• Film

Filmmaker Kent Donguines Explores Tattooing as a Political Statement in “Treasure of the Rice Terraces”

Kent Donguines, a Filipino Canadian filmmaker, has always been fascinated by tattoos. He proudly shows us, during a Zoom interview, the many tattoos he got, including the ones he received from 106-year-old famed tattoo guru or mambabatok, Apo Whang-Od – who lives in the remote village of Buscalan, in the municipality of Tinglayan, Kalinga, Philippines.

Apo Whang-Od recently made history when she was featured on the cover of Vogue Philippines and became the oldest person the magazine has given that honor. Halle Berry (“Now, THIS is real beauty.”) and other talents praised the groundbreaking cover subject.

The legendary Apo Whang-Od and her descendants are the subjects of Donguines’ upcoming documentary Treasure of the Rice Terraces, which explores the use of traditional tattoos from symbols of beauty and bravery, their stigma of being associated with gangs and criminals, to their current use as political statements.

Donguines, whose parents hail from Kalibo, Aklan, is the first Filipino Canadian filmmaker to travel to Buscalan, a secluded mountain community in Tinglayan, Kalinga, Philippines to find the legendary tattoo artist Apo Whang-Od.

Born in 1918, Apo Whang-Od practices the traditional way of tattooing, which is using a bamboo stick, an orange thorn needle, a short stick, a coconut mixing bowl and soot from her all-natural fireplace. She mixes everything with water to create ink inside the coconut mixing bowl. She then dips a blade of grass into the ink to create a pattern on your skin. The process might take 30 minutes or two hours, depending on how small, big, or complicated the design is.

The film explores how this old practice, once banned and despised in Philippine society, has now evolved into a chic and in-demand type of body art that has become a source of pride for many Filipinos, both at home and abroad.


The documentary also highlights the importance of preserving tattoo culture for future generations and the challenges faced by the community in maintaining their art tradition. It also delves into the issues of stolen mummified bodies, cultural appropriation, stigmatization and discrimination faced by tattooed individuals.

Directed by award-winning Donguines (Paco, Kalinga, This Ink Runs Deep) and written by Donguines and Zlatina Pacheva (Run the Burbs, Kim’s Convenience), the documentary is produced by Jacob Crawford and Bailey Wood, co-produced by Epicmedia’s Head of Production Patti Lapus (Midnight in a Perfect World, In My Mother’s Skin, Nocebo) and Grace Palicas.

The documentary is being filmed in Manila, Buscalan, Philippines and Vancouver, Canada and will be released in 2024. Cinematography is by John Fleming (Kalinga).

What inspired you to make Treasure of the Rice Terraces?

Fun fact – in 2016 I had a recurring dream about an old lady in the Mountain Province of the Philippines. That’s what triggered my interest in tattoos in general.

In 2019, I co-created and co-produced a short documentary, This Ink Runs Deep, about the revival of indigenous tattoo cultures here in Canada.

During that time, when I saw our director and my co-producing partner receive tattoo gifts from indigenous tattoo artists here in Canada, I felt a little jealous. This prompted me to dig and do more research on the tattoo practice and culture in the Philippines. Those two experiences were definitely the influences as to why I pursued the subject matter.

What were the challenges you encountered in making the documentary?

In 2020 we went to the Philippines to conduct research as our first stage of development. When we got there, we traveled all the way to Buscalan. When we got to the central part, before we went up to the village, we found out that the village was already on (COVID-19) lockdown.

So, when we got there the first time, we weren’t able to meet Apo Whang-Od. Fortunately, as part of my research, I recognized this one person on a motorcycle. I was, like, “I know you. You’re one of the apprentices of Apo Whang-Od.”

And she was, like, “Yeah, I am one of them but, unfortunately, I’m off from school. But I can take you to someone who can give you a tattoo.” So, I was able to get my first indigenous batok tattoo from one of Apo Whang-Od’s apprentices, Lisa Panoy. Which was this one (Donguines shows the tattoo on his arm).

After that we waited for COVID to slow down because travel was not allowed and our subject matter is also high risk. We didn’t want to go to the village and then risk carrying COVID into the village. We waited a little bit. That was the biggest challenge.

How was your meeting with Apo Whang-Od?

It was surreal. It was really special. The first time I met her, in January, I teared up. It felt like my mission was partially complete. Just meeting her was amazing.

After I met Apo Whang-Od, my cinematographer John Fleming, turned around and was just ready to hug me. He’s, like, “I know what you’re feeling, just let it out.” It was really magical.

On top of that, just doing the interview with her was magical. I was learning things and perspectives specific to the Philippine tattoo culture that I wasn’t really aware of when I was growing up in the Philippines.

