Michaela Ternasky-Holland on Combining Grief and Philippine Mythology in ‘Mahal’

Michaela Ternasky-Holland is named for her father, Michael Anthony Ternasky. It’s one of many connection they share, a connections that was cut short when her father died in a car accident when she was young. 

Her father was also a film maker, a story teller, a larger-than-life character, not unlike Michaela herself. She’s also mixed race Philippine American. In her latest work, she’s combined the grief of her father’s passing with love of Philippine mythology and created Mahal, a virtual reality piece currently showing at Tribeca’s Gaming and Immersive Experience.

The story focuses on four siblings, the immortal children of the recently passed creator god. They must process their grief before it consumes them, and the world they’ve been entrusted to protect. Vol II: Mahal is part of the Reimagined Series.

Melissa: How would you describe this piece to someone who’s never experienced virtual reality? 

Michaela: So Mahal was built for somebody who wants to be immersed in the piece. So you have to put a virtual reality headset on your face in order to fully experience the piece. The good news is it is not like you’re really gamified, or like a fitness experience. All you get to do is sit back, relax and enjoy the immersive film. So I think the beauty of Mahal is that it’s a very accessible, first time experience for anyone who hasn’t done VR or anyone who’s a little bit on the fence about doing VR. 

What does the word mahal mean? 

In Tagalog, the word mahal means love when it is described as a noun. But when it is described as an adjective, it actually means costly or expensive. When you think about it, love comes at a cost. Love is expensive, and the reason it comes at a cost is because when you lose somebody you love (whether it’s through a breakup or through a death or through a move or through any sort of fight), you feel the pain, you feel the hurt, you feel the grief. Mahal has this beautiful kind of double entendre meaning that, to me, represents the embodiment of grief. 

What inspired you to combine Filipino mythology with this theme of grief? 

So I’m mixed race Philippine American and I feel like my mom experienced a lot of racism [when she was] growing up. So I didn’t grow up really exposed to a lot of Filipino culture except for through my grandparents. And I remember coming out as queer to my family and them just not being very accepting of that. And realizing that this deeply traumatic ideology around Christianity and Catholicism and the lack of inclusivity in my family is actually an extension of, you know, the colonization and the imperialism of the Philippines. 

The word Philippines itself actually means King Philip II of Spain. It’s literally named after the person that colonized these 700 islands of over 100 different dialects, 100 different cultures. And I was like, those cultures must have had some sort of belief system. They must have believed in monsters and gods and goddesses and spirits. And so I went on this journey to be like, I’m pretty sure my original ancestors were more accepting of queerness. And that’s where I fell into mythology. Our ancestors loved and accepted trans people. Our ancestors loved and accepted queer people. Trans men, trans women often were the spiritual advisors in a lot of Filipino indigenous communities. Like, we have literal cultural dances, folk dances that are about men falling in love with men, women falling in love with women. These were all things I got to discover after coming out to my family.

I’m also the oldest of six kids, and I knew I wanted to do a story about family and siblings. I was writing the script and my EPS were like “it’s not enough. It can’t just have two siblings fighting. This isn’t a deep enough story.” And they kind of pushed me to go deeper, deeper, deeper, deeper until I kind of hit the point where I was like, “okay. I think where this story has to go is a story about grief.” I think there was something in the universe that was like, “now’s the time to tell your story about your father,” which has always been in the back of my head. It sort of just came out in this really beautiful narrative that also got to coincide with my love for Philippine mythology. 

What were the challenges of bringing this piece to life and what were the joys? 

It’s my first big foray into narrative. So my usual creative process as a documentarian or nonfiction storyteller is to really collaborate with the person or the community that I’m telling their stories. But this project happened in a totally opposite way. Meta funded us to do a trilogy of Oculus Quill pieces; Quill is that hand-painted hand animated in VR. It’s a 3D painting platform, and Meta funded me and my co-creator Julie Cavalier to make three short films that were directed, produced, directed by women and produced by women. So the challenge was definitely the script. I’ve never written a narrative short film script before. I always knew I was a storyteller, and I felt really confident storytelling in VR, once we actually had the script, we actually knew what they were saying, we knew what they were doing. 

The joys were actually making these characters come to life. The joy was working with the concept artist to do the character design was amazing and so much fun. And we got to pore over indigenous Filipino clothing and indigenous Filipino jewelry and indigenous Filipino body types. Going to headset with my team and being like, “okay, here’s how we’re going to lay out the environment. Here’s where I want this house. This is where I want this girl. This is where I want this chicken.” Working with the score composer, working with the sound designer. All of that was joyful. 

Obviously this piece is very personal. We’ve talked a lot about your grief. How have you processed or do you feel like you have processed your grief through this process or is that going to be an ongoing process? 

It’s going to be an ongoing process. It always will be. Like, I think there are new things I’m going to discover, new things I’m going to find. But as of now, this is a very poetic moment for me. This is my last year of being the same age as my father after I turned 29. I’m going to be older than my father was when he died, right? And this is the best kind of cumulation I can have for him, showcasing this project at Tribeca. So now there’s no more script for me right now. I don’t even know what my dad would do because my dad never turned 29, my dad never turned 30, my dad never did this. There is this bittersweet kind of graduation moment that this project represents for me as well. 

If your dad could see this piece, what do you think he would say? And then what would you like to say back? 

Oh, Jesus! I would hope he’d say, like, “Fuck yeah, dude, you did that. That was awesome!” My dad was very well known for making skateboard films back in the 90s. And some of the people that were talking to my dad at that time of his life were like, “Your dad wanted to go into Hollywood, your dad wanted to make movies.” And he never went to film school. I’ve never been to film school. Also my dad loved Disney. And so, like, my hope and dream is he would just be like, “did my daughter make a Disney film?” And I think what I’d say back is “Of course I did. I’m your daughter.” I’m really grateful I get to carry on his legacy. I’m really grateful I get to carry on who he was in the world through my own authentic way of showing up in the world. And I’m really grateful I can also do that for my mom, right? This is also a piece that embodies my mom and her Filipino culture and her heritage that she’s left behind. And being mixed race, I think it’s really important to make sure that my mom is also part of this process in her own way.

Is there anything you want people who cannot actually attend Tribeca to know about the piece? 

Yeah, it’ll be releasing on the Meta headsets later this year. So if you own a Meta headset, keep a lookout. It will be free. We’re doing a ton more festival screenings through out the year. And there’s a world where I’d love to figure out how to raise funding to make a 2D version of this project. And there’s a world where I’d love to potentially spin this off as its own animated 2D series. I’m totally open to having any of those discussions or any of those conversations.

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