Q&A: Brillante Mendoza


CANNES -- With the dark drama "Kinatay" -- about a budding criminologist who slips into a life of crime in a single night -- Brillante "Dante" Mendoza becomes the first Filipino director to bring a film to Competition at Cannes two years in a row. Together with his 2008 Cannes film "Service" (Serbis) -- about the compromises a family makes to keep their crumbling Manila movie theater alive -- "Kinatay" (which means "butchered" in Tagalog) is likely to be a gritty reflection of the 48-year-old director's view of the Philippines' perennial troubles with poverty and corruption. Starring a tight group of Mendoza's close actor friends, "Kinatay" is based on a true crime. As the details of the actual event remain shrouded in mystery, "Kinatay" isn't likely ever to screen in the Philippines. To ask why, The Hollywood Reporter correspondent Jonathan Landreth talked to Mendoza as he rushed to finish editing the $100,000 digital French co-production.

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The Hollywood Reporter: As with "Service," you made "Kinatay" really quickly. What enables you to do this?

Brillante Mendoza: I really work best under pressure. I am in my element when I am doing things all at the same time. I thought it was the right time to do the project because I've had some experiences with authorities lately that I didn't quite like. I had that weird feeling that I wanted to capture in the film.

THR: This film was shot largely in the dark, and there's a brutal murder. Is there any comic relief?

Mendoza: (Laughs) Well, yes, in a way. The opening of the film is completely different from the second part of the film. It starts in the early morning, so everything is all bright and normal, and people go on their way and have their own lives. But it's like a bluff. The long travel and the execution take place at night.

THR: When did the event that inspired the film occur?

Mendoza: About five years ago. That's why the guy I talked with who conveyed this story could talk freely to me now because he definitely couldn't do this two or three years ago.

THR: Has the person who told you the story publicized his story?

Mendoza: No. This is completely confidential. It's based on a story by a witness, not on a story from the people who killed the woman.

THR: You garden a lot to relax. Does it help your filmmaking?

Mendoza: Not intentionally, but probably yes. I did this a long time ago before I was a director. When I was working as a production designer I would get tired and I would go to the garden, to the plants and water them. It's what I usually do to de-stress.

THR: Is cultivating plants like directing actors?

Mendoza: When you're trying to understand a character you have to do your research and get immersed with these people to understand them, their psyche, everything they do. That's what I do with the actors.

THR: You say mainstream Filipino actors don't understand what you're trying to do. What is that, exactly?

Mendoza: Apart from taking ourselves seriously as artists we would like to create a certain film that we can be proud of. We go to the set to work and please our ego and all that, but we really want to work as a team and learn from one another.

THR: What does the mainstream Filipino media say about you?

Mendoza: I avoid the Filipino media as much as possible. I don't want to be interviewed by entertainment writers, especially in the Philippines, or by TV personalities, because sometimes they don't know what I'm doing.

THR: Can your art reach into the popular culture?

Mendoza: It's very ironic what we are doing. I'd be a hypocrite if I didn't say this to you. What I am doing always has a social context in it, mostly around poor people and ordinary people who are trying to strive for something better. There are 90 million Filipinos. There are very few people who would understand my films. These are the literate, the educated ones. What I am trying to do now is to bring my films to a certain group, like the students. I don't even intend to show them anymore to the general public. I am not going to show "Kinatay" in malls and in theaters. I am going to go straight to schools and universities. That way, I can talk to the students after each screening and make them understand.

THR: When you came to Manila what was the first film different from the Hollywood films you'd seen that told you you could do this too?

Mendoza: I came to Manila to study fine arts and advertising. I realized I was good at drawing and painting and photography. At that time I liked superhero movies like "Superman" and films like "Saturday Night Fever." Then I saw this Tagalog movie called "Relasyon" (Affair), about a broken marriage, by the late Ishmael Bernal. It struck me because there was some truthfulness in the film. The husband and wife in the film were fighting, literally in the bed, shouting. I remembered my neighbors and their behavior and knew there was some honesty in this film. Then I started watching Lino Brocka. If I was going to be a director, these were the kinds of stories I would be telling. I wouldn't do popcorn movies, I told myself. I'm not saying I don't like them, but they're not films I could do.

THR: Do students come to you saying, "I want to be a director"?

Mendoza: Yeah, a lot of students do. What's really amazing about being a filmmaker is when you see students coming to you after they've seen your work and heard your objectives and why you do your films and then they realize that this is not an easy thing to do and they realize that you're there alone and then they really understand you and appreciate your work. You can see how honest they are when they tell this to you.

THR: So you've got moral support, but is there enough financial support in the Philippines?

Mendoza: Unfortunately, probably not. I don't want to sound like I'm bad-mouthing them but this government institution that was supposed to be helping us are not 100% helping us. I am lucky because my films are being selected by major film festivals, so the government doesn't have a choice if they don't like my films. Last year with "Service," I found that they didn't like my film but they were forced to support me because I'd been getting good reviews, winning awards and was always in the news. It's a shame they won't give us real support. The money that they give us is coming from the taxes that people in the film industry pay, not coming from other institutions. Our taxes on the entertainment are more than 30%.

THR: What's going on in Filipino politics today?

Mendoza: The people who are in power generally abuse their power and the people who are around them would side with him no matter what. Nobody's really brave enough to go on the other side.

THR: Is an Obama-like change possible in the Philippines?

Mendoza: Probably not in this generation. I don't want to be pessimistic, but I want to be realistic. Even most opposition here don't agree with one another. How can you ever have a real opposition if they fight among themselves? They even sometimes side with the administration. It's depressing.

THR: What does Cannes mean to you?

Mendoza: To premiere there is something I can be really proud of. Coming from a third-world country, sometimes the people back home in the Philippines don't have a choice except to watch your film. It's a pity, but realistically speaking, that's what's happening. They watch your film because it was watched by a first world country. If that's one way to push my kind of film so that it will be watched in the Philippines, I won't be a hypocrite and tell you that I don't get hurt -- I do. But I don't have a choice. It's not easy to do these kinds of films in a third-world country. It's not easy to find a producer. You often feel alone. Sometimes I would go home after editing, at about two or three in the morning so tired and ask myself, "Is this really what I want to do?" But then I can sleep and feel happy because I don't have any regret with my choices.
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