As a person, she’s very lovely. You can see her lovely personality shine through the character herself. She likes to joke around. She’s very funny. She teases me and my team with some of the local apprentices as well, who became our friends in the village.

She was pairing us up with her grandnieces and she is, like, “Oh, you should get to know this person, and so forth. It was really lovely.”

But other than being funny, she was also very insightful. She was sharing stories of how she learned to become a tattoo artist.

She really took pride in how she took the tattoo practice and used that to teach the rest of the community how special the culture is. That’s why it’s no longer a dying culture. Now there are a lot more tattoo artists in the village who are continuing the practice.

Can you give me an idea of how many students or apprentices she has?

She started with two, Grace Palicas and Ilyang Wigan. When other women in the village noticed what Apo was doing with Grace and Ilyang, they wanted to learn what Grace and Ilyang learned.

Right now, in the village, there are three main tattoo artists and over a hundred apprentice female tattoo artists.

Did you also get a tattoo from her?

Yes. So, here we go. I’m going to pull my sleeve up a little bit. This is going to be part of the documentary. You’re going to see my arm, from fully empty to a completed arm sleeve. This is from Apo Whang-Od. It’s the three dots.


What’s the significance of the three dots?

The three dots represent Apo, Grace and Ilyang. They are the three dots of Buscalan village. They are really at the forefront when the tattoo hunter Lars Krutak met them back in 2006. Yes, I got this from Apo.

I am really happy that I got one from Apo herself, from Grace and Ilyang. I’m really hoping that, when we go back for the remaining shoot blocks that we have for the film, I will be able to complete some of the unfinished tats. This is going to be all over my arm.

This is going to be around my arm and other tattoo artists are welcome to fill up this arm of mine. I am really happy that I got to document it not just for the documentary but also for my personal treasure chest.

At what stage now are you in making the documentary?

We started editing the documentary. What was crazy was when we got to the Philippines and did more research. We met a professor who was also one of the tattoo anthropologists who was really into talking about the tattoo culture in the mountain province.

A lot more stories came out of our visit back in January. So, we felt the need to go back to make a solid coverage of the tattoo practice.

If I have to give a number, we have 30 to 40 percent of the film done. We’re looking to finish the rest later this year. Hopefully, by 2024 we can premiere the film.

We promised the Buscalan village community that the very first screening of the film will have to be in Buscalan.

Talk about your collaboration with Patti Lapus of Triangle of Sadness and Bianca Balbuena of Singing in Graveyards.

When we started this project, I really wanted to bridge the Philippines and Canada through the stories I tell. When I was still conceptualizing this, Patti and Bianca decided to come on board as co-producers of the project because their company is based in the Philippines.

So, Patti and Bianca have really shared their insights on how we can get access to some film incentives or some film financing in the Philippines, and bring that information with the rest of our financing plan here in Canada.

This is an international collaboration, then.

Yes. This feature documentary is shot by John Fleming. He’s a really good friend of mine. We started the partnership when I was just starting out as a director.

He shot my very first documentary, called Kalinga. It’s a short documentary about Filipino caregivers and nannies. It’s available to watch on Crave here in Canada.

I really appreciate the relationship that we’ve built through the years. Working on Treasure of the Rice Terraces as our debut feature documentary is something that’s really exciting. We’ve grown as filmmakers in our understanding of film, and also in the approach and sensitivity towards the subject matter.

It’s much easier to communicate with someone who understands the intention behind the project. I’m just really grateful that I got to work with John and with my producers Jacob Crawford and Bailey Wood (who are pushing to get our teaser out there), as well as with our publicist, Cynthia Amsden. I have nothing but gratefulness for the rest of my team.

Talk about tattoos that are being used now as political statements and the stigma before about having a tattoo.

Growing up, tattoos were a sensitive topic back home. I remember my uncle used to have a dolphin tattoo on his leg and my grandma asked him to take it out. At that time my uncle was planning to move to Canada, and was also looking into trying different jobs and other opportunities.

But it seemed like having that single tattoo has always been an issue. So, I just hope that perception changes, especially with Apo Whang-Od and the rest of Buscalan getting recognized, not just domestically but also internationally.

There are some parts of the Philippines that still view tattoos as taboo. We’ve seen and we’ve heard politicians talk about it as well, and how certain companies won’t necessarily hire people who have tattoos. So, that’s the kind of the conversation that we’re really trying to bring up in this documentary.

As for tattoos explored as political act, it feels that we are on the brink of getting colonized again by China, especially with the past administration and the current administration – really exploring options on how to incorporate Chinese companies and China’s culture within the Philippines.

