Shanghai: Prolific Filipino Director Brillante Mendoza Talks President Duterte, His Docudrama Style

Brillante Mendoza - Getty - H 2019
Clemens Bilan/Getty Images

The helmer, who has made 16 films in 13 years, is conducting a master class at the Shanghai International Film Festival.

Given his prolific recent output and workaholic reputation, it is no surprise that Brillante Mendoza has arrived at the Shanghai International Film Festival to conduct a master class fresh from the set of his latest production in the Philippines. 

The ever busy Filipino helmer, best known for the gritty and realistic crime drama Kinatay, which won him the best director prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2009, only began directing features at the age of 45. Seemingly making up for lost time, the now 58-year-old Mendoza has directed 16 features in 13 years and also found room in his schedule to produce a number of TV series, documentaries and shorts, as well as mentor and produce for the Philippines’ emerging generation of filmmakers.

“Working. I love to be working," Mendoza says with plenty of understatement. 

It was Kinatay that announced Mendoza’s talent to the world, with its unflinching look at life on the fringes of Philippine society and the director has since become known for infusing a heavy doses of politics into his films. "Neorealism" is how Mendoza describes a docudrama style he uses to shed light on pressing societal issues in his homeland.

On the eve of his SIFF master class, Mendoza talked to The Hollywood Reporter about his long, circuitous route to becoming a director, his signature docudrama style and the reality of his much discussed relationship with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.  

Growing up in the Philippines did film festivals play a part in your own cinematic education?

Not at all. I’m a country boy. I grew up in a province [Pampanga]. I only moved to the city when I went to college. Back then in the '80s we didn’t have access to international films at all. Some friends were from the U.S. and from time to time they would send me some films via Betamax or VHS — that was my only access to international films and there were no festivals. But I watched a lot of Filipino films, from old drama, romance, fantasy, comedy. Even then access wasn’t easy. We would have to wait for weeks, sometimes months, for films to reach us. Moving to Manila for college changed all that. It changed everything for me. But I am a country boy and growing up I was disconnected from cinema.

So how did your film journey begin and what attracted you to the industry?

The short version of a very long story is that I went from Fine Arts at university into advertising and was exposed to TV commercials. That was my introduction to cinema. I was amazed by the whole filmmaking process. I like the idea of interpreting whatever you have in your mind into cinema, whether that be through production design, cinematography, directing. The first job I took was a set man. There was no other job available. Then art director, production designer, assistant director. Then I was approached by a friend to direct. That was after 20 years because I never had any intention of making a film myself. I was happy being part of a team, not team leader. It was quite a journey but I loved every minute of it.

What difference do you now feel those extra years of background work made?

Well I was well prepared because I was 45 then. I was well exposed to cinema and advertising, two very different worlds. When I started making films I tried to merge the two together in order to create my own style and aesthetics.

Can you take us through the evolution of that style?

When I was doing commercials I knew very well that I was a salesman. You are trying to lure your audience to your product. So you do all sorts of things, you glamorize things. But I knew from my start in cinema that being a salesman was different from being a storyteller. In advertising there is embellishment. When I go to the cinema I just want to be entertained but I know that kind of feeling just stays inside the cinema. It doesn’t go with you. I told myself if people watch my films I want them to take with them what they just saw, and what they have just experienced inside the cinema. I told myself I want to create film that would reflect so much about their lives that they would not forget it, whether the feeling is good or bad. I wanted to reflect real life, documentary style, a neorealistic style.

One of the striking things about Alpha (2018) and about all your recent productions is just how real the actors make it feel. How closely do you work with them in character development?

On the set I always tell my actors I don’t want big acting. I don’t want acting at all, in fact. That’s why on set I don’t really provide scripts. Even if we have scripts I don’t ask my actors to memorize lines. I just give them the situation. It is fun, especially from the actors’ point of view. They are free and they are part of the filmmaking process. They are creating a character of their own. They are the co-creator. They don’t perform, they create.

How have you reacted to questions about your politics, and did you expect a focus on this given the nature of your films?

I have been doing social issues, socially based films, since the beginning and nobody questioned me about being political. But you can’t escape being political when your subject matter is about societal issues. People would ask me why I did these stories but would never associate it with the present political situation in the Philippines. I did projects with the Aquino government, with the Arroyo government without being associated with politics or with a political affiliation. But I filmed the State of Nation address and people associated me with this administration [of President Rodrigo Duterte] immediately. So they judge my work according to how they see this administration. Amo, for instance, has nothing to do with this administration. It is just about what is happening in this country. Ma’Rosa, which is also about drugs, was shot before this administration, the story came together four years before it. With the State of the Nation address I just wanted to shoot the president as he is, as a human being rather than a president. But that is all I have done for the administration and I have moved on.

Do you think globally at all in terms of your films, or are they aimed directly at a domestic audience?

In terms of the Philippines we are not at that global level yet. There is an interest and a curiosity that started about 10 years ago. There are a lot of young filmmakers coming from everywhere, filmmakers are winning awards. I think the third golden age of Philippine filmmakers is coming. The digital era has helped. I owe a lot to digital. We are in the process of showing the world what we can do, and how diverse we can be. All the different streaming platforms like Netflix are showing different kinds of Filipino films so people are starting to notice Philippine cinema. I hope in my lifetime I can reach a more significant audience that is not just domestic or through art house or festivals.

How much are these emerging streaming platforms changing the landscape in general?

This is part of growing technology. In as much as there are purists who exist, I think you cannot resist technology. We should all work together to our benefits. The best thing you can do is to use these platforms, this technology, to showcase whatever it is you have. Maximize it without compromising your work. Amo was intended for free TV here in the Philippines but it screened on Netflix. Different people all over the world started to take a look, and discover other things in the Philippines.

Has the growing global influence of the Chinese industry reached the Philippines?

There are a lot of Chinese investors talking with local filmmakers, and there are co-productions that are coming. I have been approached — even about doing films in China. It’s not impossible. I’ve worked in Japan and co-produced in Japan. The country has really opened up to China and the Chinese government so there’s no reason co-productions can’t happen in the future.

Can you give us an insight into how you approach hosting a master class?

What I would like to share with Chinese filmmakers and a Chinese audience is how I have done what I have done, with a very limited budget, with the kind of stories I create. The choice of stories I do, because they dwell on societal issues, means they are not commercial. They’re not genre movies. So investors can easily shy away from my ideas. But because my films are not too expensive they can gamble, they can take the risk. They don’t need to shed a lot of money. I make my films guerrilla style. That fits the kind of stories I make. This is what I would like to share. You can still make films in a not expensive way, without compromising your ideas, your perspective and your voice, most especially. Very specific stories about your country and your people can reach the world.