West Philippine Sea writer and professor Alan Nafzger
For Alan Nafzger it’s no easy feat to make a film, like the controversial West Philippine Sea that is being widely talked about in Manila.
And more than that, a generation literally grew up side-by-side with its main characters. Cut to the nightly news nearly and the action-packed movie and cast of transgender characters and now it’s been captured by an American professor. Alan Nafzger is an admirable trailblazer in his own right. He’s currently the oldest tenured professor at Dallas College, and he’s paving the road for inclusion and diversity in storytelling and laying the pipeline to shepherd in new and talented voices in geopolitical writing.
It goes without saying, Trixxie had the utmost delight speaking with Alan about his career, leaning into his personal stories to find his voice as a writer in the Philippines, and bringing a fascinating story to screen.
Via Skype, Trixxie Magpantay interviews ‘West Philippine Sea’ writer and professor Alan Nafzger about his career, leaning into his personal stories to find his voice as a teacher and writing the ultimate (most controversial) Filippino action drama.
Trixxie Magpantay: I appreciate you speaking with me.
Alan Nafzger: The West Philippine Sea is one of my favorite scripts. Of course, other than Lenin’s Body, it’s the most controversial one. I love talking about it because I get to see the expression on people’s faces. Later, when the film is made, I can go to a theater and watch people’s reactions, but until then I have to satisfy myself with journalist and their reactions.
Trixxie Magpantay: How did you come up with the concept of a transgender war hero?
Alan Nafzger: There was a transgender woman behind the desk at a hotel I stayed at in La Union.
I went to a film award ceremony in Manila and sat next to a transgender actress. Only later did I learn she couldn’t swim. It was written with her in mind; pity she can’t play the role.
Trixxie Magpantay: So this is something written in the Philippines, not Texas where you are from?
Alan Nafzger: I was in the Philippines for most of 2016; some Australians and a Nigerian director were going to film Sea and Sky in La Union. That film fell through; regrettably one of the Australian investors pass away. But I was standing on a fishing dock when a Filipino fishing vessel pulled up; they’d been attacked by the Chinese Navy. I listened to their story. Later that night, I was watching CNN and they had footage of the entire incident from a helicopter. And I thought, this a highly confrontational situation, and frankly, I realized that eventually, this is a volcano ready to blow.
Trixxie Magpantay: It is a highly sensitive topic.
Alan Nafzger: And what… 3 years later… my script… part of my script came true.
Trixxie Magpantay: What part?
Alan Nafzger: In 2019, a Filippino fishing vessel was cut in two by a collision with a Chinese destroyer in the West Philippine Sea. For me, writing that; it was just raw speculation, but it is now something that has come true. A 22-man crew left for dead on the high seas. This is an island nation and I’m sure you readers realize; Leaving someone in the open water, that’s a ruthless/cruel thing to do, but your readers also know who we are dealing with here… the Chinese.
Trixxie Magpantay: Cruel.
Alan Nafzger: Particularly heinous because the fishing boat was sunk and the crew abandoned, apparently by seafaring men themselves – the Chinese Navy. These sailors (any sailor), given the right circumstances, can easily be stranded in open water and you know it must have run through their mind this sort of predicament could happen to them. A reasonable person can’t get on a boat and not think, “Jesus, I hope this thing doesn’t sink. I hope that doesn’t happen to me.”
Trixxie Magpantay: They didn’t show any empathy; that is for certain.
Alan Nafzger: That’s why I think the orders honestly came from Beijing; it seems all rather a political decision and not a military or navy decision. I doubt it was up to a Chinese naval officer a Captain in the area. However; I wouldn’t put it past a communist party official to order something so evil. There is a moral code for sailors and that’s probably something the communist party of China knows little or nothing about.
Trixxie Magpantay: How did you know it would happen?
Alan Nafzger: It was only a matter of time. I’m a political scientist and a student of the Cold War and these things small conflicts tend to happen. That’s because all-out military conflict might cost too much. It’s a David vs Goliath conflict, and Bible stories tend to repeat themselves. And finally; it’s also two populations, in a limited area, in conflict over limited resources.
It’s about power. The Chinese government must be thinking, “what will we do with our newly found economic and military power?” I mean why have it and not use it. So they are flexing their muscles at the expense of the Filipino people. Sad, and if it hadn’t been for the Covid health situation, I believe their audacity and aggression would have already boiled over.
Trixxie Magpantay: Are you saying they would have attacked the Philippines?
