On the same month and week that Martial Law was declared 41 years ago, a film about the man considered as one of the Marcos administration’s greatest enemies will be shown in theaters as one of the eight entries in the coming CineFilipino Film Festival.
In an interview with InterAksyon, sibling filmmakers Sari and Kiri Dalena said their film, “The Guerilla is a Poet” follows the saga of Jose Ma. Sison and how he helmed the reestablishment of the Communist Party of the Philippines in 1968 and the New People’s Army in 1969.
“The film is framed by ‘The Guerrilla is Like a Poet’, the most important poem that Joma Sison wrote. But the underlying story that we hope to tell in the film is about youth, imagination and action,” Kiri said.
“The film explores how a UP English Major from an Ilocano hacienda family transformed to become the country’s revolutionary figure. It also asks the question why did so many young people from different economic and social backgrounds take the ultimate sacrifice to defy a dictator,” Sari added.
“The Guerrilla is a Poet” not only gives face to the younger Joma Sison but also to Julieta De Lima and the other youths in the late ’60s and early ’70s who were fired by the realization that they can take matters into their own hands and challenge the way the nation has been run by Marcos and the status quo.
“Whether you agree with their position or not, the passion these youths displayed is actually quite inspiring and applicable to any cause: that no matter your background, you can make a choice and change the course of history,” Sari noted.
The Dalena sisters said they would not have been able to do the film without the blessings of the exiled political leader who is currently based in Utrecht, Netherlands.
“Yes, he is very much aware that we are doing this. He is open and optimistic but at the same time strict when it comes to accuracy. Literature on Jose Ma. Sison abound. Books written by him and abouthim. But it was a different experience to actually meet and have him and wife Julieta De Lima tell us about their story,” Kiri admitted.
“In 2010, fellow independent filmmaker Keith Sicat and I were in the Netherlands for a film festival when we got a phone call saying that the Pinoys in Utrecht would like to meet us. So we took an impromptu trip to Utrecht and we were surprised that the one who was waiting for us at the train station was Joma himself,” Sari added.
After Joma shared his story, Sari and Kiri began to develop the film over the course of three years. Prior to principal photography, the sisters flew back to Utrecht to conduct an in-depth interview with Joma and his wife.
In casting the film, the Dalenas turned to what they call “a mix of up-and-coming indie talents and solid industry veterans” that included Angeli Bayani, Bong Cabrera, RK Bagatsing, Chanel Latorre, Anthony Falcon and Lehner Mendoza.
For the role of the young Joma Sison, they turned to a total newcomer in Karl Medina. Although Karl comes from a pedigree of dependable indie actors from father Pen to brothers Ping, Alex and Victor, he has never appeared in a feature film and prefers to work behind the camera and is more preoccupied with other pursuits, mainly skateboarding.
“We had cast him in some other projects before, one of which was a short documentary for ‘Case Unclosed’ where he did play Joma Sison,” Sari recalled. “None of us knew at that time that it was his audition for this role. Karl is fantastic because of his natural intelligence and effortless charisma—key elements that are intrinsic to Joma Sison’s character. It is evident in his performance that acting is in his blood.”
A surprise cast member in the film is comedian impersonator Willie Nepomuceno who plays Ferdinand Marcos. Although Willie Nep has played the late strongman in the past, often as a spoof or parody that was part of his live comedy act, he has never played Marcos as straight as he did in this film.
“It took a series of discussions to finally convince him to portray Marcos. The initial apprehension was due to Tito Willie’s admission that it has been a long time since he last portrayed Marcos as he had also put the character to rest after Ondoy flooded his home in Marikina and destroyed most of his Marcos-related materials, including costumes, photographs and paraphernalia,” Kiri narrated.
“His performance is uncanny since we all know he can transform himself to look like anybody, but the chilling way in which he portrays Marcos is really something to behold. It is a solid, dramatic performance that shows just how vast his talents are,” added Sari.
Unlike other indie films that were completed in a matter of days, “The Guerrilla is a Poet” took five months to film, due to both logistical and budget constraints.
“We had a pre-production shoot that sent Kiri to Utrecht while we interviewed Bernabe Buscayno aka Kumander Dante among others while shooting historical sites in Tarlac and Pangasinan that were of importance to the story. Then we had 17 days of principal photography in various locations,” Sari pointed out.
“Other locations were Davao, Metro Manila and Pakil and Pagsanjan, Laguna.”
“It was difficult financially as in the case of many independent films and there were sacrifices that we had to make. We knew from the scale of the script that we had to get outside funding. Fortunately there were private investors who felt it was worthwhile to contribute in telling this tale from a very volatile period in recent Philippine history,” Kiri said in conclusion.
“The Guerrilla is a Poet” will be shown during the CineFilipino Film Festival that will take place from September 18 to 24 at Newport Cinemas of Resorts World Manila, Lucky Chinatown Mall and Gateway Cineplex.