The Gift of Barong: A gift to surf cinema

By Robin Ianson

Surfing films aren’t normally life changing. They are mostly uninspired affairs of sun, surf and girls in bikinis that try to attach themselves to the hip surfer lifestyle in a desperate grab for status. However The Gift of Barong: A Surfing and Cultural Odyssey dares to be something more, tackling some serious cultural issues while showcasing the beautiful waves of the Philippines. Director Benito Bautista, film star Dan Moreno and co-producer Jocelyn Formento all flew from sunny San Francisco to brave the harsh Canadian spring to promote their film.

Brought to Calgary as part of the Pan Asian Film Festival, Barong follows the journey of two Filipino-American surfers as they go to the Philippines for the first time, a country they know nothing about. Jon Villar was born and raised in America and had no interest in learning about his family’s culture growing up. Moreno was born in the Philippines, but immigrated to America with his family at the age of five and hadn’t been back since. As a child, he turned his back on his Filipino heritage, but all that changed when Moreno was invited by his parents to attend a Filipino fiesta. He borrowed his father’s barong (a traditional Filipino shirt) for the event and the title for the film–innocuous though it might be–was born.

“I put it on and I looked in the mirror,” explains Moreno. “Usually you just take a casual glance and go that will do, but I stared in that mirror for a good length of time. I looked at my face and said, ‘Gosh darn I’m Filipino, but when I put this shirt on I know nothing about who I am as a Filipino.’ I had distanced myself from the culture and my heritage for so long that I had no idea. I’m Filipino and know nothing. It started with that.”

Moreno spoke with his friend Bautista, a fellow surfer and independent filmmaker, about his revelation and his plan to finally visit the Philippines to reconnect with his roots. He wanted to take a video camera and record his experiences, but Bautista saw a larger calling for Moreno’s story to be told. Like Moreno, Bautista was also a Filipino American and he knew Moreno’s story was not unique.

“When this was presented to me as an idea, I couldn’t let go of it,” says Bautista. “This is so important, so urgent and so timely. Not only to our community, but I could feel it has the capacity to impact a community of immigrants. We are all immigrants. This is a story people can relate to. It involves not just Filipino-Americans, but also this whole issue of immigration and reconnection.”

For Moreno, the visit to the Philippines was a life-changing experience. Having never bothered to learn about Filipino culture, he could not speak a word of the native Filipino language Tagalog and he had no idea what to expect on his journey.

“It was a tremendous experience for me,” says Moreno. It was a total saturation in the culture. We were involved in situations and circumstances that we weren’t anticipating. Things like sitting down in the living room of a family we had only met just that day where they had invited us over for dinner. They sang songs, we joined them in songs and it’s like we had been friends for 20 or 30 years. I found that incredible. That happened every place we went. That community and sense of relationships is probably missing from a lot of other cultures.”

The film has turned out to be a great success, resounding with audiences everywhere the crew have taken it. Having completely sold out both of its screenings in San Diego and winning the best cinematography award at the New York Film and Video Festival last year, Calgary is the first Canadian screening for the film.

“Everywhere we go, people will be crying when we are doing the Q and A because that’s exactly what they’ve experienced, but they couldn’t find a time in their lives to resolve that internal conflict,” explains Bautista. “They resented their heritage, they turned away, they laughed at it and now they see Dan and how he transformed and how it can be done. It gives you much more than the entertainment many films give; it gives you enrichment of your soul and your life.”

The message in The Gift of Barong is not just a message for immigrants to North America. The themes are much broader and have touched a much greater audience than the filmmakers ever expected.

“We had a chance in November to bring this film to Manila at the Cinemanila International Film Festival which was the first time it was viewed by a pure Filipino audience,” says Formento. “I thought maybe they would just blow it up and say, ‘No I can’t relate. I don’t know what that means,’ but their reaction was very different. Their reaction was, ‘I now have a completely different appreciation of what it is I have and I feel more pride in being Filipino.’ I didn’t realize these were things I take for granted and I didn’t even realize that people after they leave [the Philippines] want for that.”