Mental health month: Award-winning filmmaker Joella Cabalu finds a way

Joella Cabalu’s  first credit as a producer and director was for her own personal family documentary It Runs in the Family (2015), which won Audience Choice Awards at the Seattle Asian American Film Festival and Vancouver Queer Film Festival and an honourable mention for the Loni Ding Award for Social Justice Documentary at CAAMFest. (Photo: Krista MacMillan)

Updated: Sept. 30, 2019, 9:22 PM

How the Filipino-Canadian producer/director is navigating her way through the film industry while managing her mental health

“I think the first time I started to struggle with depression was when I was a teenager ,” she says, citing a number of external and internal pressures to be perfect as a main reason. “To be an obedient, straight A, all-around student, daughter, sister, and in all respects of my life.”

By Carlo Javier

For the lack of a better word, “pleasant” really might be the best way to describe Mount Pleasant on a sunny September morning. Maybe it is the proximity of its predominantly residential neighbourhoods to its bevy of boutiques, cafes, and restaurants. This is not so much a statement of the obvious, but more of an observation of character – one that’s further amplified by a late summer glow. It is as if these worlds coexist with a togetherness not often encountered in the suburban environment I grew up in. It is as if Mount Pleasant is a community unto itself.

It Runs in the Family: Cousin Jazz applies makeup with Director Joella Cabalu in the background.(Provided)

Joella Cabalu was already at the corner table of Liberty Bakery and Cafe when we first met in person. The 35-year-old award-winning producer, director, and writer of It Runs in the Family had just wrapped up an exceptionally busy summer, finishing a short documentary with Telus. Earlier this year, she also saw the release of Biker Bob’s Posthumous Adventure, a short documentary she produced as part of CBC Short Docs. These days, the doc is seeing its own ‘posthumous’ experience, as Joella rounds out submissions to a myriad of film festivals.

At this point, Joella had been living in Mount Pleasant for the better part of the past decade, even considering Liberty as one of the three cafes she rotates through as a makeshift workspace. “I don’t like working from home,” she tells me. “I like being around people and not talking to them either.”

Joella grew up in the Burnaby-Coquitlam area. She remembers a time when Lougheed Mall featured its own movie theatre and attests that one might still see remnants of the old cinema if they were to dig under the London Drugs. I ask her if it was this particular theatre that helped foster her passion for film. It wasn’t necessarily, she tells me, instead citing local video stores for playing a larger role.

“It was like a family thing to go to,” she says about video rental stores. She wonders whether rental sales were the main reason why she watched so many movies as a child. She also jokes that maybe, her parents’ lack of knowledge on the PG-13 Rating System inadvertently exposed her to a lot of movies at an early age – both age-appropriate, and not. “Movies that were maybe too dramatic or too high level for an elementary school kid, like The Fugitive or something like that.”

Disappearing Main Street: Bean Around the World Owner Amanda Nicoletti and Director Joella Cabalu. (Provided)

She remembers her high school years, where she developed a fascination not only for trilogies like Star Wars and The Godfather, but also for information surrounding things that happened behind the scenes or outside the scope of a lens. She remembers reading Entertainment Weekly and other gossip magazines. She also remembers realizing the little value these magazines brought to her life.

After doing a two-year diploma at Corpus Christi College, Joella transferred to the University of British Columbia with the intention of completing a degree in film studies. She had, however, one obstacle – one she describes as an internal dialogue. “What does the evidence show you? Who is successful in this industry? What kind of traits do those people possess?” listing questions she remembers asking herself years ago. “I imagine that they had to be aggressive and abrasive and extroverted. All of these things that I’m not – and the last thing was that I’m not a man.”

So, she picked art history, her second favourite topic. And when she graduated, she quickly realized she wanted nothing to do with neither academia nor art history anymore.

In 2012, the staff at a Vancouver-based not-for-profit were speculating about an impending downsizing. And when a meeting with their CEO and HR was set for an early November morning, their speculations came to fruition.

Joella, then an Administrative Assistant in resource development, recounts that five of the eight people in her department were let go. But not her. The dissolution left her and just two other people on board. It also left her with a very important question: “Is this really what I want to do?”

At the time, a rekindling of her childhood dreams had already been slowly percolating on the back of her mind. A colleague of hers had produced Oh Sushi! From the Land of the BC Roll – a documentary directed by Toshimi Ono. At the viewing, Joella would see more than just a film, but also an inspiration in Ono. “That was the first time for me to see someone who I could relate to,” she says.

Joella would spend another year at the non-profit, before doing a four-month Documentary Film Production Program at Langara in 2013. “I just needed the foundations so I can get up and start running.”

Judicious” is the best way to describe Joella’s approach to new projects. Around two years ago, Vancouver-based director, Nisha Platzer approached Joella about producing Back Home, a feature film chronicling Platzer’s personal journey in rediscovering her older brother – who took his own life 20 years ago. “I was going through a difficult personal period and just knowing the subject matter, I wasn’t ready to take it on,” Joella says.

However, this level of restraint hasn’t always been the case. After finishing at Langara, she immediately worked on a number of projects while assuming a variety of roles. She did background work, served as a production assistant on a Crazy8s film, wrote, edited, and directed. “In the earlier days, it was like, okay, say yes to everything, who needs to sleep?” she says. “Whatever anxiety or whatever I’m dealing with, let’s just replace it with more work.”

