Kara David’s journey: On cam, off track, then back in control
Months after graduating from the University of the Philippines, Kara David sent in her application for a flight attendant position to EVA Air, Emirates, and Philippine Airlines. That did not sit well with her father, renowned academic Randy David.
“Nagalit ang tatay ko (My dad got mad),” recalls Kara. “Sabi niya, ang course mo ay Mass Communication. Kung Tourism ang course mo, mag-stewardess ka. Pero hindi eh. (He said, you took up Mass Communication. Had you finished Tourism, being a flight attendant would be fine).”
Kara was having a hard time landing a job that suited her degree. The reason: faulty English. Months earlier, she had flunked the English newswriting tests given by ABS-CBN 2 and ABC 5.
“My dad was the host of the TV program ‘Public Forum,’ which was in Filipino,” explains Kara, whose mother was the late activist, musician, and academic Karina Constantino. “We all spoke Filipino at home to help him and I always wrote in Filipino.”
Kara then applied at GMA 7 and waited for months to be given an exam. The newsroom officer smiled and shook his head when he read the English news item Kara had written.
“That’s how I knew I failed the English newswriting test again,” she says.
Next, she was asked to read news items on camera. She flunked that one, too. “Palpak na naman ako,” she says, laughing.
GMA News and Public Affairs head Marissa Flores then asked her: “Hija, gusto mo bang maging PA/researcher (Would you like to be a PA/researcher)?”
Kara didn’t have to think twice. She recalls replying, “Yes, ma’am! Kahit ano pong trabaho, kahit taga-xerox po (I will take anything; I can even do photocopying).”
Time was on her side: it was weeks away from the 1995 elections, and research work was heavy. She was hired.
And that was the beginning of the television career of one of the country’s foremost documentarists, winner of a George Foster Peabody award and many others, and host of a string of programs: “I-Witness,” “Case Unclosed,” “OFW Diaries,” “100% Pinoy,” “Powerhouse,” “Pinas Sarap, Brigada,” and “News To Go.”
Yet her now nearly three-decade career progressed not in giant leaps, but in tiny steps, albeit with some strokes of luck.
In the small hours of December 13, 1995, the GMA 7 newsroom was empty, save for Kara, who was transcribing interviews.
“Desk, desk, Lady Blue,” the two-way radio crackled. It was Jessica Soho, then the network’s (Department of National) Defense reporter. Kara shyly picked up the radio mic.
“Yes, Lady Blue?” “Who is this?” “Kara po,” she responded.
“Do we have any other staff there?” Soho asked.
“Wala po (None),” Kara replied.
“May lumubog na barko, kaya mo bang mag-interview (A ship sank, can you handle interviews)?”
“Yes, ma’am!” Kara responded, giddy at the chance of being out on field, finally.
The passenger vessel Kimelody Christy had been on its way to Oriental Mindoro when a fire broke out at 2:30 a.m. near Fortune Island. Over 20 people died in the blaze and 13 were reported missing. Soho was in another province, but had received a tip about the accident. She mobilized a cameraman and an assistant cameraman, and then roped in Kara as stand-in reporter, and sent all of them to Batangas City.
In Batangas City, Kara chose a small hospital where she thought survivors most logically would be brought. Her instinct proved to be right.
“She was crying because she almost died, and she also lost her wedding ring,” Kara recalls. “But she was so happy to be alive.”
In the next room was a young couple and their infant child next to a styrofoam container that used to contain apples. Recounts Kara: “The couple ditched the apples and placed their child inside it. And I thought ‘That’s like Moses’.”
An elderly lady was grieving in another room. She and her husband jumped off the ship and managed to stay together in the water. But she let go of her husband’s hand when she saw a child struggling to stay afloat. Her husband was gone when she returned where they had been in the water. Only the child she rescued was with her in the hospital room.
After the interview, an ambulance arrived. It yielded the woman’s husband. He had been to several hospitals searching for his wife. Kara’s team was the only television crew in the small hospital to film the tear-filled reunion and all the other stories there.
“Kara, what’s your story?” asked Soho over the two-way radio hours later.
“Ikukuwento ko na lang po sa inyo (I will just tell you in person),” Kara replied. She was too timid to use the two-way radio to relay her story as it could be heard by newswriters, reporters, camera crews, and news bosses.
Kara, however, was determined to prove she was a reporter. She went a step further: she turned over a script, not just the tapes of her interviews. She carefully lined out the drama in each survivor’s story.
