‘Strange Land’ shares war bride’s story

Norma Vega looked sad in her wedding photo. Her daughter, Emmy award-winning independent filmmaker Stephanie Castillo wanted to know why.

“(In the documentary), she talked about why she looks like that in the photo. It was the first time I’d ever heard that story,” said daughter and filmmaker Stephanie Castillo. “It’s actually a little funny why she looks like that. She laughed about it.”

Castillo brings her mother’s story to light in the documentary “Strange Land.” Castillo and her mother host a free screening at the Kaua‘i Marriott Resort in the Kaua‘i Ballroom this Wednesday at 6:30 p.m.

“My mom and I talked a lot over the years about her living during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines and her meeting my dad,” Castillo said. “Because of the Filipino Centennial, I took this opportunity to tell this story in a cohesive format and kind of have my mother fill in the bits and pieces.”

“Strange Land,” which showed at the Hawai‘i Film Festival at the Waimea Theater, is the documentary of Vega, Kaua‘i’s first war bride. She married Wallace Castillo of Kapa‘a, in the Philippines in 1946. He was a captain in the U.S. Army while she was a girl from Manila. The documentary delves into the courtship between the two of them, the marriage and the “American Dream” of life in America.

“I tried to have her tell her pieces of the stories and I didn’t want it necessarily to start at the beginning,” Castillo said. “The documentary is based on nine hours of interviews that were all spread out into three long sessions.”

Castillo asked her mother, “How does she make peace with the cultural differences between her and her husband?” and “What, in the end, brings her peace and acceptance?”

But it was the final question that Castillo asked that got to her.

“I think the last question was the hardest for her. It was after dinner, it was dark so the lighting wasn’t as good as the times we previously filmed, but I think that helped in the mood of what we were trying to achieve,” Castillo said. “I asked her if she had to do it all over again would she do it? I didn’t expect her to give the answer that she gave. It took her nearly 20 minutes for her to give a cohesive answer. Maybe it’s that she had to put her thoughts together.”

Castillo filmed several documentaries in the past. She said handling the project about her mother was a different experience.

“It’s not harder doing a documentary on my family. In some ways it was easier, it doesn’t have to be all talking heads because there is only one person telling the story, my mother,” she said.

Castillo said that in pursuing a story, she has to care about the subject and their passions. The story has to inspire her. This story in particular did and she hopes it will also inspire others.

“I couldn’t think of anyone else whose story could be more interesting to others and that others can relate to,” she said. “I want (people who see “Strange Land”) to be inspired by her tenacity and her ability to make that transformation of leaving her home and making a good life for herself. We make decisions that we regret later. We make mistakes. She could’ve been embittered but she was able to turn it around and have a good life.”

She also hopes it inspires people to go back to their own mothers to hear her stories.

“They need to go back to those stories because they will be lost if someone doesn’t record them,” Castillo said.

She and her mother will be on-hand for a question and answer session directly following the screening of the documentary. Norma Vega Castillo currently resides in Wailua Homesteads. She has seven daughters, 18 grandchildren and 21 great-grandchildren.

• Lanaly Cabalo, lifestyle writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 237) or lcabalo@kauaipubco.com.

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