Q&A with Jessica Knowles, who was a part of the film crew in our first shoot in October, 2007
Q. What was your first impression of Puerto Princesa?
A. My first impression of Puerto Princesa was that it was absolutely spotless. Not a piece of garbage in sight. But it was also far from sterile – everything was lush and green, and the city integrated easily into its natural surroundings.
Q. What did you think about Mayor Hagedorn?
A. I think Mayor Hagedorn is a very complicated and fascinating man. He has done a lot of good things for Puerto Princesa, but his methods are perhaps not always ethical. As a filmmaker, I think it’s important to recognize and stress this duality. Hagedorn is a fierce defender of his city and the surrounding environment, because he sees the big picture – the protection of the environment is inherently linked to the growth of the city’s economy and the preservation of the citizens’ way of life. But he is also a “strongman” who has created his own rule of law. One of the main questions of the film is: do the ends justify the means? I think that’s left for the viewer to decide.
Q. Were you startled by the security situation around him?
A. Of course! In the U.S., it is very unusual to see anyone, no matter how important, accompanied by an entourage of people carrying of AK-47s. But politics in the Philippines is a dangerous business, and Hagedorn has received death threats on his life. So the proportion of the precautions is understandable.
Q. Can you tell the story of the dump site from your point of view?
A. The children living in the dump site shocked me to the core. I had been to other developing countries, but had never really seen how the poorest of the urban poor lived. The smell was overwhelming, but the children seemed completely unfazed as they picked through the debris and dirt tainted with mercury. I remember we offered them a few cans of Coke – the sun was beating down, and it was all we had. That was a moment when it was very hard to separate my sense of objectivity as a filmmaker from my personal feelings of compassion for these children. It was also a moment when the darker side of a seemingly picture-perfect city was exposed.
Q. Any suggestions for the traveler to Puerto Princesa?
A. Bring your sense of adventure! Puerto Princesa and the greater island of Palawan is a hotspot for diving, hiking, kayaking, etc. Make sure to try the local food, especially the seafood and the infamous balut.
Q. How has this trip influenced your life?
A. I was only a 20-year-old college sophomore when I was asked assist with the production of Papa Boss. The trip to Puerto Princesa was drastically life-changing: after returning home I applied for and was awarded a journalism Fulbright to the Philippines and moved there shortly after graduation. Inspired by our crew’s visit to the progressive Iwahig Penal Colony in Puerto Princesa, I spent nine months studying the treatment of child prisoners in Metro Manila. The prison conditions in Manila were a stark contrast to Puerto’s. I eventually produced a documentary on the subject that aired nationally (viewable here). I remained in Southeast Asia for three years in total working for human rights organizations, and am now in law school to pursue a career in human rights documentation and prison reform advocacy.