Rey Ventura’s prose startles with the subtle force of cinematic images: From the “rustling leaves” that signal the return of the rebel forces to the Aeta hill tribes in the Philippines to the “standing men” or day laborers populating the alleyways of the Kotobukicho district of Yokohama. As both filmmaker and writer for over 20 years, Ventura has captured images of displaced people across Asia.
Ventura, 49, shrugs off any pronounced political agenda: “It’s visually more interesting, the people on the outside,” he says. “Basically, I am personally interested in stories about people on the margins or the edge of society. I never had a character who was not on the margins.”
His most well-known work, “Underground in Japan,” published in 1992, unfolds as a series of vignettes centered around his own experiences as an illegal worker for one year in Kotobukicho. Ventura’s panoramic pen focuses on the Filipino men and their invisible world: the prostitutes and nurturers who support them, how it feels to see Filipino women caught in the “water trade,” the fight for work constrained by alliances built on hometown ties.
He was only 24 years old when he wrote the book, but it was already normal for him to seek out society’s outsiders.
Born in Isabela Province in the foothills of the Philippines’ Sierra Madre mountains, Ventura attained adulthood in the turmoil of the “people power revolution” of 1986, suspending his university studies at the age of 21 to observe the movement. His experiences with the revolution shaped his future life decisions.
Ventura was a witness to the January 1987 Mendiola Massacre, when armed forces under the administration of then President Corazon Aquino opened fire on 17,000 peasants, students and workers marching toward Malacanang Palace in Manila, where they were demanding agricultural reforms. Thirteen farmers were killed and hundreds were wounded. “The massacre, in fact, was my baptism in documentary filmmaking, and my first film, ‘Mendiola,’ was about the events that led up to the killing,” he recalls.
Although he finished a degree in political science from Trinity College in Quezon City, the chaos at home pushed him to seek other worlds. Ventura admits: “I was tired of the movement. I wanted to be away from it. Japan offered me the chance.”
In his first trip outside his home country, Ventura came to Japan on a student visa to learn Japanese. However, he could not leave behind his underdog sympathies. He made connections with the community of migrant workers both in Japan and when he returned home for the Christmas holidays, and he stayed on in Japan even after his visa expired.
Ventura experienced firsthand the life of his less fortunate compatriots in Kotobukicho, gaining their trust and living alongside them on the margins of Japanese society.
Kotobukicho also gave Ventura a new creative outlet — writing: “The moment I started living as a day laborer in Yokohama, I wanted to write a book. I decided to tell the story of Filipino migrant workers abroad.”
True to his filmmaking roots, Ventura also captured images to use for a documentary: “While I was writing the book, I was also filming. I didn’t have any formal education in film, it was pure guts. Learning by doing, how we learn in the Philippines, and from the start, I was most interested in camera work.”
Ventura finished his short film on underground life in Japan before the book was published, and the film “Dekasegi” (migrant workers) debuted at the Yamagata International Film Festival in 1989.
Back in the Philippines after the publication of “Underground in Japan,” Ventura crafted a career in video journalism, working as the Manila correspondent for Asia Press International, a Tokyo-based news agency. He also filmed various documentaries for Japanese television over the next 10 years. A particularly memorable one was his 1999, 45-minute documentary on the Aeta aboriginal people of the Philippines who were largely displaced after the explosion of Mount Pinatubo in 1991.
Although again detailing life on the margins, Ventura admits he was not yet consciously choosing his themes: “I was asked to make a documentary on social issues, and although I selected the issues, I was not consciously working toward one theme. It is only now that I am becoming more and more conscious of themes in my work.”
His current project highlights a life spent observing people on the margins. He has collected over 20 years of articles for a retrospective look at his life journeys. Titled “Dogs Barking at the Full Moon,” the articles, poems and perspectives wander from the hill tribes in the Philippines to his latest destination, the Nagadoro area of Iitate, in Fukushima Prefecture.
Although 40 km from the stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, Nagadoro has earned the unfortunate distinction of containing the highest amount of radiation in areas near the facility due to the wind direction in the days after the disaster. Ventura has followed the local people’s plight, traveling there himself four times to research and listen to them recount their stories.
True to his own creative ethos, Ventura also works on a film just as he tries to capture his ideas in a prose version. He is currently in the final editing process for a film on Nagadoro. His new artistic venture, however, is somewhat of a departure from documentary-styled direction.
“With Fukushima, we are bombarded with so many images that are difficult to take in, the devastation to the eyes and the heart. Yet there is a huge aspect of beauty and silence and sadness there,” he says. “I tried to juxtapose hard images with light images, experimenting with complementary images — images in harmony or contradiction. I also use a directed actor in this film, an Englishman, walking through Fukushima.”
He pauses, searching for a way to summarize his newest cinematic effort. “Basically, it’s a fusion of directed images — using an actor — with real images, a background of March 11 and after — a mixture of fiction and documentary.” Tentatively titled “Pink,” the world premiere is scheduled for Cinemanila International Film Festival in Metro Manila this November.
Over and over, Ventura’s life emerges as artistically fueled, rather than politically motivated, despite his conscious-pricking subject matter. When he and his Japanese wife moved back to Japan with their young daughter in 2001, Ventura stopped working to stay home as a househusband until their daughter started school, defying Asian stereotypes of the breadwinning male and putting his video journalist career on hold.
“I didn’t want to do anything else but write and take care of our daughter,” he admits. Meanwhile, he completed a sequel to “Underground in Japan,” titled “Into the Country of Standing Men,” published in 2007.
Today, although writing and filming take precedence, Ventura also teaches English and journalism. “It complements my work as an artist. I discovered teaching is basically listening to stories, having conversations. It is a different type of creativity. Teaching and writing are very much related, so it never feels difficult.”
This month, he will be teaching an international journalism course at Meiji University in Tokyo. His past connects to his present, his artistic to his teaching worlds, as he frequently uses “Dekasegi” and other past projects when lecturing on journalism.
Ventura already has his next creative focus picked out — a documentary and a book on organ trading in Asia. “I started researching this topic many years ago, but I want to go into more depth this time.” Again, a social topic, underground, but Ventura insists he has no agenda but an artistic one. “I am not interested in giving opinions. My films are more an exploration of possibilities. It’s more personal than lecturing or pushing a viewpoint. My intent is not to focus on anger or judgment, but on the possibilities.”
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5