Local Filmmakers Fundraise for Movie Highlighting the Filipino American Experience

The film, Mabuhay, is expected to be released next fall.
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Bella Javier and Aronjonel Villaflor holding camera. // Photograph courtesy of Aronjonel Villaflor and Lou Pastrana.

The hardest part of filmmaking for local director Aronjonel Villaflor and producer Lou Pastrana wasn’t getting the perfect shot or editing hours of footage — it was telling their families that they wanted to make movies in the first place.

The pushback was an unlikely advantage for Villaflor. He mined those difficult family conversations for inspiration for the new film Mabuhay, a production slated for filming in metro Detroit this fall.

“My mom took a little bit of convincing of my career as a filmmaker, but she’s come around,” Villaflor says. “My dad gets it, and I’m not sure if he fully ‘gets it,’ but he’s been very supportive.”

“Now, when I talk about lines in the movie, my mom’s like, ‘I should get royalties for that line!’” he adds.

Alongside fellow recent Wayne State University graduate Pastrana, the pair got to work. They cast Bella Javier, an actor and student at Oakland University, to play the main character: a young, Filipino woman named Reina.

 A short film, titled Reina was next. It was well received, and the pair felt emboldened to continue pursuing the story. They got together and fleshed out the rest of the film, with a pivotal, heated scene between Reina and her mother as the focal point.

“We joked that it was about ‘When you tell your Filipino mom you don’t want to be a nurse,” Pastrana says. “It’s about not having a traditional, safe job, and someone finding her own path, not traditional, not as safe.”

Now, the local crew is fundraising via Indiegogo to complete Mabuhay — a full-length film dissecting the Filipino diaspora of the Midwest, and the painful but necessary conflicts on the journey to finding oneself.

“It’s a coming-of-age story about a young woman named Reina in her sophomore year of college, trying to find what she wants to do with her career, with her life,” Villaflor says. “It’s a year in the life of a Filipino American woman as she attempts to find a fulfilling vocation and manage the expectations of an immigrant family.”

Javier, who plays Reina, says the film’s inspirations draw from all of their lives.

“The story is something really important to people that share our identity as Filipino Americans,” Javier says.

If all goes to plan, the group will film in September and premier in the fall of 2024, with hopes to make it in time to release in October for Filipino American History Month. From there, the goal is to submit to multiple festivals.

But the team says the prospect of getting the movie out to a bigger audience means more than just a fun festival circuit — it’s about adding more Asian American voices to the industry.

“We feel like there’s still a lot of voices not included in the zeitgeist,” Villaflor says. “It can be a little too generalized and it paints an incomplete picture.”

“I think there’s a lot more representation on the east coast and west coast, but Filipino Americans are less represented in the Midwest,” Pastrana adds.

The word “Mabuhay!” holds multiple definitions as a celebration of life as well as a greeting. For the filmmakers, it made perfect sense for a project carrying so many personal meanings and aspirations.

“Mabuhay is kind of like a term of ‘welcome’ or ‘long live,’” Villaflor says. “We don’t use it casually among the Filipino community; it’s a very formal term that we use to say ‘Hello’ or ‘I’m here.’”

“For us, it’s very much like, ‘we’re here and this is the movie we’re making,’” he adds. “It’s us putting our stamp on the film.”

The word was incorporated into the movie as the graffiti the character Reina plasters on the walls of her town. She chooses to tag her work with the word, a calling card so that others would know it was her.

“It’s all about that specific cultural identity and the existential nature of that,” he says. “The name is a declaration of self in a way — no other word captured the spirit of it more.”

For more information, including how to donate to the film’s production, visit indiegogo.com. Plus, find even more film and TV news at HourDetroit.com.