By that time, the network was no longer airing English newscasts. Kara reported to Soho: “Ma’am, nagsulat po ako ng maiksing script na puwede ninyo pong maging guide (I wrote a short script that you can use as a guide).”
Later that evening, Kara felt the high brought on when one’s authored sentences are read on air.
“I recognized the words I strung together,” recounts Kara. “It was airing, and the words were being said by Jessica Soho, my idol in college!”
Soho commended Kara’s work and spread the word about her potential. Kara was promoted as one of the Segment Producers of “Emergency,” where she found herself writing her own stories and spiels for program anchors like Senator Tito Sotto and Edu Manzano.
Months later, she would also become a reporter-anchor. Time and chance again favored her. The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit was being held in Manila and the newsroom had no available reporter for MOTS (man on the street) interviews.
Kara and her camera team decided to forego the usual somber piece. They chose a densely populated cluster of informal houses and engineered the intro, interviews, and extro in one unbroken take. They approached common folk, deep in their everyday chores, and asked them what the APEC meeting meant for them. The interviewees replied while they were washing dishes, playing bingo, and doing laundry. One was even taking a bath on the sidewalk when chanced upon by Kara.
The lighthearted segment paved the way for Kara to be given a one-minute segment within the early evening newscast “Saksi.” She was asked to produce “feel good” pieces, so newscasts would end on a happy note.
Her segment reflected her character: fun-loving, adventurous, quirky, sometimes shocking. She drank lambanog, went spelunking, joined skydivers, got a tattoo.
“My father didn’t like that one, the tattoo,” she chuckles.
Motherhood in 2000 made her rethink the risky adventures and the light materials she was churning out. She recalls thinking, “Baka naman may ibubuga pa ang pagsusulat ko, hindi lang puro patawa, feature, o light (Maybe I can do more than the funny or light stories I usually write).”
She chanced upon “Minsan Lang Sila Bata,” a documentary by Ditsi Carolino, and realized it was the kind of writing that she wanted to do next.
As luck would have it, she became one of the hosts of “I-Witness,” GMA Network’s pioneering documentary program, in 2002. Eight years later, she and her team would win a Peabody Award for one of their pieces for the program.
The awards she and her team have received are well-deserved and are results of hard work. Kara is strict and uncompromising when it comes to solid research work and field coordination, and this is well known in the department.
Senior Program Manager Joseph Conrad Rubio worked with Kara in an “I-Witness” documentary in Masbate focusing on the lack of water in a remote barangay. The research stated that people lined up at five a.m. to get water from a well. “She was up at four a.m.,” says Rubio. “She did not want to miss that part of the story. She is very professional in all aspects of production.”
Rubio adds that Kara is not just a spiel reader. “She is a hands-on host. She is keen on details,” he says. “Dapat may puso, may lalim, may saysay (It should have a heart, in depth, useful).” “She reads and studies everything,” says Program Manager Maharlika Corullo, who worked with Kara in several programs. “She knows when the research work is rushed, or a cut-and-paste job.”
“She is appreciative of thorough and complete research work,” continues Corullo. “She does not scrimp on compliments, but she does not hold back on criticisms, too.”
“Marami akong napaiyak (I have made many cry),” Kara admits. “I have high standards, but it is because I want all of us to come up with good stories. That’s why I share what I know. I give trainings on research for researchers and segment producers.”
Of all her documentary subjects, Kara credits the indigenous peoples (IPs) for shaping her views on life. While most lowlanders view those living in mountains as needing an education, needing to be saved, she has learned that it is the other way around.
When she and some Aeta were gathering fish from a river, she suggested ways to catch more. The Aeta reminded her that they should only take what was enough for the day. Kara says they had asked her: “Bakit, gaano po ba karaming isda ang kailangan ninyo para mabusog? Bakit po kailangang kumuha ng marami, hindi naman tayo magpapakataba? (How much do we need to be full? Why do we need to take a lot when we aren’t trying to get fat?)” Then when working with the Mangyan deep in the mountains, one of Kara’s team members fell down a ravine and sustained a cut in her face. The Mangyan gave her first aid using medicinal herbs. They fashioned a hammock out of materials they found around them, and several men took turns carrying the hammock down the mountain, to a hospital two towns away.
They were shocked when Kara offered them money afterward. She says, “Para sa kanila kasi walang halaga ang pera. Ang mahalaga ay tumulong ka (Money has no value to them. What’s important is that you helped).”
