Life is about loving what you do. This sums up the raison d’etre for Joanna Vasquez Arong, 37, an ex-banker-turned-filmmaker based in Beijing.
Women documentary filmmakers are rare. Arong’s first venture, Neo-Lounge—the story of two expatriates and their surreal lives in the Chinese capital—has played at film festivals worldwide to sanguine reviews. No mean feat for one who taught herself documentary filmmaking.
Mark Rosenberg, founder of Slamdance, a popular New York festival for independent short films, considered Neo-Lounge an “intricately crafted film,” while praising Arong’s debut in his Rooftop Films blog: “Her sense of narrative is excellent, and her jarring edits create just the right feeling of dislocation and symbolic inevitability.”
Neo-Lounge, writes Nathan Southern of online film guide AllMovie.com, is “a vivid dissection of the titular Beijing hotspot… Deftly and systematically, with occasional doses of comic relief, Arong etches out portraits of numerous regulars at this locale.”
Arong’s path to documentary filmmaking started with a realization. “It was fun in investment banking, though I found myself in the office until midnight. I realized that if you spend that much time at work, you really have to love what you do.”
Arong, who grew up in Boston, took up politics and international studies in Boston College, then a graduate degree in development studies at the London School of Economics. The yearning to express herself on film came in her 20s. “I was in the middle of my banking career. I thought I was still relatively young and I could still make a shift. So I moved out of the corporate world,” she says.
She didn’t make the leap blindly. Leaving her job with Deutsche Bank in Singapore meant goodbye to relatively secure income, so she parlayed her development degree by taking on contractual jobs with the United Nations in Bangkok. In Manila, a stint with journalist Cheche Lazaro’s Probe Productions gave her a foundation in filmmaking.
But she was fascinated by China, having admired the films of acclaimed directors Zhang Yimou and Chen Kai-ge. In July 2001, when Beijing won the bid to host the summer Olympics in 2008, the renewed world interest in the country prompted Arong to end her peripatetic Asian lifestyle and settle in Beijing.
“I didn’t know whether to go to film school or not. But I found myself watching a lot of Asian films, particularly Chinese ones,” says Arong. “When the West makes a film about Asia, you know that there’s a Hollywood feel to it. Look at Memoirs of a Geisha,” she says, referring to the Steven Spielberg-produced adaptation of Arthur Golden’s popular novel. Arong enrolled in a Mandarin course at the Beijing Film Academy to be able to understand not only the language but the nuances of Chinese films.
LABOR OF LOVE
It was the visit to Beijing of a colleague from a Boston-based production company that she did projects for that finally got her behind the camera. She took them to Neo-Lounge, a trendy bar patronized by fun-loving expats and Chinese. “One of the guys from that company looked at me and said: ‘Joanna, this is your film. It’s right here,” she recounts. Shortly after, Arong bought a Sony video camera, asked her subjects who were patrons of the lounge if she could film them and began shooting. This was 2003, when the SARS epidemic was at its peak in China.
In time, her subjects were narrowed down to two habitués: the wealthy businessman Leo Griglie from Italy and an aspiring Bulgarian singer, Diliana Georgiev. They made the film’s final cut since they allowed Arong into all areas of their lives, both happy and heartbreaking. Arong got through the next two and a half years of filming and editing with the help of certain friends, such as an American composer, Drew Hanratty, who did the film’s music scoring and from whom she learned much about developing the film’s plot, and from friends in banking who pitched in funds.
“Making films has become my life. There’s no going back. I’ve moved around a lot and told myself, ‘Yeah, this is it.’ I’m finding a good balance between living and doing what I want to do,” says Arong.
“What I appreciate about living in China these last few years is that I’ve learned patience; that things don’t happen overnight or instantly. You have to ask for things in a certain way. And when you get a reply, it may mean a ‘yes’ or a ‘no.’ It depends on the situation,” she adds.
Arong completes this month a 25-minute film entitled Yugong Yishan, (“The Old Fool that Moved the Mountains”). In March, she began filming a documentary about a family in a fishing village in Cebu. She’s doing research for a bio-pic about a “big star” in Thailand who she is reluctant to name.
“Doing all these films depends on funding. You want to do it one after another but it’s not possible. Neo-Lounge was self-funded. Though now I have a boutique financial consulting firm that’s backing me up—that’s the good thing about having friends from banking,” she says.
BACK TO HER ROOTS
In filming her Cebu-based documentary, Arong has met people who ask if she’s related to Domingo and Narciso Arong, two Cebuano brothers who shot one of only a handful of Cebuano films, the comedy Manok ni San Pedro in 1977. The Mowelfund Film Institute considers the film a “landmark work noted internationally by the Super 8 Filmmaker and the Toronto Super 8 Film Festival.”
“We are related, though they’re distant relatives,” she says. Arong grew up with her mother, Cebuana Asuncion Vasquez in the US East Coast. Another sister lives in Chicago.
“At the start they didn’t understand why I was doing [independent filmmaking], since they’re more used to Hollywood films. They haven’t seen Neo-Lounge yet. They might not understand, but they’ve always been very supportive. I know I can always rely on them,” says Arong.
By the end of the year, Arong plans to relocate to Cebu to pursue her filmmaking. After finishing the documentaries she’s got going, she’d like to do a full-length feature fiction film set in the Philippines.
“I get my inspiration from the lives of people who are struggling and striving for something. There’s always integrity in looking for something that you really want to do, as opposed to what society says,” declares Arong.
“What you really want to do is keep that vision. Have persistence and patience. That’s what I tell my younger cousins and my girl friends. I’m a firm believer that if you want something you can get it if you work hard enough.”
(First published in Marie Claire, June 2008; photos used with permission from Joanna Vasquez Arong, main photo by Nick May)