Filipino mother – an undocumented immigrant and a member of the working class. What made you gravitate towards this subject? 

My mother is Filipino, I know and have known undocumented immigrants, and I’ve grown up in and amongst the working class community. It’s a natural place to write from and rarely if ever have we seen all three subjects written through the lens of the British-Filipino diaspora. 

Of all genres, why choose horror to present this kind of story?

Being an immigrant, and more so an undocumented one, is often a horrific experience for so many. It was a very natural genre to occupy when writing this story. But I felt it was paramount that the film didn’t live solely in horror where these characters only experience trauma. Minority stories often feel exclusively steeped in trauma, but this needed to be a cathartic spectacle that gave way to rage, but most importantly joy and a celebration of our culture. 

Paris Zarcilla holding the Thunderbird Rising Award for Best Debut for ‘Raging Grace’ at SXSW’s awarding ceremony. Photo courtesy of Manuel Vazquez and Ruth Tien An Whittle
Did you expect that ‘Raging Grace’ would take home SXSW’s best debut feature and narrative grand jury awards? How did it feel?

Expectation is very dangerous but I did dare to hope. It’s been a few weeks now but I’m still processing it all. We were rejected by every single funding body in the UK when we were trying to make Raging Grace, so if anything, winning has felt vindicating. 

Let’s talk about the film’s casting process, especially the lead role. Did you already have Max Eigenmann in mind when you were writing the material? 

This film is partially based on some of my mother’s experiences as a domestic worker when she first arrived in the UK, so when I wrote this I was imagining her in these situations, but it wasn’t until our co-producer of the film, Darlene Malimas, suggested Max that I began to see possibilities. We met over Zoom where she read for the part, and watching her bring Joy to life was magic. She embodied more than just the character’s trauma. She brought depth, comedy, and complexity.

Jaeden Boadilla who plays Grace is an extraordinary young girl. This is her first acting role ever! She’s deeply intelligent and has a profound understanding of human emotion. I was supposed to shoot a short film with her when the pandemic hit and the production halted indefinitely. She stayed in my mind and when it came to casting Grace, she was at the top of my list. 

How was the scriptwriting process, and what significant changes did the film undergo?

I actually started writing the script in October 2020 and finished it in February 2021. I found it very challenging. It wasn’t just a matter of writing a story, but a process of confronting and reliving moments in my life that were incredibly uncomfortable and traumatizing. Writing dialogue that has been used to hurt and denigrate Filipinos is painful, and trying to understand why a character would say those things is exhausting but important work, because you create from a more truthful place, and that brings dimension to characters who, temptingly, would otherwise be singularly hateful.

I wrote this from a place of rage and anger, which made the first draft feel very reactionary at the injustices against minorities. But once I had given myself permission to express that anger without reservation and the space to watch that land, I was able to go back and rage gracefully.

Behind the scenes of ‘Raging Grace.’ Photo courtesy of Manuel Vazquez and Ruth Tien An Whittle
You’ve previously worked for BBC Studios’ ‘His Dark Materials,’ Singapore StarHub’s ‘The Century Egg,’ and Sally Wainwright’s ‘The Ballad of Renegade Nell.’ How did you apply these experiences to producing your debut feature?

The Century Egg was a tough lesson in learning to write and shoot with specificity and economy. These two things are what made shooting Raging Grace possible.

I’m curious if there were any films, especially those made by Filipino directors, that helped you shape your vision for ‘Raging Grace?’

I’m ashamed to say I’m not that familiar with as many Filipino directors as I’d like to be, but Lav Diaz’s The Woman Who Left and Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan left indelible marks. But the films that really helped shape Raging Grace were [Ingmar] Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, Danny DeVito’s Matilda, and Bong Joon-ho’s short film, Shaking Tokyo

I’ve learned that you’re currently working on your next feature film called ‘Domestic.’ How different will it be from ‘Raging Grace?’

Domestic is the second film in my “Rage Trilogy.” It’s an unlikely heist film set in ‘90s London about a young Filipino couple who, while running a cafe, plan covert missions to rescue domestic workers from their abusive employers. It’s based on the true story of my parents who did this in the early ‘90s. It’s very different from Raging Grace but is similar in that it rails against colonialism and highlights the injustices suffered by overseas workers. –

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Lé Baltar

Lé Baltar is a Manila-based freelance journalist and film critic for Rappler. Currently serving as secretary of the Society of Filipino Film Reviewers (SFFR), Lé has also written for CNN Philippines Life, PhilSTAR Life, VICE Asia, Young STAR Philippines, among other publications. She is a fellow of the first QCinema International Film Festival Critics Lab.