Death seems to be a prevalent subject in this year’s Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival.
In the Director’s Showcase field, “Bwakaw,” Eddie Garcia buys a casket in preparation for his demise while in “Mga Mumunting Lihim,” a dead woman continues to make a difference in the lives of her three friends, thanks or no thanks to a diary she left behind.
And in the New Breed Category, “Diablo,” “Oros” and “REquieme!,” three of the less heralded but more acclaimed films, are more than holding their own against the more hyped and star-studded competition as death itself is figuratively and literally a crucial element in their respective storylines.
In Mes De Guzman’s deliberately paced fable, an old woman (Nanang Lusing played by Ama Quiambao) who lives alone in a small town is visited by a dark figure every night.
“Is this the devil? Her late husband? A figment of her imagination? Or a manifestation of her fears? Told in a deliberate and meditative style, the film is not in the horror genre type,” line producer Rhea De Guzman told Interaksyon.
De Guzman insists that contrary to what its title suggests, “Diablo” is actually a drama.
“In a cultural context when you say Diablo, it’s evil, Satan, demon, etcetera,” she noted. “But the film simply unravels the story of a mother’s love and her family’s journey to overcoming the demons in their lives. It’s just a metaphor and does not literally represent anything.”
The metaphor, in the film’s case, is also an ominous sign of what turned out to be an untimely death in the family when one of her five grown-up sons, the hermit-like Oscar (Carlo Aquino) who heads a religious cult, was killed by drunken bystanders.
Contrary with its somber mood and deliberate pacing, De Guzman said the filming of “Diablo” on location in Nueva Vizcaya for 13 straight days “was leisurely, relaxed and enjoyable.”
“In casting the film, we [were] looking for the character; not [with] any celebrity or any star actor in mind. We had a list [and selected them] depending on the talent acting range and availability,” she revealed. “Aside from Cinemalaya, friends, relatives, and supportive individuals also helped fund the movie.”
De Guzman said what made filming smooth sailing and “tension-free” is the fact that they stuck “to the budget and production schedule” as an “indie policy of Cinelarga, our production company.”
“All the actors, which also included Roeder Camanag, Althea Vega, Arnold Reyes, Jose Escobedo and Fredie Dela Cruz, were also good and professional, in a manner that they [were] doing it for the sake of finishing a film without the pressure and backing of a big film company, and in the spirit of indie filmmaking,” she added.
“The bottom line here [is] you have a finished film. ‘Yung kuwento mo sa baul ay isa nang pelikula.”
In Paul Sta. Ana’s cautionary tale, an unidentified dead body is exploited to justify the holding of a three week-long wake and the illegal gambling (or sakla operation) that is also “staged” along with it.
“Oros is an original story. All the screenplays that I write are based on Philippine cultural phenomena that are usually researched and reported. I interviewed sakla personnel, interpreted their experience and used some of them as actors in the film,” said director Paul Sta. Ana.
With death as a backdrop, the young filmmaker maintains that he has “a responsibility to expose audiences to social realities that they tend to ignore or shun.”
“I strongly believe that I don’t have be poor or come from an impoverished background to tell the story of the impoverished; hopefully my sincerity as a filmmaker will shine through, and that the restraint in telling a story that may easily be sensationalized will be evident.”
Sta. Ana said “Oros” almost did not get made as the film’s original producer backed out at the last minute.
“I got funding from an American friend, a lawyer-friend and a boss from the company I work for,” he admitted. “It’s still a blessing in disguise though, because if my producer did not back out, I wouldn’t have the guts to pursue making this film, and I wouldn’t have known how much support I’d be getting from friends like Jun Lana and even strangers who believe in the material.”
And while principal photography in Tondo took only seven days, it was quite an experience not just for him but for all members of the cast and crew.
“I stepped on human feces. Residents told it was so because it was inside a plastic bag. One thing I realized about the experience is that human kindness and compassion exist in any condition, no matter how desperate and impoverished the environment may be,” he shared.
In casting “Oros” which Sta, Ana said refers to gold, he conducted a screen test for both leads Kristofer Martin and Kristoffer King, who many of those who’ve seen the film say is a frontrunner for the filmfest’s Best Actor honors.
“For Kristoffer King, it was more of a formality; I was 99 percent sure I was going to get him. For Kristofer Martin, several other teenagers auditioned for the role, but he had the edge, the potential and the look that I was spotting for. He also has the makings of a matinee idol,” the director pointed out.
As for Tanya Gomez, the film’s most recognizable star, Sta. Ana said she no longer had to audition.
“I already knew she was perfect for the role. It was just a matter of convincing her to do it. I have never worked with her before, but I have always admired her work and feel that she’s an underrated actress. Since she was already familiar with the indie process and style of acting, I knew I just had to get her.”
As for critics who dismiss “Oros” as another indie film that exploits poverty, Sta. Ana has a very strong reaction to this.
It’s both in the treatment and the intention of the director. But poverty, corruption and decadence are definitely social issues that need to be tackled in the Philippines. As a filmmaker, I feel I have a responsibility to do so,” he pointed out. “If viewers are tired of poverty and prefer to be escapists, God help our country.”
Finally, there’s Loy Arcenas’ satirical look at Filipinos’ penchant for funeral fiestas, gossip and secrets, bizarre social events and the sheer mix of scandal and inebriation. At least for one central character, Sharmaine Centenera-Buencamino’s scheming barangay chairman, death brings opportunity, not tragedy.
“For ‘REquieme’, we wanted a huge canvas on which we could mirror ourselves as a nation and I think we have created one,” said director Loy Arcenas. “We get to see how fame and celebrity can blind us, how our government can fail us, and how our laissez faire bureaucracy still bugs us down. But for the many wrongs that this society has, there are its pluses, too. The optimism of the people, for one.”
Arcenas, the director of Niño, one of the better films in last year’s Cinemalaya competition, said that his film is partly based on Gina Apostol’s short story, “Cunanan’s Wake.”
“We then added a real-life incident, something that happened to a friend of writer Rody Vera and the bureaucracy that he encountered when he tried to help bury a neighbor whose relatives had not claimed his body,” the filmmaker narrated. “To make up for a richer storyline, Rody came up with the title, a wordplay on Requiem and Quieme.”
The filmmaker added that TV and radio soundbites also punctuate many of the screenplay’s scenes. “These soundbites are meant to serve as background ‘washes’ to the scenes. It is the characters and their behavior or response to the news which they hear that take centerstage in the scenes and not the news per se. The film is, after all, a mirror of the way we behave these days.”
That mirror is seeing a lot of reflections with every screening. The buzz on “REquieme!” is that it is one of the film festival’s best pictures overall and may strongly contend for several awards, including acting honors for Buencamino and Anthony Falcon who plays Joanna, her estranged gay son as well as another screenplay recognition for Vera.
The theater-trained Arcenas said working with veteran screenwriter Vera for the second film in a row allows each of them “to get the best of each other.”
“Rody and I first worked on my production of ‘Tatlong Marya,’ an adaptation of Chekov’s ‘Three Sisters” that was presented by Tanghalang Pilipino. We trust each other. We enjoy each other’s company, and we push each other to get get the best of each of us. And most important, we love and relish the ironic twists of life, which are very much in play in the film,” the director noted.