Last month I featured an upcoming documentary entitled, Home Unknown. This personal documentary is about filmmaker Stephen Dypiangco’s attempts to reconnect with his roots by traveling with his parents to their homeland, the Philippines. Through a series of surprising encounters, he realizes that he knows far less about his quiet father, outspoken mother, and himself than he ever imagined. In this interview Stephen tells us more about his experiences as a Filipino-American and why you should support Home Unknown.
Please tell us who you are.
I’m Stephen Dypiangco. I was born and raised in Montebello, a suburb east of Los Angeles, California. My parents, Oscar and Lucila, emigrated from the Philippines in 1969, ten years before I was born. Originally from the province of Pampanga, my mom spent most of her life as a high school English teacher, both in Metropolitan Manila and in the Los Angeles Unified School district. My dad, who was born in Laguna, was an auditor for the California worker’s compensation insurance company. Growing up, my schoolmates were mostly Chinese and Mexican, with just a few Filipinos. Until I went to NYU for graduate film school, my education had exclusively been at Catholic schools (St. Stephen School for elementary, Loyola High School, Georgetown University).
After college I spent a year as a volunteer with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, which had a huge impact on my life. While living in the poverty-stricken city of Camden, NJ, with its share of violence and danger, I worked with a nonprofit organization that promoted the wellbeing of farmworkers. My experiences there opened my eyes to harsh realities I had never fully understood. They also made me appreciate the great lengths to which my parents had gone to provide my three older brothers and me so many opportunities.
Interested in fusing my passion for social justice with the art of filmmaking, I was fortunate enough to gain admittance into NYU’s prestigious graduate film program. At NYU, I wrote, directed and produced several short films and worked alongside incredibly talented classmates.
What is Home Unknown?
Home Unknown is a feature-length personal documentary about my family, which I began work on in 2006, during my final year at NYU. After a lengthy conversation with an older cousin, I started to realize how little I knew about our family’s history. Since I was born in the U.S., I didn’t really know my relatives in the Philippines nor what that country meant to me. Although I had been there a couple of times as a child, I hadn’t gone back as an adult.
Since my parents are now retired, they return to their homeland every year around Christmas time. With this in mind, I decided to make a film about going back to the Philippines with them to find out about my relatives and Filipino identity. But when I came back to NY from shooting in the Philippines in early 2007, I got sidetracked. I finished up my NYU coursework, moved back home to LA, got married in Montana, produced a low budget film, directed several music videos, wrote a screenplay, wrote tons of synopses for Netflix and much more.
Last December, I was finally became ready to start editing my documentary and to bring it to completion. Since then, I’ve been actively trying to connect with other Fil-Ams , hoping to find others like me who might be interested in lending their talents to this project. Momentum is slowly starting to pick up. I can now see my film reaching a much larger audience than I ever expected, which is very exciting. What started out as a project for just my family, and possibly a few film festivals, seems to be growing into something much bigger.
Where can people view Home Unknown?
Although I am still editing the feature-length version of Home Unknown, people can already check out the trailer and various related webisodes through these websites:
My goal is to keep releasing new videos, pictures and updates that relate to the movie’s progress, my parents and what it’s like to be the child of Filipino immigrants.
What made you decide to go into film?
During my senior year in high school, when all of the cool kids were going to parties and getting in trouble, I spent my weekends checking out movies all across LA. That year I watched The Godfather, The Graduate and other amazing films that opened my eyes to quality cinema.
But it was actually the low budget indie comedy Swingers that made me realize that I wanted to be a filmmaker. It was so funny, and as I watched it, I kept debating whether I should try and watch the very next screening once it was over. That had never happened to me before, and I began to realize I wanted to make movies. In my family history, nobody had worked in the arts, so I didn’t know how to move forward in this direction. But every step of the way, both of my parents supported and encouraged me to follow my dreams.
Do you have any advice for Filipinos and Asian-Americans who want to get into filmmaking?
I think filmmaking, like anything else difficult, takes time and practice. With the exception of a few geniuses, like Orson Welles, you really need to just go out and watch movies, write movies and direct movies. That’s really the only way you’ll learn. You can be doing this out on your own or in film school. Either way, you have to be a self-starter and just do it. Plan a film project with friends, no matter how small, and go shoot it. The stuff I shot with my friends in college was awful, but it was fun and taught me so much. Definitely work with people you like and respect, and together you’ll go a long way. I’m sure of that.
What does being Filipino-American mean to you?
Being Filipino-American means conflict, complexity and family all wrapped into one.
I think that being Filipino and being American are two different things. Trying to combine them, can often lead to confrontation, challenges and confusion.
My experience growing up Filipino-American involved my parents’ speaking to each other in Tagalog but to me and my brothers in English. So while I always knew that I was Filipino, it wasn’t something that we really discussed much at home. Until I hit my late 20’s, I just wasn’t ready to start caring about being Filipino or the Filipino-American community.
But as I’ve worked on Home Unknown, I’ve started to understand new things about being Filipino-American. I think that it has a lot to do with two things — family and community. If you focus on your family, support your community and acknowledge your identity, you’re then accepting the best values that define our people.
What do you feel needs to change with Filipinos and how the world views us?
I know that whenever I hear about the Philippines in the news, it is usually about a terrible catastrophe, such as a flood, mud slide, earthquake or crash. Instead of tragedies, I’d like to see the achievements and successes the Philippines has attained through its many outstanding leaders in the arts, sciences, sports and other fields.
I’ve had several people tell me about Filipinos’ crab mentality, but I have yet to experience that personally. All of the Filipinos I’ve met have been nothing but supportive and encouraging. I hope that this spirit of cooperation continues to grow and spread out all across the globe.
What are your favorite films and are any Filipino movies on that list?
Unfortunately, I’ve only seen a handful of Filipinos films, and none of them had really stood out in my mind. I know that there is a rich tradition of Filipino films, and I look forward to exploring it further.
Here are some of my all-time favorites: The Godfather, Annie Hall, Stripes, Swingers, The Graduate
Recent Favorites: United 93, The Beat That My Heart Skipped, Talladega Nights, The Garden, 500 Days of Summer
Do you look up to any Filipinos as role models?
Cory Aquino was a big role model. I was only a kid when the People Power revolution was taking place in the Philippines, but I vividly remember watching her very closely on the news. When she was named by Time Magazine as the Person of the Year, I remember being very proud of her. I respect her courage. It takes guts to stand up and do what she did after her husband’s brutal death.
What are your favorite Filipino dishes?
Adobo, chicken/pork barbecue, beef calderetta, garlic fried rice.
Is there any additional information you would like to share with us?
I am looking for collaborators such as filmmakers, visual artists, web designers, graphic designers, musicians, photographers, writers and interns. By pooling our talents together, I know we can create a truly meaningful film that will resonate with Filipinos all over the world.
Because this independent film is self-funded, progress has been slow. I’m hoping to raise several thousand dollars to hire a professional editor and finish the film by the spring of next year. But in order to do that, I really need to build support. If anyone is interested in talking to me about sponsoring the film, they can contact me at my email address: firstname.lastname@example.org
It is also great for people to show their support to the film online. If people start telling their friends about the film now, by the time it comes out it will be more likely to succeed and reach a larger audience. That’s my goal, to connect with Filipinos all over the world by telling OUR STORY.
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