Cannes: Philippines Cinema Comes to the Fore

On the Job Cannes Directors Fortnight Still - H 2013

On the Job Cannes Directors Fortnight Still - H 2013

With three new features and one restored classic making their bow in the festival’s selection this year, the country has emerged as a filmmaking force to be reckoned with.

When asked about his reaction to hearing that his latest film, hitman thriller On The Job, was selected for Cannes, Erik Matti said he was surprised – first for having landed a berth at one of the world’s most prestigious festivals, and second because it would appear in the left-of-center Directors’ Fortnight sidebar.

“We made On the Job mainly for our domestic market in the Philippines; but, of course, getting into the Director’s Fortnight was a welcome gift for all the hard work we poured into the making of the film – not to mention almost four years of finding a way to get it produced,” said the Manila-based filmmaker.

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Unlike most of the other Filipino filmmakers who have graced the Fortnight in recent years – such as Brillante Mendoza (Foster Child, 2007), Raya Martin (Now Showing, 2008) and Auraeus Solito (Busong, 2011) – Matti is a well-established mainstream figure at home: to put his career in context, he was just presenting the commercial horror-comedy Tik Tik: The Aswang Chronicles at the Far East Film Festival, Udine, this time last month.

But Matti’s arrival at Cannes – via one of his more leftfield efforts, partly due to a script co-written by Michiko Yamamoto, who penned Solito’s seminal art house breakthrough The Blossoming of Maxine Oliveros – is indicative of the rise of the Philippines as a diversified filmmaking force, as evidenced by the varied Filipino fare on show on the Croisette this year.

Landing at Cannes alongside On The Job are two Un Certain Regard entries with aesthetics wildly different from Matti’s. Adolfo Alix Jr.’s Death March – which premiered on Sunday -- is an eerie, black-and-white piece about U.S. and Filipino POWs being maimed and murdered by Japanese soldiers marching them across the Philippines during the second world war. Debuting on Thursday will be Norte, The End of History, the four-hour film about injustice (a simple-minded man jailed for a murder he didn’t commit) from Lav Diaz, the Philippines’ king of long takes (and films).

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The simultaneous presence of Matti, Alix and Diaz at Cannes in the same year marks a seismic shift in how Filipino films are regarded internationally: as more than just a source of avant-garde, independent fare. (A similar shift of a perspective occurred last year for Indian cinema, when filmmakers like Anurag Kashyap made a splash on the Riveira with Gangs of Wasseypur -- a two-parter, which offered saleable content with an idiosyncratic touch. Kashyap is back in the Fortnight this year with Ugly.)

“We are very happy that in the past six years there has been a constant presence of Filipino films in the film festival circuit,” said the Alix, who first appeared at Cannes with Manila, a jointly-directed effort with Martin, and who screened two films (Wildlife and Mater Dolorosa) at Rotterdam earlier this year. “The diversity of films being shown in the festivals shows the range of Filipino filmmakers in general. I think that it is a testament that there is vitality and movement in the Filipino cinema and the renewed interest is there.”

Matti agrees: “Over the past five years or so, we’ve seen two kinds of Filipino films being produced in our film industry – the films that are solely geared towards the local market and the films that are made for the international film festivals,” he said. “I have always made movies with mainly the local market as the primary audience, but at the same time keeping in mind that having a more universal story can hopefully allow me to cross over to the international arena.”

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It’s perhaps apt that the three new Filipino features are landing at Cannes at the same time as Lino Brocka’s Manila in the Claws of Neon, which was shown last week at the Classics section in the official selection. An expert in producing gritty, social-critique drama, Brocka was the first Filipino director to be selected for Cannes with Insiang (1978), and his style combines what was known in his home country as commercial cinema and a more international art house sensibility, according to Roger Garcia, a veteran film critic-programmer and now the executive director of the Hong Kong International Film Festival.

Manila in the Claws of Neon reflects both a contemporary social reality – the repression of the Marcos dictatorship years – and an enduring artistic ambition that together appealed to audiences and is still relevant today,” said Garcia, who has championed many of the current batch of Filipino directors through his programming and has also produced the early 1990s work of Filipino auteurs, such as Raymond Red.
“Brocka is not only the pioneer, but also the model for all times – a filmmaker who found his art through engagement with his audience.”

“I think that the international festival interest in Filipino cinema is partly based on some kinship with Western aesthetics resulting from a century of colonization by the Spanish and then Americans,” Garcia continued. “The literary tone of Lav Diaz can be found in both Filipino and Russian literature, while the visuals of the current crop of Filipino films could be seen as a Third World re-invention of First World styles. I think what strikes most outsiders is the diversity of the films, which range from artistic risks to high genre.”

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For independent filmmakers like Alix, festival success is crucial. “It helps you to get private financing in the Philippines in a way because of the leverage, but it is still very difficult to get producers for a film that is outside of the mainstream,” he said. “What we look at now is the possibility of co-productions outside of the Philippines. The visibility in the festivals helps generate interest for your future projects and also for granting institutions. I'm working on two projects with foreign funding so it is a great boost I think.”

Despite festival success in recent years – such as Mendoza’s Best Director win at Cannes in 2009 with Kinatay – Filipino independent films remain an under-acknowledged niche in the country, Alix said. Official funding into actual film productions remains low, and the little that the government does do is subsidize Filipino directors’ attendance at festivals.

“It is still difficult to get independent films to be released theatrically in the Philippines. The distributors are still keen on mainstream genre pics and Hollywood,” he said. “That is what we are working on now -- for independent films to be released even just in a small number of theaters, especially now that there are more digital theaters here. For now, we do alternative venues, like schools and special screenings around the country.”

For Matti, On The Job best represents the approach undertaken by independent-minded filmmakers worldwide – the “one for them, and then one for me” ethos which marks the work of, say, Hong Kong’s Johnnie To or even Steven Soderbergh, what with his mix of the Ocean’s franchise and more personal films like Che or The Girlfriend Experience.

“Hopefully, this entry to the Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight will open doors for us,” Matti said. “By expanding the market internationally with higher revenues, hopefully we can now attempt films that we wouldn’t normally be able to do in our small local market. With more resources come bigger themes and a bit more ambitious filmmaking.”