It’s been a long year for Paris Zarcilla. Back in March, the British-born Filipino director’s debut feature, Raging Grace, made its world premiere at SXSW, where it won the Narrative Feature Jury Award and Thunderbird Rising Award for Best Debut. From there, it continued on the festival circuit, making notable stops at the Neuchâtel International Fantastic Film Festival in Switzerland in June—where it won the International Critics Award, RTS Audience Award, and Youth Award for Best Feature—and Canada’s own Fantasia Film Festival in August, to name a few.
Raging Grace follows an undocumented Filipina immigrant named Joy (Max Eigenmann), who performs housekeeping duties for several affluent families in London. In addition to ensuring there’s a roof over her and her daughter Grace’s (Jaeden Paige Boadilla) heads and food on their plates, Joy is trying to save money in order to secure a working visa. Of course, this proves to be more expensive than she initially thought, so when a high-paying job as cleaner for Katherine’s (Leanne Best) lavish home comes her way, there’s no refusing.
The cleaning position eventually morphs into caregiving duties for Katherine’s terminally-ill uncle, Mr. Garrett (David Hayman), who takes an unnervingly immediate liking to Joy and especially Grace. While Grace warms to his attention, Joy isn’t so trusting. Soon, dark secrets concerning Mr. Garrett’s family history come to light, ultimately putting Joy and Grace’s lives at stake.
The film follows in the footsteps of Jordan Peele’s Get Out in the way it uses horror as the lens through which we can explore racism and violence at a systemic level, except the subject here is a Filipina domestic worker. Joy’s circumstances are a devastatingly all-too-common reality for many Filipina immigrant women, though very rarely portrayed on-screen. Throughout its festival run this year, Raging Grace has likely been the first film for many to shine a light on this subject, particularly for audiences in the UK, where Zarcilla calls home. In fact, Zarcilla’s film is officially the first-ever British-Filipino movie ever made in UK cinema history.
From the outside, helming a groundbreaking movie that has had a profound impact on audiences—particularly those of the Filipino diaspora, who are almost never portrayed in English-language cinema—might seem like a dream come true for any filmmaker. But, in our interview, Zarcilla gets candid about how, amidst the gratitude and excitement, there have been challenges in sharing this film with certain audiences. Generous and thoughtful, he talks about exploring Filipino tradition, plans to make a spiritual sequel, and what it’s been like to make a movie from a place of rage.
(The following interview has been slightly edited for brevity and clarity.)
TAC: It’s been practically a year-long journey of giving your film to audiences. When you think back on 2023 and your journey with Raging Grace, what do you think of?
PZ: I think of how much I would have loved to have given myself more care and self-compassion over this journey. This journey has been very difficult. There’s been so much to celebrate, but it's been tangled up in the very complicated emotions that come with putting a film—that’s so deeply personal—out into the world.
I think about the people that this has affected, how it's had a profound effect on children of the diaspora and first-generation immigrants, who have found ways to cry, to find catharsis, happiness, joy, anger. And I remember why it’s so important to keep pushing this film as much as I can, with every inch of my being.
What has made it difficult?
I think when you make a film that was born from a place of rage—that seeks to challenge new and old white power, that seeks to challenge British colonialism—there is a certain fear that arises in me that I still haven't been able to quite get over yet. There’s a fear of [challenging] those things, when a lot of my industry here in the UK still secretly harbour a lot of those sentiments about what it is to be “Great” Britain. We have had reports in the newspapers: our public funding systems are racist. It worries [me] to release a film like this. Is this going to upset someone to the point where I can’t make another film or I can’t be hired—not that I am being hired, by the way.
It's also the fear of the discomfort that the themes of this film have unearthed for some people and the confrontations that I've had in Q&As, having to hold space for somebody feeling seen, but in the worst way possible. Every time I’m confronted in those ways, whether that be online or in person, I’m forced to have to justify my existence and the existence of people’s lived experiences being shown on-screen.
But the one thing I do want to impress is that the overall reception to the film has been very, very positive. I've been very thankful for the open hearts and the open discussions that we've been able to have at a lot of film festivals.
