The 7th Cinemalaya Film Festival (July 15-24 2011) was an unqualified success but it also highlighted the dark underbelly of independent cinema. As Ed Cabagnot, one of the festival's programmers slyly observes: "It's a game of thrones." Those familiar with the scene would notice that every newbie director wants to be king for one year by winning the festival awards. And you are only as good as your latest film. Previous directors would meet you shyly and mumble embarrassedly the title of their early film hoping to jog your memory.
But really, they have nothing to be embarrassed about. Philippines today is THE leading South-east Asian nation in terms of independent filmmaking and emerging talents. And it cuts across ALL styles from fiction, experimental to documentary and shorts. Throughout the 10-day festival, our jaws were constantly dropping at the amazingly high-level of technical filmmaking proficiency. Seeing is believing. These guys are new, often first-timers but their films looked as good as any mainstream film.
Lawrence Fajardo's Amok, in particular, looks and moves as any thriller out there in the mall cinemas. But being of indie sensibility, the film takes a strong social stance in its realism. With its multi-level narrative, Fajardo follows the bullet trail of an ex-cop, down on his luck, who goes berserk when he is stabbed, and who fires wildly into the crowd with his homemade-handgun. Fajardo's biting observation is how there is always someone willing to rob and steal from the shot victims. That's the Philippines for you. The majority is so poor that the dead have to constantly compensate the living. The film won technical awards for Best Editing and Best Sound.
But the one film that should have taken some major awards went unrecognized. Eduardo Roy Jr's debut feature Bahay Bata (Baby Factory) takes place on Christmas Eve and follows a team of nurses, struggling to finish work and get home for Christmas mass and dinner. Shot in a public maternity hospital for the poor, the film opens with a roomful of mothers giving birth. While there are multiple storylines concerning the nurses and the patients, the storytelling is seamless with the handheld camera tailing and following the natural course of each narrative.
Diana Zubiri, a sex starlet a decade ago, plays Sarah, a senior nurse, hurrying home for a Christmas eve dinner with her married lover (played by Yul Servo, who gets second billing even though he appears for only five minutes). Her emotionally nuanced performance is shockingly good. Just compare that against her bump-and-grind early bold roles. The tension builds up revealing the conflict within each caregiver, balancing their personal needs and the harsh reality of underprivileged mothers - those who have multiple pregnancies, unwed young mothers and those with no homes. For a young director, the film's tone is delicately balanced between the joyful spirit of Christmas time (carols are persistently heard in the background) and the melancholia of mothers with no future. The traditional time of hope and childbirth, as seen in the Jesus myth, is given a short shrug. Yet apparently, for the Filipino jurors, the subject matter is not unusual. Perhaps the sight of numerous breast-feeding scenes wasn't enough of a show stealer. But Marlon Rivera's Ang Babae sa Septic Tank (The Woman in the Septic Tank) stole the jury's imagination and romped off with major awards in Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay (by Chris Martinez) and Best Actress (Eugene Domingo). It was a surefire winner, a film about film directors and film festivals that parodied several years of Filipino independent cinema as well as numerous directors. Told with hilarious imagination, we follow a young indie director who dreams of making his big important statement about Philippines' poor. As they rush to meet the actress they want to cast (comedian and dramatic actress, Eugene Domingo, who plays herself), they start dreaming up how each scene would play with different actresses - a tender version with Cherry Pie Picache, a youthful take with Mercedes Cabral and a highly dramatized one with Domingo. The classic moment is when they reach their location - the Payatas dumpsite or the new Smokey Mountain. The young director and his crew run ecstatically through the dump and the slums, shouting and laughing like excited children. They signify the countless indie films that have featured the slums and inadvertently coined a genre called "poverty porn." Finally, the film's title is played at the end credits when Domingo falls into a filthy septic tank. I have it from a company source that the water was clean. Domingo made sure of that!
While the above films were in the New Breed category - the 10 films that were funded by the festival's seed grant of 500,000 pesos (or US$12,000) - there was also a Director's Showcase consisting of films by veteran directors. The Catholic theme was played out again in Jeffrey Jeturian's Bisperas (Eve), which criticized the Church by showing that its followers lack a capacity to forgive. While Jeturian won Best Film, Best Actress and Supporting Actress, Auraeus Solito's Busong (Palawan Fate) won Best Director. In the NETPAC (Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema) category, Benito Bautista's Boundary took Best Film.
The festival continued with tales of the Catholic faith in Doy Del Mundo Jr's out-of-competition Paglipad Ng Anghel (Flight of the Angel)that updates Ishmael Bernal's Himala (Miracle, 1982). Instead of superstar Nora Aunor's hapless fate as a miracle worker, the miracle is now a man (played by Sid Lucero) who becomes an unwilling angel. Doy dwells deep into the psychology of a kind-hearted person who is constantly tempted, who wants to help but who dislikes the public nature of the role, who wants to give love but is plagued by desire. It's an intriguing contradiction and Doy shows just how hard it is to resist temptation.
Cinemalaya also shows just how hard it is to resist temptation, of being king for a year, forgetting just what that indie faith is all about.
by Philip Cheah