Eventually, she came to an understanding of how her skillset could better lend to her process. She knows she’s more strongly suited to producing and directing, and is open about needing to improve her shooting skills and her lack of desire for editing work. While she admits that this may have made her career path a little more challenging, she takes solace in how circumstances has led her to collaborate with people who are more skilled or more interested in the areas she may not be as keen towards.

Another important element to her approach is the passion factor. Over the years, Joella has worked with non-profits as well as CBC Arts’ “The Exhibitionists” program, “Even for those projects, I wanted to do something where I actually care about what the organization is doing,” she says. “That there’s something there that I’m curious enough about that will sustain me for how long that production period is.”

Earlier this May, Joella participated in an Industry Day event of the Vancouver Asian Film Festival, moderating a panel titled, “The Multi-Hyphenated Filmmaker”. Balance was among the themes of the panel, but not in the sense of juggling the many on-set responsibilities of directors, producers, and writers, but in terms of balancing the life of an independent freelancer. “It was selfish for me,” she says.

Joella concedes that only in the last year or so has mental health management been a significant priority of hers. While the weight and emotional tax of deeply personal projects and the rigours of freelance work contribute to her fair share of bad days, she admits that her relationship with depression and anxiety has long been present in her life.

“I think the first time I started to struggle with depression was when I was a teenager ,” she says, citing a number of external and internal pressures to be perfect as a main reason. “To be an obedient, straight A, all-around student, daughter, sister, and in all respects of my life.”

For Joella, establishing a relationship with counselling and therapy early in her life was instrumental in helping her move forward, but when she hit her mid-20s, she noticed the shadows of depression and anxiety resurfacing. This time, she found answers to be more inward. “Something I’ve come to learn and tried to accept is that this is something that just doesn’t go away,” she says. “This is actually a part of who I am… but not the whole part.” There is a hint of relief in her voice and not a single note of defeat.

Outside of counselling and therapy, Joella has also taken other tangible approaches to better managing her mental health. She notes that time management and setting boundaries as tremendously important elements of her to day-to-day. Though working on an open schedule, she’s mindful of setting herself a structured Monday to Friday, 10 am to 5 pm work hours. Although her work has her deeply immersed in film, Joella maintains her love for the screen, often watching shows and movies when her schedule is clear. “I’m curious of how other people are writing stories,” she says.

Biker Bob’s Posthumous Adventure: Director Cat Mills with Producer Joella Cabalu. (Photo by Josephine Anderson)

These days, Joella has also been more conscious about another medium for storytelling – reading. “I’m becoming more interested in written form and a lot of memoirs and a lot of stories by women of colour, immigrant diaspora stories, I’m curious how other people are articulating that experience for themselves,” she says. “Who knows? Maybe when I’m 60 or 80 or whatever. I’ll write something.”

Ultimately, her approach towards self-acceptance can vary. Sometimes she’ll binge-watch seasons of Dear White People, sometimes she’ll go out for sushi. On other times, she’ll open up and tell somebody. “I don’t want to say normalize, but in some ways it is that. This is just part of my life now.”

You can hear a haunting voice guide a series of photos of Main Street’s most beloved establishments – some of which are no longer around. The voice is of producer Jennifer Okrusko and the photos are shot by David Niddrie. Together, the two built “Disappearing Main Street”, a photography project that chronicled the changes that Main Street has seen over the years. It is very much a passion project, a love letter to a beloved neighbourhood, to a home.

Then, Joella comes on the screen and introduces the creators of the project. Joella is wearing a t-shirt with an inverted Adidas treefoil logo. Underneath the logo, the word “mainstreet” is printed.

Like many of the projects Joella finds an attachment to, “Disappearing Main Street” felt close and personal. The video, produced for CBC Arts, is interlaced with the closing of a Bean Around the World branch on 20th and Main – one of the cafes Joella often worked at and one that many in the general Mount Pleasant area view as a community hub.

According to Joella, her involvement in the narrative of the production was encouraged by Lise Hosein, a producer at the CBC. After all, she has lived in the area for 10 years now and she has seen the neighbourhood evolve with her very own eyes.

There is a palpitating feeling of empathy that permeates through Joella’s work. You can see this in It Runs in the Family, in Biker Bob’s Posthumous Adventure, and in smaller pieces like her profile on “Disappearing Main Street.”

Like many modern meetings, the first time I interacted with Joella happened online, within Instagram messaging. I had participated in “Sampaguita Perspectives” a reading put together by the Filipino-Canadian Writers Collective as part of Asian-Canadian Heritage Month back in May. It was a quick exchange. Joella simply sent a complimentary message regarding a particularly personal line from my story.

It was one of those moments we tend to romanticize as storytellers. To have another person notice a part of your work that may mean a tad more than the other paragraphs, or the other shots, or the other scenes. It was a needed moment of validation, of acknowledgement.

Earlier this year, Nisha Platzer again approached Joella about working on Back Home. This time, Joella said yes. “I felt more grounded and I felt like I could be there as a producer who could support a director, who is my friend as well,” she says. 

Biker Bob’s Posthumous Adventure: Crew with Maudine. (Photo by Caleb Harding)

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