Every story needs a storyteller at the center of it all, an individual ready to use his voice in order to narrate. To inform. To both educate and entertain.
But how do you tell a story about a storyteller, especially one as prolific as Atom Araullo—a journalist who, despite living in this lightning-fast digital world that’s bursting at the seams with information, hasn’t lost the passion to communicate and tell the stories of others? Since his big move to GMA, Atom has been keeping himself busy filming documentaries for I-Witness, mining tales that resonate with the Filipino audience.
“What a documentary affords journalists like me,” he explains, “is the space to discuss a topic in a more in-depth manner and let the narrative take over the story. It has its strengths and weaknesses, in the same way a two-minute spiel might have its strength and weaknesses for the news.”
Take for instance his one-hour special entitled "Philippine Seas"—an eye-opening deep-dive into the vast bodies of water that surround our country’s islands. Not only does it expound on pressing environmental concerns, but it simultaneously exists as a quiet meditation on the marine and human lives which share a symbiotic relationship with our waters. Whether he’s learning about the hardships of tuna fishermen in General Santos, or catching a rare swim with the mythical dugong in guarded Palawan, it’s Atom’s inherent sense of curiosity and wonder that entices you to tag along on his journeys. And the most sophisticated element about this specific piece: it eschews any form of grandiose pretension and is packaged perfectly for the viewers it is intended for.
Atom, who has been doing the news for a long time, recognizes the importance of staying informed and having a grasp of current issues. He doesn’t, however, want to be confined to just TV documentaries, understanding that the advent of technology and the internet allow for various kinds of storytelling. “It’s just a matter of reaching people where they’re most comfortable,” he shares. “We need to reach all of these demographics that consume different kinds of media.” For him, it’s not about focusing on a specific form of storytelling, but rather, exploring alternative modes and mediums.
When Atom speaks about his work, the sincerity is palpable. He dissects the creative process like a philosopher, but always practical in his manner and choice of words—never too esoteric for his own good. But like any talented storyteller in history, he admits that sometimes he chooses the stories he tells, and on fateful occasions, they choose him. His popular work involving disaster risk reduction obviously belonging to the latter, and his first documentary with I-Witness called “Silang Nakalimutan”—about the dire circumstances of the Rohingya people of Myanmar—was something he consciously pursued.
'Usually it’s the difficult stories that tell us a lot about what’s actually going on. There’s a reason why they’re difficult to tell'
“Siguro gusto ko gumawa ng istorya na medyo mahirap,” he says. “Dahil habang humihirap yung istorya, nagkakaroon ka ng sense na importante siya ikwento. Usually it’s the difficult stories that tell us a lot about what’s actually going on. There’s a reason why they’re difficult to tell. I did the story on the Rohingya refugees, which doesn’t have a direct impact on Filipinos, but nevertheless, I thought this was something we could learn from. There were hurdles, not only because of the security concerns in Bangladesh, but also in convincing the audience that this is something worth their time.”
In the heart-crushing episode, we’re taken on a miniature tour of Cox’s Bazaar, a city in Bangladesh near the Myanmar border, where the oppressed Rohingya have fled for safety. Many die on the exodus. Families are torn apart, never to be reunited again. It’s bleak. It’s painful. It’s devoid of a fairytale ending. But there is always truth. And in truth, there is always insight—a tactic Atom uses to salvage his story (and his sanity) in even the most depressing of situations.
“I think it’s important for a documentarist to let the story speak for itself without embellishing it,” Atom stresses. The temptation to draw out the emotion from a situation or a case study, like asking questions that might elicit an emotional response, is a very real one. Creating a connection between the subject and the audience is integral to sustain interest, but Atom leans on a natural tendency to dial it back, instead allowing the images to convey the message and evoke a response.
“I don’t want the audience to feel like they’re being taken on a ride. The challenge is not to ram it down their throat. I’m not in control of how they react to the story, but at the end of the day, it has to push history forward whether it’s because it entertained and made you feel better about facing the next day, or maybe it made you decide to take a stand on an issue that’s important.”
Atom, well-aware that there are many different ways of reacting to a story, puts premium on legacy. And for a journalist like him, the worst possible outcome is when stories are merely tossed into the void, to drown into oblivion and dissipate into nothingness. “Our body of work is already so nebulous,” he reiterates. “So how do we make these stories live on? It has to affect them in some way. We have to make the audience feel.”
'Our body of work is already so nebulous. So how do we make these stories live on? It has to affect them in some way. We have to make the audience feel'
One can argue that Atom’s latest foray into acting still deals with eliciting an emotional response. What is to be an actor anyway, if not to incite empathy? Cast as the lead in director Mike De Leon’s highly anticipated Citizen Jake, a family drama with political undertones set in the misty mountains of Baguio, he found himself challenging his instincts as a journalist. He acknowledges the fact that he is new to the craft, and has a newfound appreciation for those who have chosen this profession.
“The instincts of being an actor and a journalist kind of diverge, even though they’re both visual mediums,” he says, recalling his days on the set, working with industry vets. “Journalists rely on logic, processing information, and controlling reactions by understanding why you’re feeling a certain way, which will reflect on how we write our stories and our demeanor when we go on camera. We have to process and make sense of it before taking action. Actors, I think, have to do the total opposite, which is to just go with it. They trust how they feel. It’s a sort of short-circuit to the senses—you have to be in direct contact with your senses and let your body react.”
Taking a giant leap into the unknown is always risky—uncharted territory has a way of disarming even the most experienced individuals. You can sense that Atom knows he’s treading ground that could easily crumble from beneath him, the misgivings of friends and colleagues about his latest career trajectory not falling on deaf ears. But for a man like Atom, who has been at the center of tempests, fighting the elements, always willing to get his hands dirty with the best of them, reaching the end of a story is about facing the mounting pressures and breaking down the walls.
“I think the interesting things happen at the intersections and the new areas that we haven’t explored yet,” he reassures himself, again finding the insight in truth. “There’s no guarantee. The bigger the risk, the bigger the payout, but also, the fallout if it doesn’t work. I’m ready for it. Who knows, right? In the end, this endeavor might tell us more about how we should do storytelling, both from a documentary and a narrative filmmaking point of view.”
Every story needs a storyteller at the center of it all, and Atom Araullo is a storyteller who defines reality so we can be informed, educated, and entertained. But the greatest thing about the relationship between a storyteller and his stories is that, as he weaves his stories together, they also end up defining the man he is.
Photography Artu Nepomuceno Styling Meg Manzano Grooming Amanda Padilla
Shot on location at Studio 925, Unit 2C, 22 Malingap, Diliman, Quezon City
Special thanks to Janina Arias and Pat Peralta