At the midpoint of When the Storm Fades, a Canadian volunteer on the typhoon-decimated Philippine island of Leyte wonders if he should Photoshop-tinker with an image of his relief work to give it “more dimensions”. As gently as she can, his partner chides: “Isn’t it a bit problematic to create an image of something that never existed?”
It’s a sly moment in a highly conscientious documentary-fiction hybrid that arrives at VIFF with an astounding plug from Big Short director Adam McKay. “Never seen anything like it,” stated the Oscar-winning filmmaker after a private viewing. Neither have we.
Made by Sean Devlin, one of the more powerhouse creative types to call Vancouver home (remember Shit Harper Did?), Storm puts the real-life Pablo family front and centre in a film improvised around their experiences with 2013’s Typhoon Haiyan. Comedians Kayla Lorette and Aaron Read—a long way from his regular gig at the Fox Cabaret with the Sunday Service—are the eager, if hapless, aid workers who want to help.
Although his own mother hails from Leyte, Devlin explains during a call to the Straight that those two proxies are there to keep the film honest. “I didn’t feel like I quite had the licence to fully tell the story of these people living in the Philippines,” he says. “Aaron and Kayla had never been to a country in the global South, so we improvised the film in sequence so that it would reflect the actual experience they were having as people, not as actors.”
The result is a film (beautifully shot by Jeff Lee Petry) that finds its own delicate ground somewhere between poignancy and queasy humour—particularly for Read’s character, Trevor, in combat with his own well-meaning oafishness. Meanwhile, Devlin finds an “operating principle” in the cinema of Yasujiro Ozu, where “the movie almost keeps you at a distance, through dryness or irony, until certain moments where it really invites you to feel some sort of passion.”
There’s also a tempered anger beneath it all. Another Sunday Service vet, Ryan Beil, gets a memorable cameo as a loyal disaster capitalist sermonizing about the opportunities presented by the destroyed community. Here’s where we should mention that Naomi Klein acts as one of the film’s executive producers. And in case we forget: for the Pablos, nonactors who shine inside Devlin’s risky construct, climate change is horrendously, lethally real.