Filmmaker Myra Aquino has roots in Guam, calling Latte Heights home until the age of 11, when her family relocated to the Philippines. Years later, her childhood experiences on Guam inspired a screenplay, “Lamb,” landing her in a coveted position in the 2021 Women in Film and The Black List Feature Residency Cohort.
On the Women in Film x The Black List website, the film’s log line – a filmmaking term for a summary with an emotional hook – reads, “Set in the island of Guam in 1996, a young CHamoru boy tries to save his grandfather from dying of a broken heart. ”
Aquino says the heart of the film is drawn from her own experiences with her grandparents, who were heavily involved in the lives of her and her cousins until her grandmother passed away when she was 11.
“I felt like it was the end of an era for me. It ended my time in Guam, as well as this sort of age of innocence where I felt like, ‘Oh, everyone just continues to live on and no one dies and I’m gonna have this forever.’
“I think it was particularly, in a way, traumatic for me. And so that’s why I wrote ‘Lamb,’ to kind of explore and re-explore what that experience was like for me as well as the impact it had on the rest of the members of my family, ”Aquino said.
Describing her filmmaking style, Aquino says she is now interested in writing stories that address the aftermath of traumatic events through “quirky, big = hearted drama.”
“People deal with it in a variety of unintentionally comedic ways because they don’t have the tools for it. And so everyone’s just all fumbling, trying to figure out how to move forward from that moment.
“And then, in the end, they all come together and find a way to move forward. And it’s not the most perfect answer, but it’s the answer that works for them, ”Aquino said.
That big-hearted approach applies to both her treatment of characters and setting in the case of “Lamb,” in which Guam itself plays a prominent role. When asked about her favorite moment in the script, Aquino chose one that includes a celebration of human relationships as well as their relationship with the land.
“When Lamb, the main character, is woken up in the morning by his grandfather to go fishing in the tidal pools in Mangilao. And it’s a very quiet scene, like barely any dialogue. It’s just Lamb taking in nature, and the trees and light.
“It’s a very poetic scene for me,” seeing all the imagery of Guam around him and going fishing with his grandfather. Which I feel is something that when you’re a kid seems so innocuous and yet means the world to you, ”Aquino said.
Though she has spent the program focused on developing the script – tightening the structure, acquiring feedback, rewriting – Aquino says there are still elements to be addressed before she would consider moving forward with production.
At the time of our interview the screenplay was still focused on a CHamoru family, a choice Aquino was actively grappling with.
“I’m very well aware that I’m someone of the Filipino descent, making a film that’s centered on the Chamoru people. And I told myself, ‘I’m not going to make this movie if it’s not something that people want to see made.’
“I think it needs to go to multiple people before I can even start to think about having this done. So I think there’s a lot of ethics about authorship and all of that, ”Aquino said.
In an effort to tell the story ethically, Aquino said she had shared the script with CHamoru contacts to ensure cultural accuracy and authenticity within the film. She also said she looked forward to eventually gathering a larger group for a Zoom reading and feedback session.
Aquino cited the lack of CHamoru representation in the global media marketplace and her own multicultural upbringing as factors in her decision to focus the story on CHamoru characters, rather than on the characters of the Filipino descent.
“I have made and written films about being Filipino, but I think it’s another thing – when I was growing up in Guam, I don’t even think I identified as Filipino. I think I identified as someone who was from Guam and Guamanian and an islander.
“In many ways I’m trying to explore how much the culture in Guam has affected me. … Is it more authentic for me to talk about being Filipino in Guam and where those cultures intersect? Or is it better to just write specifically about a specific family and really just focus on their experiences?
“I’m still figuring it out. And I know in Guam there’s definitely a movement to shift authorship to CHamoru people writing their own stories. I think that’s why I’ve been really precious with it, because I don’t want to come in barging with this thing, ”Aquino said.
Just days after we spoke, Aquino offered an update about her approach to the movie.
“I’m choosing to rewrite the script‘ Lamb ’to be about a child from a mixed CHamoru-Filipino family. This way, I can responsibly explore the cultural harmonies and tensions of growing up in Guam and what it’s like to navigate your identity, ”Aquino said.
The Feature Residency offered Aquino and her colleagues a year-long program focused on script development with industry mentors, followed by months of professional development including meeting with producers and representation to learn what it’s like to market a feature film.
“It’s one thing to be creative, but at the end of the day, it’s still a marketplace for scripts. Those two, hand-in-hand, are essentially what we do for the entire program, and we have directors from both The Black List and Women in Film who are there to guide us through that process, ”Aquino said.
Another strength of the residency lies in the connections the filmmakers develop with one another. Aquino, who graduated from UCLA with an MFA in directing in 2020, said that access to a writing group composed entirely of women was especially meaningful.
“Having been in multiple writers groups – in and out of school – there’s just something about women coming together and nurturing each other and supporting each other. I think we’re all ambitious people, but not trying to compete with each other or be jealous of each other and just more like, celebrating each other is super important, ”Aquino said.
Beyond the sense of camaraderie, Aquino was grateful for a group where realities like the male gaze in screenwriting, or gender based gatekeeping in the film industry, were able to be addressed.
While Aquino ushers “Lamb” through the necessary steps, she is already hard at work on additional projects, including writing television pilots and a feature length script about a Filipino mother and daughter navigating life in Louisiana, which she plans to shoot on location.
When she looks toward the future, Aquino simply hopes the work never stops.
“My goal is to be working. I mean, it seems very humble. I just want to be a working feature and a TV director who’s making my own feature films about stories that are happening in the Asia-Pacific region, as well as directing TV shows, especially sci-fi, ”Aquino said.
“I’m just gonna see where this adventure takes me and cross my fingers. I think ultimately, I just want to be happy in a community that I love that I support, and continue to create wherever it takes me. ”