Thursday, October 24, 2013

MiDweek Movie Documentary: 
"Don't Stop Believin': Everyman's Journey".

Or: How I found the Filipino Immigrant story through Arnel Pineda's Journey.


Written in: Calgary, Alberta, Canada
Mood: Randy is being analytical - analyzing a film, storytelling, and the public perception of immigrants in North America.
Audience: Everyone.

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Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey (2012) is a documentary film featuring the story of Arnel Pineda, Journey’s latest frontman. It was released to film festivals around the world last year, but I only saw it just now on PBS.
I have been casually following Pineda’s story ever since I first heard of it – I suppose almost everybody has. In our interconnected internet age of viral videos and online stardom, his story stands as a testament to the good which can come out of the virtual selves we create via our abbreviated thoughts, bite sized videos, and other manifestations of our persona we dare only let loose online.

Except Pineda was not all virtual, he was in fact,

Continued...

...he was in fact, the real deal.

You know the story: Neal Schon was searching on YouTube for cover bands and he just happened upon Pineda’s videos with his band Zoo. Schon contacted the video poster, who then contacted Arnel, who then went to the United States to try out for the band. The rest as they say is history.

Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey tells how “the rest” of the story unfolded, and it tells it very well indeed. Because for a rags to riches story, for a tale of a guy being discovered online and becoming a world wide superstar, things were not so simple and straightforward. Filmmaker Ramona S. Diaz explores every facet of the story, following Arnel throughout his journey. I am a bit unclear when exactly the filmmaker first met up with Pineda, but I would guess very early on during the band’s tour. Shot in my favourite cinema verite style with just enough talking heads to guide the story along, we feel as though we were there, with Arnel, as he undergoes a transformation from cover singer to international superstar.

However, being that this is a blog of being a Philippine-born person now living in “the West”, I cannot help but note the praiseworthy revelations this documentary makes. For all the fanfare about Pineda’s unique story – he had been interviewed as a guest in numerous talk shows, music magazines, and other lifestyle publications – I felt as though there was a common tendency to simplify things.

Early on in the documentary, I cringed when Journey’s original members made a few statements about their initial concerns about having a guy from the Philippines try out for them. Things like, “Does he even speak English?” or “How’s someone from the third world going to cope?”.  Though such worries were understandable, I thought the Filipino diaspora had integrated itself to U.S. society to the point that American born Americans would recognize these to be non-issues. I then braced myself for a film full of clichés about the third world, oversimplification of the Filipino diaspora’s experience, another oft-repeated tale about immigrant success in the U.S. – land of opportunity, and how blessed it was for Arnel to have been given the role of Journey’s lead singer. Don’t get me wrong, how Pineda was discovered is very unique – it is after all, what makes it so amazing. I do worry however that some people may get the wrong impressions: That he had nothing but raw talent; was so poor and uneducated he didn’t know what life in the U.S. was like; and had to be guided throughout on how to handle his stardom.

I was glad to see Ramona S. Diaz challenging these assumptions by telling it all and revealing a few things perhaps simplified or glossed over in the typical news/talk show treatment: Though Arnel had indeed lived in poverty for most of his early life, even living in the streets for a while, he alone pulled himself out of daily squalor by putting it all on the one talent he knew he had - singing. He had been in many bands and had also been to Hong Kong. He had in fact already composed original songs (yes, in English… which is not a big deal to Filipinos), when he tried out for Journey. He had been through all the trials of a struggling recording artist, yet ultimate success still eluded him.

I latched on to these parts of the documentary because, in a world obsessed with rags to riches success, and in particular a western world so used to the narrative that there is “the Third World”, and there is us here in “the West”, and that "the West" helps "the Third World", I am thankful everytime I come across a different story regarding the matter. So if this story is different, what then is the commonly told story, you ask? Remember when I said that I cringe everytime people praise Manny Pacquiao’s English, his life growing up in a backwards province, and how his rise to boxing’s highest ranks was a golden opportunity? THAT, is the commonly told story. So oft-repeated is it that I feel as though the perception of every immigrant is that of a poor starving shanty dweller, complete with flies, bloated stomach, and blank stare. Because as heroic as it is made out to be here, as I already said elsewhere:  "...the status and admiration we give (them) ... is still from a more powerful position: "Good on (them) for succeeding here!"  'We' are always the powerful ones, and 'they' are lucky to be here.

More than anything, I am also demystifying the immigrant experience by saying, "Look, I didn't have a hard life before I got here, sorry. We're not all immigrant heroes in the way you imagined."

Don’t get me wrong, I love Manny!  It’s just that I hate it when his story is exemplified as “The Filipino story”. It is “a” Filipino story, and that makes it no less awesome. If anything, its uniqueness, makes it even all the more compelling - we won’t be seeing anyone like him for a long, long time.

And it’s not that I’m de-emphasizing Arnel Pineda’s rise to stardom, nor am I downplaying Journey’s gamble by highlighting how Arnel was already a singer and all Journey had to do was accept him into the band. Instead, my interest in Pineda’s story is how he, for me, seems to fit the Filipino immigrant’s image a LOT better than any pop-culture icon at this time.

Think about it: Immensely talented; very much driven; family oriented; may have come from poverty, but has pulled himself up through sheer determination; has had experience in other parts of the world before trying out in the U.S.A; and in the end, seems to cope very easily in America, what with the Philippines having been an American Colony and with most of the pop-culture there still influenced by what goes on in “the West”.

Yet even then, it’s still not my parents’ story. Close, but not quite. Substitute U.S. for Canada, and “poverty” for “people who were pushed into higher education by their parents” (my grandparents), and that kind of closes the gap a bit. If you think I’m making my folks seem less heroic by saying how they came from a privileged background, then you are mistaken. Because the point I wish to emphasize, is this: Yes, they are thankful and feel lucky to be here, but perhaps it should go both ways? Perhaps this place should also feel thankful and lucky that the likes of them have chosen this place as their home? By moving here, they have brought their skills, education, talent, and global experience, all with NO investment from Canada. Contrast that with myself, educated here via Canada’s heavily subsidized post-secondary system. (Though I am buried in student loans right now, it would have been far more expensive had it not been for operating grants and subsidies awarded to higher educational institutions.)

Going back to Arnel Pineda’s story: I love how the original members of Journey recognize the fact that, had they just picked just another singer from the U.S., then it would have been just another reunion tour – talented though as the potential crop of singers born in the U.S. may be. Instead, it gained momentum and actually caught the attention of new fans, instead of merely reconnecting with their old fanbase. Arnel himself infused the band with new life via the attention he garnered. Or as one Filipina fan puts it, “They may have only adopted Arnel, but they inherited a whole country”.

As of now, Arnel is a full fledged member of the band, with a one fifth slice of the pie. He has fully assimilated, yet stays true to his roots.

A very Filipino story indeed.




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