I really want to take this opportunity to make this documentary and hopefully inspire my fellow Filipino Canadians, Filipino Americans, or Filipinos themselves, to look into how rich our culture is as Filipinos, and what our role is to preserve the richness of our culture.]

Growing up in the Philippines I realized that it also showed me how we, Filipinos, patronized Western culture more. Sometimes it’s a lot cooler to do Western things than our own culture.

I’m just hoping that this documentary will allow us to have conversations about preserving culture and, also, finally practice what we all know growing up, which is to really be the champion of our own culture. We don’t want to be erased. Not just in history but in the present time.

When did you decide to become a filmmaker? Where did you study filmmaking?

I went to the University of the Philippines. I studied communication media studies and was exposed to advertising, broadcasting and journalism during my university years.

When I moved to Canada for good I knew that I had to go back and have at least a foundation in terms of community and knowledge when it comes to filmmaking.

So, I went to Vancouver Film School where I specialized in producing and cinematography. From there, I started my company right away after graduation as a sole proprietor and just kept making content under the banner of Aimer Films, which is my company.

In 2018 I had the privilege to work with a Philippine team on a Filipino feature film called First Love, directed by Paul Soriano and starring Bea Alonzo and Aga Muhlach, here in Vancouver.

Because of those experiences and because I championed more Filipino narratives and stories within the diaspora, I was able to find my spot as a director and really just focus on telling authentic Filipino stories.

Can you tell us more about your Filipino roots?

I have seven siblings. I’m the second child out of seven. My family is from Kalibo, Aklan. That’s where I grew up with my grandmother.

I moved to Canada for good with the help of my dad. Then, with my stepmom, in 2015, I moved to Ottawa. From Ottawa I moved to Vancouver. We’re still here.

Who are your film influences?

This is really exciting that you’re asking this question. I’m a huge fan of director Erik Matti, especially when he made On the Job: Missing 8. He followed it up with BuyBust. As a Filipino director I really love his work. I love that he challenges political conversations through the stories he tells.

I also like Hollywood directors like Damien Chazelle, who’s more focused on the music and the entertainment industry stories. There’s also Denis Villeneuve, the Canadian filmmaker who made Dune, Blade Runner 2049, Prisoners and Sicario. All these filmmakers are really great inspirations.

Damien Chazelle, for example, I’ve been watching his very first film, which was Whiplash – a short film that he then made into a feature. I’m planning to do the same but with Philippine folk dance, next, after Treasure. I’m just happy that film allows me to take inspiration from different filmmakers, combine those inspirations and make it on my own as a director.

You have varied tastes from politics to music.

Yes. I used to be a singer, a dancer and a theater actor. On top of that, I went to school for journalism.

You have two projects, the Four Four and the documentary Canadian Adobo. Can you tell us about those?

I am in prep for both of those films, as I am in post for Treasure. Canadian Adobo is a spinoff of my first short documentary, called Kalinga. When I did Kalinga, it was about Filipino caregivers and nannies and how their stories helped me understand what my mom had to go through when she left me at a young age to become a caregiver.

And Canadian Adobo is a spinoff of that. Now I want to tell stories of the kids of Filipino caregivers and nannies, and really talk about what their experiences were when their parents left them. I want to allow them to have that closure with their parents, as well as finally open up and talk about these sensitive topics.

Four Four, on the other hand, is a film about a Filipino fast-food worker who is also a hip-hop dancer and is trying to find his place in Canada as a new immigrant. In an attempt to find his community, he auditions for Philippine folk dance troupes. So, it’s a little bit of the intensity of Whiplash meets the visual and psychological treatment of Black Swan, but with Philippine folk dance being featured.

What are your dream projects?

Yes, I do have a dream project. I’m in the early stages with a few of them. I’m also currently in talks with – I can’t drop the name yet – but an A-list actor in the Philippines to develop some of them.

I currently have an untitled movie that explores online trolling and the rise of troll farms during the last Philippine elections – what that looks like when an online troll is here in Canada and gets traced, how his family gets in trouble in the Philippines.

So now I’m going into the Erik Matti kind of style, an approach that is more neo-noir. I have a comedy film also in the works about overworked caregivers planning to perform a bank heist in a small town in British Columbia.

What would you advise aspiring Filipino filmmakers who also would like to make a name for themselves in Hollywood?

My biggest advice is just really to write what you know first. Don’t worry about your metrics. You don’t have to worry about your market research.

At the end of the day, it’s going to come down to the story first. If people are interested when it comes to the stories you tell, everything will fall into place.