Cover A film still from "The Headhunter's Daughter" / Hannah Schierbeek

Tapping into his rich indigenous roots, budding filmmaker Don Josephus Raphael Eblahan calls for a more diverse and inclusive global cinema

Last January 29, the 2022 Sundance Film Festival's awards have been announced. The Grand Jury Prize for the short film category was awarded to The Headhunter's Daughter, written and directed by Don Josephus Raphael Eblahan.

Born and raised in Quezon City and living most of his life in La Trinidad, Benguet, Don Josephus Raphael Eblahan took fate into his own hands by studying Film at DePaul University in Chicago, graduating in 2019. Having made a couple of short films since then, he has become a budding filmmaker trying to carve his own path in the industry. So, when he received Sundance Institute's acceptance while he was in a New York hotel room with Hannah Schierbeek (his partner and producer) and younger brother John, the experience was nerve-wracking and beyond what he has ever dreamed.

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Tell us how the concept for The Headhunter's Daughter came to be.

Don Josephus Raphael Eblahan (DJRE): [It came] from my reflections about my culture as an Igorot and what my identity means historically—how I approached the world, and how the world approached me. Living in the Cordilleras, a region heavily influenced by American colonisation, I grew up exposed to the remnants of cowboy and Western culture that amalgamated with the rich indigenous Igorot culture. This imagery left such a searing impression in my head since childhood. I wanted to write a character who internalised the same thoughts I have, someone who rides the threshold of both cultures that meld in such a diverse and culturally fertile land.

What do you think inspires you and other filmmakers to showcase works in international film festivals and competitions?

DJRE: There’s something beautiful about exploring the world and doing it through the lens of cinema makes it very special. To peer through the eyes of fellow filmmakers from diverse and unique cultures from all over the world makes the world feel intimate and larger than life at the same time.

What are the usual themes in your films and how do you approach these themes in your works?

DJRE: I tend to experiment with autobiographical tendencies in my writing and draw from personal memories: both the beautiful and the traumatic. I try to find my way around those roadmaps and locate my place in the world around me: how circumstances, places, and things end up the way they do in a historical, cultural, and ecological perspective. Hilum (2021) was written from the perspective of my six-year-old self, pondering about the death of my father, featuring a retelling of what took his life. The Headhunter’s Daughter (2022) was my attempt to embody my thoughts about my culture, my dreams of becoming a musician and figuring out a spiritual way of finding my place in this world as a young person of indigenous descent. 

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What led you to this niche?

DJRE: My love for graphic arts led me to conceptualise characters and stories which merged well with my background as a musician as well. Similarly, my Catholic upbringing influences a lot of the ideas I delve into. I was an acolyte in our local Latin Mass in Baguio and being immersed in such a visually and sonically rich atmosphere while hearing centuries-old accounts of the world really puts you in a cinematic and spiritual headspace.

What is your creative process like?

DJRE: [It] usually begins with music. Listening, writing, composing music. An idea just arrives while I’m in a musical mind state (typically in the form of a music video). Once an idea surfaces, I try to catch it and stay with it—developing it in my head as much as I can until it's fertile enough to put it into writing.

In post-production, I work with my usual team which is also my closest family of friends I met in Chicago: sound designer and frequent musical collaborator Henry Hawks and visual effects artist Keaton Mcquarrie. Before I shoot the film, I talk to them about the ideas and what they’re going to expect from our production output. They get in a creative headspace before receiving any files from me. With Henry, we work closely together in painting a story outside the confines of my frames. To create a soundscape that exists outside of my compositions, he places a lot of intricate detail in structuring the film in walls of sounds. Keaton creates an overall atmosphere in shots that call for tonal and textural elevation, usually adding surreal elemental and natural renderings of locations and objects in my films. His work is most visible in Hilum’s visual landscape, meanwhile, his work on The Headhunter’s Daughter was more invisible and purely atmospheric.

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What makes The Headhunter's Daughter different from your body of work?

DJRE: It’s still, silent, and focused much more on visual texture than movement. The narrative approach this time lingers around geographical context and lets the landscape’s historical pain and spiritual beauty do the storytelling rather than the dialogue.

My background in music means so much to me that I wanted to make a film that expresses my love for it, as much as I want to express my cultural heritage. The soundtrack was performed and composed by myself, alongside the main actor Ammin Acha-ur’s original song.

How would you describe your core philosophy as a filmmaker?

DJRE: The Ifugao tribe has hundreds of years of culture around storytelling (Hudhud), singing songs, and recounting memories around the community of people and the land that they have fostered through many ages. I aim to uphold that way of living through my own cinematic voice.

The demand for representation is important, but to push the conversation beyond that is a step forward towards the decolonisation of the mind.
Don Josephus Raphael Eblahan

Why is it important for you to include or highlight elements of local/traditional Filipino heritage in your works?

DJRE: The visibility of indigenous stories, bodies, and concepts is important to me. Not just on the international level but even on our local film scene. To tell indigenous stories with the cadence of simplicity and honesty is something I want to see more in films and I wish to be a part of that momentum. There are so many talented regional filmmakers in the Philippines making significant work and it’s inspiring to see them extract something from their identities, their language, their culture and express it in their own unique voices. 

What are your two cents on the struggle for a better Asian representation in Hollywood? How would you want to approach it as a filmmaker?

DJRE: Identities around the world and especially identities of the oppressed and marginalised come from a very complex, intricate, and meaningful web of stories, experiences, and perspectives. A call for representation is a symptom of oppression and injustice [that have occurred in the past] and are still occuring, thus the conversation shouldn’t be tethered to just a matter of representation. It should go beyond that—and it should go way beyond Hollywood.

It’s humanising to have the complexity of our diverse identities be recognised; which means that our complex experiences and history also become visible. The demand for representation is important, but pushing the conversation beyond that is a step forward towards the decolonisation of the mind. Many Black/Brown/Asian/Indigenous and historically marginalised filmmakers all over the world [make] films that are not [only] about representation—so we have to view their work beyond the confines of it. But of course, representation means access; and for audiences to begin viewing our films thoughtfully and with an open heart, they have to be given the accessibility to see us first.

The Headhunter's Daughter is part of the Shorts program of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, which runs from January 20 to 30.


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  • PhotographyHannah Schierbeek
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