How a typhoon-wrecked part of the Philippines ended up dancing to Pharrell Williams’ ‘Happy’

The United Nations Foundation partnered with singer Pharrell Williams before their "International Day of Happiness" on March 20, and it got hundreds of submissions from around the world of groups dancing to Williams's hit song, "Happy".

What does dancing to a pop song in collaboration with a celebrity have to do with the foundation's global mission? UNF president and chief executive Kathy Calvin said they wanted the project to put "a spotlight on the power and importance of UN humanitarian efforts around the world. It also proves that when people feel empowered to tell their own stories, the world will listen."

One eye-popping rendition was filmed by Quentin Musset in Tacloban, Phillipines -- the same city that was devastated last November by Typhoon Haiyan. Musset recorded locals dancing and smiling through battered and grimy streets of the city. You can see it below:

 

Musset, a Vietnam-based advertising art director from Belgium, came to Tacloban to help with recovery just days after the storm. He later shot this video for the Day of Happiness campaign. We e-mailed him some questions about the video and his time in Tacloban on "Happy Day" and posted his answers below. They have been edited for brevity, clarity and grammar.

WorldViews: Can you tell me a little bit about how you ended up in Tacloban?

Musset:  I came from Vietnam with a friend in Tacloban for 10 days, about one week after Typhoon Haiyan. Our motivation was spontaneous: We wanted to help, we wanted to do something good in our lives and see for ourselves, not just through the television.

We went there alone without any NGO (non-governmental organization), we didn't know where we were going to sleep or how we were going to eat. So, we were welcomed by the locals and we worked with them in their neighborhood. After a few days we met someone from the [United Nations Development Program]. It was the beginning of their operations so they needed people and probably liked that we were spontaneous volunteers. We were assigned to a team on the ground to clear the streets and public zones.

When we came back for two months in mid-January, we monitored and supervised the workers in Tacloban.

What was your experience like while you were there?

The first trip just after the typhoon was pretty intense. The chaos [of traveling] into a destroyed city, carrying the dead bodies, I wasn't prepared for that. Television trivialized the reality. What we saw on the news was not a movie, and there are real people behind it.  We know that, but we don't really realize that.

The strong Filipino spirit around helped save my mind and keep me working like them. I realized we are much stronger than we think we are, that even if you lose everything it's still possible to be happy. If they can do it, we can do it too!


Quentin Musset with Tacloban residents while filming a rendition of "Happy"

Where did the idea for the video come from?

I work as a creative in advertising, so I'm always trying to find the best way to share a message. When I saw that a lot of cities around the world did this music video, I directly thought that making this video in Tacloban would be the best way to share the human lesson that I had there and that I really wanted to share.

We wrote an online diary (standuptacloban.com) but the "Happy" video is the best conclusion to it without any words.

How hard was it to shoot? Where did you find the dancers?

I shot it in a rush -- I had two days to film it before I had to catch my flight back. The first day I didn't know any groups of dancers, so the only solution was to go into the neighborhoods, explain and show the video concept and the message behind it.

It wasn't so difficult actually, they are so proud of their strong spirit and want to show that! Of course, most of them were shy, but often they would find dancers for me or the nice guy in the corner.

I approached them simply, not like a foreigner with some heavy camera equipment. Later, by luck, I found a group of dancers preparing a performance in front of a building. I explained the concept, and they were so excited, so I went to the representative spots with them and the music made the rest.

How did Tacloban locals react?

Their mobilization was huge, they are hungry to show to the world that even if the media isn't talking about them anymore and most of the international help is leaving, they are still there and strong. But they still need help.

They're thankful because the message behind it pushed this video to [media]. But actually, I only put a camera/mirror in front of Filipinos and their spirit with the right song at the right moment. This universal message is made with the Filipino spirit and was spread by Filipinos themselves. They deserve that the whole world watches their video.

 

Natalie Jennings is a Web producer for PostTV.
Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.
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