Doris (Chai) Quieta prepares flowers while humming a 1990s pop tune one morning in the kitchen of their makeshift house in Barangay Cologcog, Tanauan, Leyte, while her husband Ferdinand (Nick) looks on. They are off to visit their four children, aged 11, 8, 5, and 1.5 years old, who are now resting in peace along with their grandmother and twelve cousins (all children) in a cemetery nearby. Just four months prior, on the night of November 7th, 2013, the 16 children were seeking shelter along with their grandmother in the latter’s sturdier concrete house in anticipation of Typhoon Yolanda, while their parents kept watch of their own flimsier houses within the same barangay.
The typhoon, one of the strongest ever recorded to make landfall, began to be felt in Calogcog by 4 AM of November 8th, packing winds of up to 195 mph. Alas, even while the one-story concrete house the children and their grandmother were cooped up in survived the winds, it was no match for the storm surges that created five- to six-meter-high waves that inundated many parts of Leyte, wiping out houses, vehicles, trees, and leaving more than 6,000 dead. Most of the dead, including the Quieta kin, perished from the rapidly rising waters.
The film Nick & Chai (2014) chronicles the story of the grieving couple as they cope with their loss with grit and perseverance, despite constantly talking about wishing to be simultaneously reunited with their children. The couple obviously trusts the filmmakers enough to welcome them into their home during a most difficult time of mourning for the deaths of one’s own children. Young directors Cha Escala and Wena Sanchez reciprocate the trust by respecting the couple’s distance and privacy. It is that rare documentary that tackles grief and sorrow up close without being invasive or exploitative, and it certainly never succumbs to misery porn. Sure, the couple is often seen wiping away tears in the film as they recall an anecdote about one of the kids, or when they recount the events of that fateful day. Yet it is the positive spirit of the couple that shines through, and it is what the filmmakers focus on.
Soon after burying their children, the couple scoured through the remains of their home and found Chai’s satchel. Inside was a small bag of seeds. The couple, both graduates of agriculture from the Visayas State University, saw it as a sign from their children not to give up on life and to help others with their knowledge on food production. Relief from government and international aid agencies had not yet reached them, so they immediately went about plowing the soil of their backyard lot and prepared it for planting. Their neighbors thought they surely must have gone insane, what with all of their children gone in an instant. The seeds eventually grew into a lush vegetable garden that the couple opened to the whole community for harvest.
Nick and Chai’s extraordinary strength in the face of adversity coupled with technical know-how and admirable selflessness to help their community even while they needed help themselves made them a source of inspiration for their neighbors. The filmmakers, by chronicling this wonderful story in a frills-free manner—the film never overreaches beyond capturing the basic essence of humanity—gift us viewers with a renewed sense of purpose, reminding us about our own mortality, but more importantly, about our immense capacity for altruism.
Skilty Labastilla has degrees in Anthropology and Social Development. He is Research Associate at the Institute of Philippine Culture, Ateneo de Manila University.
Editor’s Note: This review is part of a series of reviews of outstanding films of 2013 and 2014 that we will feature here in the run-up to the YCC Citations Ceremony on April 23rd. Earlier reviews have been featured for Badil (here and here), Porno (here and here), Debosyon (here and here), Pagpag, Lauriana, Quick Change, Ang Kwento ni Mabuti, Babagwa, Norte: Hangganan ng Kasaysayan, Sonata, Mga Anino ng Kahapon, the 2013 Best First Features, Sonata Maria, Sundalong Kanin, Dagitab and Mariquina.