It was, she says, another humbling experience.
Years later, Kara returned to feature the same community and the hammock the Mangyan use to transport patients to the hospital. “Ambulansyang de Paa” won the prestigious George Foster Peabody award in 2010.
Working on these programs has prompted Kara to do more than just produce stories, to go beyond journalism. As early as 2002, initially on her own, she began sending children to school. She would send PhP1,000 to PhP1,500 monthly to a child’s teacher or adviser to ensure the money was spent wisely. Her friends in the network were the first to support her efforts when they learned of her scholars.
In 2010, Project Malasakit was registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission as overseas workers and her fans were now sending in whatever they could spare, ranging from PhP2,000 to PhP2,500 a month. Some would send sums in one go. To date, the donations are still coming in, with some companies sometimes sending in help in both cash and kind for the scholars.
Most Project Malasakit scholars are former child workers or children who survived calamities who were featured in Kara’s documentaries. Kara says she could not bear to just walk away after interviewing them.
“Malasakit comes from the words ‘mala’ and ‘sakit’,” she explains. “’Mala’ means almost or akin to, and ‘sakit’ is pain. You don’t pity, you share in the pain.”
Schools, health centers, and day care centers have also been built by Project Malasakit, funded by Project Malasakit Canada and Filipino workers in Dubai and in other countries. Filipino workers abroad raise the needed money and Kara and her lone Project Malasakit staff Marjorie Oriel oversee the construction in the Philippines.
So far, Project Malasakit has seen 12 students from impoverished backgrounds finish college. It has produced teachers, computer scientists, journalists, accountants, seamen, and hotel and restaurant managers. It has seven high school graduates and is currently sending 29 children to school.
Kara has proven that despite dismal beginnings in life, even the most disadvantaged of children can triumph with just a little help.
In the midst of all these Kara has found time to raise her daughter, build a home, finish her master’s degree, teach in the UP, fall in love, get married, run, bike, and swim for the Ironman, go to culinary school, prepare food for her father, and deal with bipolar disorder.
The diagnosis came in 2007. At the time, the sad stories she encountered were weighing her down. Her story on malnutrition that featured three children won an Asian TV Award, but one of the children died after the story aired. Another passed away after she received the award. She joined the reality program “Extra Challenge,” wanting to share whatever she won with Julie Anne, the lone survivor among the three children. Julie Anne died while Kara was still in competition, however.
Then, “Case Unclosed” and “100% Pinoy” were pulled off the air in 2007. Kara was anxious, fearful she would find herself jobless. She applied for a teaching position in UP but was initially told she needed a master’s degree. (She was later offered a lecturer position, which she accepted, but still worked on getting her master’s.)
All these pulled Kara down. She thought she had depression and sought medical help.
“I went through therapy. Then an exam showed I have bipolar disorder.”
After trying various ways to deal with the disorder, Kara has weaned herself away from popping pills, which she says disagreed with her sense of self. Instead, she manages her time to include hours of exercise in her busy day, every day.
“I exercise two hours a day. I start at six a.m. and when I’m unable to do that, I work out before I sleep,” she says. These days, every week, she bikes 60 to 80 kilometers, swims two kilometers, and runs 12 kilometers in preparation for the Ironman, which she plans to join this September.
For her mental health, Kara has added another task in her long string of activities: being a lector at a parish in Quezon City.
Food is also a cure. Says Kara: “I have learned that cabbage, basil, green leafy vegetables, chocolates, improve my mood.”
Her husband, singer LM Cancio, and her daughter Julia, have both learned the signals of lethargy, when Kara needs a food mood boost. LM cooks chopsuey or vegetable soup. Julia meanwhile chose bipolar disorder in children as her term paper in high school to better understand the condition.
In 2019, Kara decided it was time to speak publicly about her condition to help remove the stigma on mental health problems and normalize the path to diagnosis and treatment.
“I used to hide whenever I went to the clinic to be diagnosed,” she says. “I would wear a cap, worried that if someone saw me, I’d be labeled a lunatic.”
“I don’t consider having bipolar disorder a curse,” Kara says. “It’s a gift. It makes me creative and energetic. It makes me think fast.”
Just recently, Kara’s tasks increased; she was made chair of the journalism department at the UP College of Mass Communication. That’s on top of her Broadcast 101 and Journalism 104 teaching load. And just like everything else on her plate, she knows she will manage it well. Not bad for someone who flunked her network tests because of faulty English.
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