There is no doubt that the crop of Filipino films screened this year was innovative with sensibly high standards of production and thematic value. The screenings were very well attended attracting a huge population of very young viewers. It confirms that the Cinemalaya festival which is one among many other annual film festivals in the Philippines, has established itself as a credible platform for the emerging pick of young independent filmmakers. But the difference lies in this: that unlike other festivals, Cinemalaya has chosen to take serious pro-active steps to encourage Filipino cinema and the country’s filmmakers by sponsoring the entire gamut of films shown in the competition.
This way, it ensured a decent quality in the festival’s films and at the same time paved the way for dozens of local producers to invest their trust in the future of a healthy independent Filipino cinema. Indeed this role model is worthy of emulating in other countries, especially India and Sri Lanka.
While deciding on the films worthy of our NETPAC award I decided to evaluate every film for its strength and weakness. So here are the views shared by the jury.
At first let’s have a look at the ten short films shown in two lots of five each.
Group B: two films here, namely Babylon by Keith and Kiko by Jojo looked like stories meant for feature films requiring more details of the locale, socio- political backdrops and the time span in which their stories were taking place. At a technical level too, these two films left a lot to be desired. You, me and Mr Wiggles by Velasco was a bold portrayal of erectile dysfunction affecting a young couple. But the idea of viewing this sexual trauma from a top-angle single take reduces this into a voyeuristic mode while also making this a bizarre theatrical piece.
The fourth film Siyudad Sa Bulan was a docudrama about the hazards that children go through working in the depths of a coal mine. These illegal sites not only endanger but also enslave the local indigenous population. But it was a story poorly told with even poorer craft. The last film in this group was Yakap (Embrace) by Mika and Rafael. The exquisite choreography and lighting was marred by its random editing pattern which seemed to destroy the poignant drama of a young girl caught in the moment between life and death.
Group A: This bunch had much better films. Best Employee of the Month by Jareil worked on the absurd dramatic style, trying to see two employees at a petrol station caught in the crossroads of consumerism, third world poverty and the deprivation of its working class. The short film ends on an anarchic note with the woman employee choosing to set fire to the very space which sustains their brittle economy. Sadly the metaphor somehow fails to be communicated. Logro by Kani shows the travails of a poor dwarf caught in the world of high expectations. Choosing to pursue higher dreams, he gets entangled in a boxing match rigged to make money out of gullible onlookers. Having made some money he blows it all up buying a car which he can never handle. This weak tragedy was offset by an excellent attempt in digital imaging with Glenn’s film Renting a home. The short explores complex ideas of urban space and its denizens who navigate the interiors versus their exterior world; men versus women; the spatial conflicts between artists and playful children; all seen through the point of a view of a retired man who can see multiple functions of his limited space. The formal aspect somehow overwhelmed the story. The contest for the best short film narrowed down to two films: Astri and Tambulah by Xeph had a brilliant actor playing a transwoman but whose Muslim family will not simply allow ‘him’ to marry the boy of her choice. Filmed in the Mindanao background it tells us this tragic tale of the transwoman Astri, also a part time dancer, ending up dancing for the betrothal of her beloved. This bold look at the problems of the growing LGBT community competed with the dreams of a provincial schoolboy who imagines that he can solve the problems of his family, surviving as fishing people, by dressing up as a mermaid capable of drawing more fish for his family’s catch. This short film called Sa Saiyang Isla (In his Island) by Christian Candelaria works at many interesting levels. At the outset it is a strong critique of the rampant pollution caused by shipping traffic in the archipelago. It portrays the distraught conditions of fisher-folk who eke out a living in this business. The most interesting however is the metaphor of the ‘neutral’ mermaid as a desirous persona. Is it mythological? Was its gender as a female concocted by male pirates of the sea? Or was it feminization of the conquered territories by the colonial rulers? At a practical level, the young boy has to face the teasing schoolmates who make fun of his desire to cross-dress and become a woman. The filmmaker is bold enough to make the parents of this boy completely supportive of his desires, regardless of whether he has any proclivity to espouse the cause of a transwoman.
For this evocative portrayal of a young schoolboy’s dream in a desolate fishing village this film was given the best short film award.
The best feature length film category:
The review begins bottom up by stating that the most worrisome film of the lot was The Lookout by Afi Africa. The film emerged as a mishmash of several conflicting narratives. From problems of dysfunctional families from where young boys are nurtured to become gangsters to corruption in high ranking police officials; from angry vengeful emotions of the scorned gay community to double-crossing mafia dons in the drug business; from the bold roles essayed by young women in the police force to domestic marital abuses. Even the generous audiences had no option but to boo the film through the screening.
Next in line comes a film called ML by Benedict Mique. Quite inappropriately, the topic of the ghastly period in Filipino history was modeled in the horror genre. The story of two senior school boys and a girl who want to research on the martial law era but end up being tortured by a retired colonel of the martial law era is both bewildering and totally unreal. If it was not for the amazing presence of the actor playing the colonel, the film would have slipped into ignominy.
Another saga in the unending violence was School Service by Ignacio, which tells the story of an old man and woman who kidnap children and make them beg in the busy shanty precincts of Manila city. The kids get addicted to sniffing rubber solution to keep off their hunger while they run behind gullible patrons to make a few bucks. The film seems to have been largely improvised on the streets. Credit must go however to the agile camera and sound crew who make this melodrama come alive. The film suffers from very poor contextualization of the city’s begging community and in the process appears lazy and even a bit incompetent.
