by Sofia Guillermo (Business Mirror)
WHEN ONE SPEAKS OF A “GOLDEN AGE” OF PHILIPPINE CINEMA, one invariably looks back with nostalgia at the Seventies and Eighties when the likes of Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal made films that mirrored the realities of those troubled times. Now, over twenty years later, Brocka and Bernal have long been gone and the times are troubled still. It may be the least of our worries that cinema since then has succumbed to the crass commercialism so prevalent in today’s mass media. Under the threat of being buried alive by imports from more quarters than ever before, industry players have responded more and more often by cashing in on the hysteria du jour, spewing out instant hits “inspired” by flash-in-the-pan loveteams, novelty songs, and personalities whose value lies in their susceptibility to commodification. Now and then, of course, we get the occasional transgenerational epic full of sound, fury and other slaphappy treats. Really, there’s no business like showbusiness, but despite these least-common-denominator appeals to the audience, business is alarmingly bad as a quick glance through the “Now Showing” pages would tell us. As of this writing, only one local film is premiering in theatres this week.
The Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival screenings–the most recent leg being at the Greenhills Promenade–give encouraging proof that, while the industry may be moribund, filmmaking is alive and well. Here are feature-length films and short films, all independent and driven by a simple need: to tell a story in moving images. It is to Cinemalaya’s credit that it has recognized the short film as a form that can hold its own. In literature, it would be ridiculous to find fault with a short story for not being a novel and in much the same way, short films tell stories that are appropriate to the form. The six short films screened, winners and finalists of the Cinemalaya competition, are near-perfect in their brevity.
Lawrence Fajardo’s Kultado (Special Jury Prize) is a gritty slice-of-life story, set mostly in the abattoirs of the Bacolod Public Market, which deals with a young man’s struggle to end the reign of a gang of butchers who terrorize the other vendors into giving protection money. The dialogue is entirely in Ilonggo, something unusual considering the Manilacentrism of most films produced in the Philippines. While it must be admitted that this film shows a higher concentration of violence and gore (explicit and implied) than one would wish for while munching on popcorn, Kultado displays a firm grasp of MTV-style editing techniques. The tight cinematography, fast cuts, and various post-production effects serve to mediate the almost unbearable imagery for the more easily nauseated members of the audience. It is the film’s stylishness and up-to-the-minute sensibilities that make what would otherwise be just another revenge-and-ketchup flick worth watching.
The virtual one-man-production Alimuom by Milo Tolentino, while also graced with the presence of a bloody corpse, is entirely different from Kultado. The story is told subjectively, with the character trapped in an existentialist world where hell is not necessarily other people. The persistence of memory and guilt that is impossible of assuagement drive him into a presumably endless cycle of attempts, almost comic in their futility, to hide (from) what appears to be his conscience. Adding to the sense of claustrophobia is the character’s silence while he conducts his grunty and sweaty labors. In lieu of speech, “incidental” sounds–of windows being frantically closed, for instance–are amplified, allowing us enter, as it were, the inside of the lost soul’s skull. There is also a voice-over that makes subtle mockery of the proceedings: “Kung kaya mong isipin, kaya mong gawin.”
Another auteurial work is writer-director-editor Anna Isabelle J. Matutina’s Panaginipan which is primarily a mood film possessed of an almost elegiac tone that is in keeping with its perilously slight story: Two emotionally-disturbed young women decide to end it all in the most obviously natural of ways–that is, to just stop breathing. Of the Cinemalaya six, this is the most character- and dialogue-driven, with the two leads being studies in contrast: Mona is hard and self-contained while Sara is soft and clingy. They clash in scene after scene yet they are inexplicably bound together in co-dependence. The key to the mystery surrounding the two lies in their curious inactivity. It is difficult to make a film where the characters are going nowhere slowly but Panaginipan succeeds primarily through its rich and textured coloring and the judicious use of unusual camera angles.
Shockingly slick for an indie production is Joel Ruiz’s Mansyon (Best Film) that tells the story of two caretakers, the perfectly-cast Dolores and Ambo, left alone in the eponymous mansion. Like the butler in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, the housemaid and the gardener are typified by asexuality and inarticulacy. All this changes with the accidental spilling of perfume, a momentous event that inevitably unleashes their repressed humanity with tragicomic consequences. Watching Mansyon is a synesthetic experience and it is as if one can actually smell the perfume and the freshly cut shrubbery. The symbolic use of the color red is also an ingenious detail in a film that somehow manages to avoid being overwhelmed by bric-a-brac. Mansyon is essentially a retelling of the Adam and Eve story, yet as the two are banished from their quondam Eden, they take up their bags not with shame but with a newfound confidence.
Upbeat right off the bat, thanks to the Makiling Ensemble’s jaunty contemporary hegalong riffs, is Sigrid Andrea Bernardo’s Babae (Best Direction). This short film goes for a more documentary style in telling the story of two childhood friends who grow up together beside the railroad tracks. The difference in their personalities is stated early on with their choice of toys–one plays with Barbie dolls while the other prefers kick-the-can–yet they are the best of friends who grow up to be comrades and, eventually, lovers. The story of the two is interspersed with soundbites from neighborhood manangs that subvert supposed male supremacy in their frankness. Underscoring the film’s message that rigid gender roles are in the eye of the narrow-minded beholder is the use of black and white “stock” which, in the end, gives way to color. Babae is a refreshing take on women’s empowerment wherein all-too-justified anger takes the backseat to love and mutual respect.
Pam Miras’ Blood Bank (Best Screenplay) is a gem of a city story about three people whose lives of quiet desperation and loneliness interconnect despite the odds of urban existence. Theirs is a bizarre triangle not of love but of mutual need: Des is a woman suffering from aplastic anemia, Emma is a medical technician at a blood bank, and Cleto is a mugger. The story revolves around Des whose need for weekly blood transfusions brings the three characters together. Cleto, who falls for Des after he reconstructs her persona from the pictures and personal effects (including a diary) that he finds in her purse, eventually becomes her main donor. Meanwhile, to all initial intents and purposes, Emma is Des’s only friend. The film’s overall theme, successfully conveyed on several levels, is hinted at in Des’s recurring dreams of being besieged by vampires and of turning into a vampire herself. Blood Bank presents an ultimately bleak view of life at the same time that its virtue lies in its clear-eyed gaze at present-day realities.
These six short films presented by Cinemalaya are vastly different from each other yet they have one thing in common: they were all shot digitally. It is pretty safe to say that digital technology will give new life to filmmaking. In fact, it is doing so already. Soon to be gone, hopefully, are the days when to make a film, whether long or short, a filmmaker had to practically pawn her or his soul to a studio for the privilege of having a cherished vision come out mangled beyond recognition. To go back to Brocka and Bernal (and at the risk of sounding like the goofball protagonists of Peque Gallaga’s Pinoy Blonde), those two were not just filmmakers; they were also socially committed artists and that is why their legend lives on. The digital revolution that may very well usher in another “Golden Age” in Philippine cinema would, at the very least, have found favor with them, as it should with anyone who has a genuine love for movies. The number of filmmakers is growing by the day and, even now, the Cinemalaya films may already be just the tip of the iceberg. Filmmaking is alive and well and, for the independents, it is digital. For those of us with stories to tell, there are no more excuses.