Cinemalaya is unlike any other festival, at least its feature competition section is. Usually, in film festivals, international or otherwise, entries are called for and programmers choose a certain number from among them using various criteria such as quality, theme(s) of the festival, representation of a wide base of nations, number of slots available, and so on. Some festivals don’t call for entries and get their content curated through experienced curators. But at Cinemalaya, held every year in the Filipino capital of Manila, the feature film competition comprises ten films made by young Filipino filmmakers who are chosen two years in advance, mentored and funded to make their films – with the end products competing exactly two years later.
The 19th edition of Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival, as it is officially called, was no different. Held during August 4-13, it screened ten films whose directors were picked up a two years ago from nearly 200 screenplay entries received, shortlisted to top 15 and then further pruned to top 10. The two juries – the main Competition jury and the NETPAC jury – watched these ten films, as well as ten short films that were chosen from entries received through an open call, to choose the winners in various categories. The NETPAC awards only the best film award in both feature and short categories, while the main jury has a wide range of categories to decide. The festival also screens a selection of Asian films – both feature-length and short – in non-competitive sections (Visions of Asia comprising NETPAC award-winning films from other festivals, Dokyu comprising a curated package of documentaries, and several special screening packages of short films including one curated by Lorna Tee of The Asian Film Network Alliance) but the excitement clearly is around the competition films as the festival every year has been unearthing fresh talent, some of whom have gone on to become flagbearers of Filipino cinema in both independent and mainstream spaces over the years.
This year too was not different. The selection of the feature and shorts comprised a wide variety of filmmaking visions, and every film was different from the other in terms of visualization, treatment and overall design. Uniquely for Cinemalaya, this year saw the first-ever selection of animation and documentary films in the full-length feature competition, marking a step forward for the festival in terms of widening its scope and opening a new window of opportunity for young filmmakers focusing on these two genres.
The feature competition comprised quite a few strong films, and the wide range of award winners reflect that fact. One of the most-striking film of the festival was “Iti Mapukpukaw” (The Missing), directed by Carl Joseph E. Papa, which swept the best film award in both main competition and NETPAC sections. Software engineer’s Papa’s animation film effectively utilized the rotoscoping technology to convert real-life footages into animation, creating not only stunning imagery but also using it as a tool to create symbolic layers to its storytelling. The film wowed audiences with its subtle nuances while dealing with several important issues, and the fine acting by its cast added extra zing to it. Subsequently, the film has been selected as the official entry of the Philippines in the Best International Feature category at the 2024 Academy Awards.
Another film that left a powerful impression was Dustin Celestino’s “Ang Duyan Ng Magiting” (The Cradle of the Brave). A no-holds-barred political story, the film’s strong dialogues and overall energy could overbear its weakness of being structured like a stage play across multiple sets. In the immediate context of the recent political history of the Philippines, it’s an important film, but lack of clear references to the timeline of the story might alienate international viewers from the very same context. But nevertheless, it stood out as a courageous film. Another courageous film thematically was Gian Arre’s “Tether”, which could attract viewers with its intertwining of obsessive love with a biological miracle, taking it to nearly-shocking levels. Its lead actress Jorrybell Agoto (who also features in Kevin Mayuga’s high-energy “When This is All Over” set during the Pandemic times) is a face to look out for in Filipino cinema for sure, and it might not be a surprise if she becomes an international breakout star in the future. And Arre too is a voice to watch out for.
The overall line-up in the competition, including the first-ever documentary “Maria” (Dir: Sheryl Rose M. Andes), an investigative, political film on wanton killings during former President Rodrigo Duterte’s campaign against drugs, coming-of-age teenage drama “Rookie” (Dir: Samantha Lee & Natts Jadaone), Japan- Philippines love story “Gitling” (Sugarland, Dir: Jopy Arnaldo), nostalgia-themed “Huiling Palabas” (Fin, Dir: Ryan Espiosa Machado) and “Bulawan Nga Usa” (Golden Deer, Dir: Kenneth De La Cruz) and “As If It’s True” (Dir: John Rogers) on the roller-coaster lives of a social media influencer and her untalented boyfriend, was quite interesting in terms thematic and linguistic diversity. But it is not to say that all the films were perfect cinema, and a few of them would have surely benefitted from further fine-tuning of the screenplays.
In the shorts competition too, a couple of films stood out distinctly from others because of innovative treatment (specially the NETPAC award-winner “Hinakdal/Condemned”, Dir: Arvin Belarmino) or simple-yet-heartfelt storytelling (the main Competition award-winning “Sibuyas Ni Perfecto/Perfecto’s Onion”, Dir: Januar Yap). One would eagerly wait for quite a few of the shorts directors to come up with their full-length features in the coming years.
Next year, it would be 20 years since Cinemalaya had started. And like every year, the 10 finalists of the 2024 edition of Cinemalaya were presented on stage during the Awards night on August 13. These 10, who were chosen in 2022 and have undergone the Lab & mentoring process during 2023, have exactly a year to film their projects and showcase them in the Competition section in 2024. Cinemalaya is, very encouragingly, a good example of public-private partnership – a joint venture of the Cinemalaya Foundation, Inc., and government-owned Cultural Center of the Philippines. Starting with the 2023 batch, whose films competed this year, each of the chosen films are getting financial grants of Two Million Pesos – which come from equal contributions of One Million Pesos each from the Cultural Centre of the Philippines and the Film Development Council of the Philippines. Cinemalaya has, over the years, unearthed several generations of new cinematic voices, and this year was no different. The only dampener perhaps was that the usual venue, the grand Cultural Center of the Philippines, is undergoing a massive renovation, forcing the festival to temporarily shift for the next couple of years to the nearby and equally-grand Philippine International Convention Center (PICC), which is not exactly equipped to be a perfect film screening facility.
By Utpal Borpujari
(The author served as the chairman of the NETPAC jury at the 19th Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival, Manila, August 4-13, 2023)