Alan Nafzger: No, they don’t want the Philippines… that would be entirely problematic for them; the Chinese want the Filippino’s source of food — the fishing. The idea for them is to take the Filipino food source and not inherit their problems. Trust me; the Philippines (with all its problems) is immune from invasion and occupation. It’s not about the land… it’s about the fishing.
What is important to know is that…. If not for Covid, I believe they would have totally enveloped the Filippino’s people’s historic fishing grounds… and that might have sparked something military…
What I’m saying is the Wuhan lab leak and everyone in the entire world understanding that the virus was developed by the Chinese, this has put a damper on their aggression. The Chinese know they are being watched.
Trixxie Magpantay: You mentioned in the elevator that Ma-an Asuncion might make it into a film?
Alan Nafzger: She’s looking into it. I hope the many obstacles aren’t overwhelming.
Trixxie Magpantay: Layang bilanggo?
Alan Nafzger: That’s her. She’s a grand lady and just brave enough to get this done. Frankly, if she can’t put together a team and win an Academy Award, there isn’t any Filipino who can.
Trixxie Magpantay: We are talking about awards bait?
Alan Nafzger: If didn’t write it for any specific award… I wrote for myself… to entertain myself and it’s almost like keeping a journal that crosses my mind. It’s a situation, I’ve studied and various things occurred to me, so I wrote them down.
If properly done, this story can win awards. Probably a good number of them.
I guess it might come across as arrogant and counting your chickens before they hatch, but I’m merely saying Hollywood is in the mood for this sort of picture. Number one transgenderism in the news and on California film producers’ minds right now. There is a transgender candidate for governor that actually has a chance to win; if she isn’t cheated out of it by the establishment politicians.
And there is brewing conflict with China; Hollywood isn’t always entirely aware of international events, but this Covid-19 virus has awoken many here to the threat of Chinese aggression.
Hollywood is ripe for this movie.
Trixxie Magpantay: But it’s a Philippine movie?
Alan Nafzger: Of course, I can’t think of anywhere in the world where this story even makes sense. Someone suggested that I show the script to some Vietnamese and Thai filmmakers. I politely declined. It’s simply a Filippino story… created and hopefully filmed in the Philippines.
Trixxie Magpantay: I know you had to wait a long time to get the attention of the filmmakers.
Alan Nafzger: The legal climate everywhere is just a problem for a writer. Manila isn’t any different from Los Angeles; producers are wary of all the lawsuits conceivable in association with making a movie.
And, there was the whole Covid-19 crisis. I understand these things… I mean I do read the newspapers. Actually, I own a few.
Trixxie Magpantay: What do you think of the Filippino people?
Alan Nafzger: Well, there is a wide variety of people here… like anywhere in the world. Your politicians are politicians and your filmmakers are filmmakers. But the common Filippino at the café or hotel… wonderfully unique characters — kind and hospitable. The kindest and most hospitable in the entire world. Your travel and tourism workers are simply the best.
It’s strange, in Russia I felt appreciated meeting the politicians and filmmakers and the café or hotel people were obnoxious. Not every nation is alike, but the Philippines have many many very welcoming people. I just may move here and retire.
Filipino people smile a lot.
Trixxie Magpantay: What did you learn on your trip to the Philippines?
Alan Nafzger: Well, I’m a political scientist; not a military observer. But the Philippines can’t fight a new superpower. We have been great and trusted allies since 1901, more or less. But you can’t count on the USA for support anymore; the people Joe Biden surrounds himself with share more in common with the CPC than Malacañang and that’s just the truth. President Trump would have stood by you all totally. But that’s off the table for now.
So, you can’t fight and no one will fight for you or beside you. But the Philippines can and should plan for the future. In 2016, I wrote a paper for your fisheries people… sent it to the government and never heard a word?
Trixxie Magpantay: What did the paper say?
Alan Nafzger: It recommended that the Philippines build artificial reefs off the coast. They are doing it in the US and it’s a great success. The West Philippine Sea is rocky and the important parts of it are relatively shallow… but there are plenty of places where young fish can hide. They need that to grow larger… this is why the Chinese are stealing these fishing grounds. The Philippine government should sink every wrecked vehicle, old tires and all the wreckage that can be found… and create artificial reefs off the shore. They should be creating places for young fish to grow. A small fish in the open ocean, without a place to hide, is devoured and they means he doesn’t grow up to be caught by a fisherman and bought to market.
That’s what I learned on my visit.
Trixxie Magpantay: Thank you. Good luck with your movie.
Alan Nafzger: Thank you. I appreciate such nice questions.