Filipino filmmakers fight for recognition on the home front

The third time proved the charm for late-bloomer Brillante Mendoza, who jurors at the Cannes Film Festival named best director in 2009 for conjuring the dark "Kinatay" from a brutal and unsolved true crime in his native Philippines.

Dante, as Mendoza is known, took films to Cannes in 2007 ("Foster Child") and 2008 ("Service"), but it wasn't until last year that the 48-year-old became the first Filipino to win a major prize on the Croisette -- an honor he hopes will help shed light on a harsh social reality too many in his homeland choose to ignore.

Now Mendoza's role as a juror of the Asian Digital Competition of the Hong Kong International Film Festival (Mar. 21-Apr. 6) could further help boost interest in a new wave of low-budget, mostly digital, independent movies from the Philippines.

Among the titles showing in the HKIFF over the next few weeks, 45-year-old Raymond Red's $200,000 Manila Skies" (Himpapawid) stands out. Shot on the Red One digital system, the Tagalog-language picture is based on the true story of a man pushed by a harsh society into hijacking an airplane.

Also showing is a selection of Red's early shorts, films he shot on 16mm in the 1980s that made his name on the international circuit more than 20 years ago.

"Patient X"

In the Hong Kong Asian Film Financing Forum (HAF), 25-year-old Sherad Anthony Sanchez's Bisaya-language "Twins" (Kahlua) is looking for partners -- and $87,000 -- to help complete the $140,000 film about a young girl's refusal to accept her sister's disappearance. Sanchez also got backing from Rotterdam's Hubert Bals Memorial Fund and the Philippine government.

At the Hong Kong Filmart, which runs alongside the film festival, 39-year-old William "Yam" Laranas, Eleven Arts and XYZ are offering the Tagalog-language thriller "Patient X," about a man who returns to his childhood village upon the arrest of his family's killer, only to discover she is an "aswang," the rural Filipino version of a vampire.

Sadly, at home in the Philippines, even "Patient X" -- the most mainstream of the Filipino titles in Hong Kong, shot for $500,000 -- is only "close to breaking even," Laranas says, hinting at how tough the domestic market can be for independent filmmakers, even in a country where many top politicians, including former President Joseph Estrada, made their names as actors.

In its three-week release in October, by GMA and Viva Films on 50 prints nationwide, "Patient X" ran a very distant second at the boxoffice to the Michael Jackson documentary "This Is It." "And that was good," Laranas says. "I'd love it if buyers would turn their radar to Manila and come seek out our gems."

Those gems now have less of a chance to shine at home since the IndieSine collective in early March closed the only mall-based movie theater in the country that exclusively screened indie films. The closure came after complaints by mall operator Robinson's Galleria about the mislabeling of films that contained the sexual and gay-themed content still largely taboo in the predominantly Catholic nation.

Nowadays, many independent Filipino filmmakers are making their own theater bookings in increasingly plush modern, digital multiplexes, a steep investment for many that can run from $1,000 a week in third-tier cities up to $1,200 for three hours in central Manila's Glorieta Mall.

Red was able to show "Manila Skies" in the capital, where he found a natural audience of Filipinos who remembered the politically charged newspaper headlines from 2000 that inspired the film.

Still, political stories on Philippine screens are less popular than mainstream comedies and tear-jerking romances. All told, about 100 films are released nationwide each year and festivals such as Cinemalaya in July and Cinemanila in Oct. tend to offer the most support to the indies of the mix.

"There are so many independent filmmakers now we should make a concerted effort and sit down to find solutions to our distribution problem," Red says.

Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, Mendoza is planting a Philippine flag in the Asian digital cinema landscape in his role as juror at the film festival. And he could be a tough juror at that. After all, he didn't win over all the Cannes critics, some of whom said his gritty and graphic "Kinatay" ('butchered' in Tagalog), about a criminology student dragged down by corrupt cops, was tough to watch.

"It's a tough film that needs a tough audience," Mendoza said hoarsely over the phone from Cannes the morning after his win last May. "Not all audiences are courageous enough and adventurous enough to witness such crime. But this is exactly what I want -- I want the audience to be a witness. We are all accomplices and witnesses. We are all guilty."

A lapsed Catholic, an avid gardener and a formerly contented middle class Manila movie production designer, Mendoza only found his true calling as a film director four short years and seven fast and cheap digital films ago. He speaks of his craft -- and of his new recognition -- with born-again fervor.

"There are times when we're making a bad choice and then we're confronted with something really unexpected. You have to choose to save yourself," Mendoza said. "I am more fulfilled now because this prize affirms what I really want to do for the rest of my life."

Unlike the late arrival and quick-study Mendoza, Raymond Red, whose "Anino" won the 2000 Palme d'Or for best short film at Cannes, knew he wanted to make movies when he was a teen and first saw Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" (also showing this week in Hong Kong, from a restored print that first debuted at the Berlin International Film Festival in February). Red says now he sees a chance for his film students (he teaches in Manila) to break the virtual monopoly on Filipino screens held by mainstream films and Hollywood imports.

Red is working hard to make "Manila Skies" the first Filipino indie to get digital distribution in the national theater chains. "I don't ever look down on commercial filmmakers, working while I'm so slow. I've only shot four features in my whole career. Now that I see there's a chance for independents shooting on digital to get distribution, too, that's very exciting," he says.

For the next generation of Filipino filmmakers -- for Sanchez -- the son of doctors from the politically troubled and poor southern island of Mindanao who still prefer Arnold Schwarzenegger films to his own, "Raymond Red and Dante tell us that everything is possible in the movies," he says.

"Even though my parents don't like my films, they're interested in the subjects I'm tackling, and that's a good sign," Sanchez says, reflecting on the importance of acceptance in a country of thousands of islands and hundreds of tribes. "In the Philippines, we're seeing our potential, but not our direction yet. I just hope we keep our diversity in tact."
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