From the next seven titles we come up on a very competitive pitch. The grading distance between them grow narrower, and making it difficult to arrive at a clear judgment. Such was the quality of films this year. However, a list has to be made.
Starting bottom up, Kuya Wes by James Robin Mayo, tells the story of the life of Daniel, a simpleton working in a money remittance agency. He takes pity on the condition of a young mother with two daughters and doles out money from his own pocket to tide over her crisis. Slowly it becomes a habit and out of sheer love, one day he proposes to take her out on a date. When he feels the time has come to go and actually propose marriage to her, he discovers that her husband has come back. Devastated, our tragic hero walks back home in tears. A bit of a lazy screenplay which has been salvaged by some wonderful camera work, production design and a delightful performance.
Next in the lineup comes a piece of sheer experimental beauty in Musmos Na Sumibol Sa (Unless the Water is Safer than on Land) by Lionel Arondaing. The lone Muslim film in the group is narrated as an allegory to the background of recitals from the Quran. Stylized from the start it shows the saga of a young boy and girl deserted in the mangroves as they come face to face with the realities of existential angst, having taken birth on an accursed planet. The myths from the Quranic texts are very similar to the ones in the Biblical testaments thus making us all aware of the theological discourses that have dominated our intellectual frameworks. Brilliant camera work, sound design and music take this work to worthy levels.
Interestingly the next top five films are all helmed by women characters. The film Distance by Perci Intalan comes next. It shows the emotional anguish of a misunderstood woman/ mother who comes back home after five years to adjust herself to living with two daughters who have virtually forgotten their so-called mother. The twist in the tale is when we realize that she had left her family to go and live with her lesbian friend in the UK. When she returns home she finds that her older daughter also has lesbian tendencies. Her husband tries to patch the family up but is prohibited by a rather dull screenplay which seems to provide no options at all. Yet again the film has some wonderful camerawork and set design.
The next film is Mamang by Denise O’Hara who tries to narrate the psyche of an elderly woman struggling with her Alzheimer syndrome. The narration enters her mind and after a while, we too are left drifting between her imaginary world and her real. Bolstered by some excellent performances by the mother and her son to the accompaniment of some outstanding musical scores, the screenplay however meanders with very little shifts from the routines of her distorted imaginaries, leaving the viewers a bit confused and tired. Yet it is very much possible that another kind of audience would find this perfectly acceptable.
The top three positions would leave any jury dazzled. Equally riveting, the race resembles a 100 meter sprint in the Olympics where the 3 winners sneak past with a lead of micro-seconds between them.
Let’s take Pan De Salawal (The Sweet Taste of Salted Bread) by Che Espirito, a bright young woman with several short films to her credit. Her first feature deals with the genre of magical realism, telling the tale of a sprightly young girl who has the miraculous powers of healing by causing some minimum hurt on the afflicted. One step closer you will find that all the afflicted people she provides succor to are basically lonely people, thus indicating that physical manifestations of pain are largely rooted in the mind. This metaphorical allegory is staged in a quaint little neighborhood where an elderly and lonely baker suffers from blockage by kidney stones. The poor little young fairy befriends him and tries to rid the pain lingering in him. One evening, to the accompaniment of a funny celebratory group dance, she manages to cure most of those in pain but not the baker. Vexed, she disappears into thin air leaving the baker to make friends and bring happiness back to his life.
This delightful feel-good film comes into stiff contest with the chronicles of another woman, a rebel and a conscientious mother rolled in one. Liway is based on the real life story of the film director Kip Oebanda whose mother ran into hiding with a rebel group during the martial law regime of Marcos. She marries one of the rebels and keeps moving constantly. When she is in a state of advanced pregnancy she is caught, along with her husband, by the military forces. The army general decides to show leniency provided they appear in a press conference with him. The mother chooses to protect her child and husband and surrenders to spend another six years in prison where she tells fairy tales to her son about the joys of freedom. The sheer realism of this film puts it on par with many a European war film which reveal the fact that such regimes have multiple facets surrounding them.
The best film award however went to another world standard filmic treat - Kung Pano Hihnintay Ang Dapithapon (Waiting till Sunset) by Carlo Enciso Catu. Yet again we see a powerful woman in Teresa, an aged divorcee living with Celso her old companion when one day she gets a call from Benedicto her ex-husband who has to go through a medical emergency. Spontaneously she chooses to forgive him for all his trespasses and volunteers to help him out at this time of distress. She enters her old home, now dilapidated, and puts it back in order while Benedicto slowly sinks. This simple story is now embellished with some enchanting cinematography and production design. The play of details with the rain season is nothing short of magical, endearing us to befriend this noble old soul and ingest the aesthetic beauty of what it is to forget and forgive. The quiet charm of this poetic tale is reminiscent of the late master Yasujiro Ozu in whose world the ideas of attachment and detachment are merely two sides of the same coin.
The closing ceremony of Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival 14 th edition was a treat to our eyes and ears and exquisitely timed to the last detail. The crowning touch to the festivities was when the organizers brought on stage the next year’s set of filmmakers with their beautiful posters displayed on the giant screen behind. Despite the pouring rain outside, audiences came in large numbers to the superb main auditorium and went home that night with the resolve to return to this amazing venue on the Manila Bay sea front in August 2019. Hats off to Chris Milgado and his wonderful team!
Report by K.Hariharan (India) Chairperson, NETPAC Jury
Edited by Latika Padgaonkar