I saw a lot of Joy in my mom, and I know this is a personal film for you and your own experiences with your mom — has she seen the film?
Yes, she has.
What did she think?
I don't actually think my mum really knew what it is I've been doing over the past 10 years, what my job actually is, or what it entails. But I did involve her in some of the filming process. Gloria's voice in the letters—that’s my mom speaking there.
I think she was still processing when she first saw it. We haven't really had the moment to talk about what it was like for her to see some of her experiences put up on-screen, but I could tell, by the way that she hugged me, that she was proud.
What’s great about the horror genre is how it naturally feels like the perfect vehicle to explore immigrant and racialized narratives. Did you know from the start that you wanted to tell this story through a horror lens?
I didn't ever set out to write a horror film. The first draft of this film was giving myself permission to be messy, to express a very deep-seated rage that I had never given myself permission to express. As it took form and as I found the story—you know, immigrant experiences, especially one like Joy’s as a domestic worker, are often horrific, so that was a natural direction for me to take.
A film like this hinges on the performances and chemistry between the leads. What was it like working with Max and Jaeden?
They so naturally got on well. When they first met, that was one of the things I was really nervous about because we had a couple of screen tests, but they were all via Zoom. It wasn't until they got into the room that you could really see the magic come through.
Max is a mother, and so much of those maternal instincts were coming through in the rehearsals and on-screen. And Jaden is also one of the most emotionally intelligent people I know. She just seemed to really understand what it meant to be a child who was desperate to belong, desperate to shout out, desperate to break out of the confines of not only the houses that she was in, but also her mother’s grasp.
There was this sort of marriage between the East and the West. There were a lot of Gothic elements, especially in the look of the house. And then, at the climax, we take a turn into Filipino mysticism and deep cultural roots. Can you talk about diving into this climactic moment?
During the initial drafts of the script, I was toying with whether that mysticism turned supernatural, which is so deeply ingrained in Filipino culture, especially when a lot of our roots came from anima and very ritualistic ways of life that were in tune with nature. Until, of course, Catholicism came along and then you have a mix of the two; it became like a mystic Catholicism.
One thing I was really cautious about was depicting Filipino mysticism on-screen. I wanted to honour it. It makes me uncomfortable to talk about the way in which the people in my mother’s village often relied on herbs to be able to heal, to be able to commune with spirits or themselves—and that, to me, is tradition, not mysticism. That, to me, is the roots of our culture. I wanted to instill all of that and Western medicine within Joy, finding ways to bring those two into unison, to heal somebody.
[In the end,] I didn’t want this to be supernatural. So much of what Katherine goes through towards the end of the film are spectres of her own mind brought about the concoction Joy makes. These aren’t real ghosts, but the people she’s treated very badly in the past who have come back to haunt her.
To me, so much of this is a celebration of Filipino culture, however uncomfortable that has made some people.
I know that you envisioned Raging Grace to be the first in a trilogy. Considering what you were talking about before—how this has been a difficult year for you—does that make you more fired up to complete the trilogy, or more hesitant, or a mix of both?
A mix of both. I’m approaching this with caution, but also optimistic about continuing to pursue these types of stories. Raging Grace is the first film in a Rage trilogy, which will all seek to confront new and old white power and our place in this world that is supposed to be a post-colonial society.
The next films is Domestic. Very much like Raging Grace, it’s a blended genre. It’s an unlikely heist film about a young Filipino couple, set in the ‘90s London: while running a cafe on the weekends, they set up covert rescue missions to help domestic workers escape their abusive employers. And it’s a true story based on my parents, who did this in the ‘90s. It’s far more of a thriller than it is a horror, and there’s a lot more drama and comedy in it.
I want to continue to bring light and be a voice for the unheard, while also making something bloody entertaining.
Before I let you go, was there something you wanted to talk about that I didn’t ask?
Only that I really hope that people go and see this film in the cinemas and with people because this is a film where you get to not only enjoy a cathartic spectacle, collective healing, the permission to feel enraged, angry, frustrated, but also the joy and celebration of who we are as immigrants and children of the diaspora. And I hope and wish all of you, even beyond the Filipino community, find your own way to rage gracefully.
Raging Grace is now available on VOD and digital.