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My final conversation with Francis Pasion

Francis was not your typical filmmaker. He was not adverse to working for television, and he took making films with utmost seriousness. Here he is winning the Tokyo Filmex 2014 grand prize for his film Bwaya. KYODO

MANILA, Philippines – I was reviewing standard contracts when Francis Pasion, almost out of nowhere, sent me a Facebook message.

The last time we chatted on Facebook was a couple of months ago when I asked permission from him to send his film, Bwaya, to Luang Prabang Film Festival, a small but very important film festival in a quaint but irresistibly seductive town in the middle of Laos, a country whose film industry is just being birthed. He graciously gave his permission and even thanked me for considering his film. Before that, our chats were always about the films screening in the various local film fests. He valued my opinions, the same way that I valued his.

Several months later, he was the one asking me for help. Francis didn’t send me a Facebook message. Instead, he sent me a text message, which could mean simply one thing: he was in a deep conundrum. Bwaya was one of the three Filipino films selected for screening in the film festival. He had already confirmed his attendance. The film festival had already booked his plane tickets and accommodations in one of the town’s luxurious hotels. However, he had just received word that he was assigned to direct several episodes of On the Wings of Love, a popular telenovela that has fans of the James Reid and Nadine Lustre tandem glued to their television sets. He wanted to back out of the film festival.

I advised him to give Luang Prabang a shot, and convinced him that I would make it a point to attend the film festival if I was invited. I told him that Luang Prabang is the perfect place for soul searching. A few minutes later, he replied: “You got me at soul searching.”

A Beautiful Town

Weeks later, in the beautiful town of Luang Prabang, I was already saying farewell to Bianca Balbuena, who represented Antoinette Jadaone’s That Thing Called Tadhana in Luang Prabang. She was on her way to Malaysia for another event. Francis, who was able to convince the higher-ups at ABS-CBN to sanction Bwaya’s final voyage, was to arrive the next day. I left him a message saying we should have dinner somewhere. Somehow, I felt a little bit guilty that I had him go through the pains of studio bureaucracy just to attend the film festival. I should have at least made life easier for him while he was here.

As it turns out, Francis took soul searching seriously. By dinnertime, he had already gone around the small town with a little fashionable bicycle that he was able to borrow for free from his hotel. He had gone to give alms to the monks at sunrise. He had already scheduled a trip to see the famous Kuang Si Waterfalls. In other words, he was making the most of the precious down time that he was granted by his bosses before heading back to Manila to resume the daily and often brainless grind of manufacturing disposable entertainment.

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See, Francis is not your typical filmmaker. He is not adverse to working for television, having directed episodes of My Binondo Girl, Princess and I, and Nathaniel. He, however, takes making films with utmost seriousness, which is the reason why he has only made three features in the span of six years, all of which are intriguing reflections on life in the midst of the subtle blurring of truth and fiction via a culture of media infatuation. Jay (2008) explored the responsibilities of a media practitioner in unmasking a world where criminality is intertwined with very personal affairs. Sampaguita, National Flower (2010) portrayed poverty unflinchingly but always with a clever acknowledgment that there is truth beyond its romanticized depictions of misery. Bwaya showed the power of the camera in grief management vis-à-vis its equivalent power to exploit.

Pasion Projects

Francis’ films weren’t the easiest to swallow, considering that they demand a certain level of understanding; their experiment side — breaking the borders of fact and fiction — may trample on common notions of morality. I had always wanted to ask him about his process as a filmmaker. I wanted to confront his intentions. That dinner was my opportunity.

I suggested that we dine in Tamarind, a restaurant by the Mekong River that specialized in Lao dishes. We shared an order of water buffalo steak, mushrooms with various dipping sauces, and a local broth. He had rice. I didn’t. I reminded him to take his health seriously. C’est la vie. We were in a piece of paradise that was previously colonized by France; who cares about extra poundage?

Over dinner, I bluntly asked him about his sincerity in filming the street children in Sampaguita, National Flower. I explained my hesitation. I told him that it was very obvious that he was directing the street children, squeezing whatever he wanted out of the kids to suit what seems to be an effect to make them look more cinematically pathetic. He took my observations with a smile, assuring me, “I am sincere.” He wasn’t at all defensive, which showed me that he had honestly imbibed Ateneo’s “Man for Others” philosophy, and that the film’s blunt expositions about it being a work of fiction are there to enlarge its effects not as a documentary on impoverished children, but as an examination on the impact of the process of filmmaking.

Obsession Over Process

It all makes sense. All of Francis’ films possess an extravagant obsession with the creative process, whether from the perspective of one who has been trained to create content like the journalist in Jay or those who unwittingly became subjects of the creation of content like the kids of Sampaguita, National Flower or the parents of the crocodile’s victim in Bwaya. All of Francis’ unmade films also bear that distinct interest.

I was prepared to treat him to dinner, but he insisted on paying for it. I insisted that we have coffee and ice cream in a nearby coffee shop. I told him it would be my treat. Over coffee, he joked about the several “what if”s he had in life. What if Jay was the sole Filipino film in competition during its run in Venice’s Orizzonti prize? What if it didn’t compete with Lav Diaz’s Melancholia (2008), which eventually took home the prize? I joked about my own “what if.” What if I stayed quiet during the entire Cinemalaya ruckus on the disqualification of Emerson Reyes’ MNL 143 (2012)? We, of course, just laughed about those artifacts of the past, how they paved the way for how we are now, how they reflected our character.

I begged him to begin production on his film about the comfort women, which he pitched to Cinemalaya the same year that MNL 143 got disqualified. I joked about how the concept is time-sensitive, because the women who would be the subjects of his documentary hybrid are nearing the end of their lifespans. He agreed, but brushed it aside, and instead told me about another project he is working on, about a real actress who is coming to terms with the murder of her mother. He explained the mechanics of the project, and why he is very eager to start production. I got excited.

We talked about many other things. He openly discussed his views on various filmmakers, on Brillante Mendoza, on Bing Lao, on our eager anticipation of seeing a young filmmaker who would excite us the same way Raya Martin excited us several years ago. We both agreed that Sherad Anthony Sanchez is perhaps the country’s most underrated director. He candidly told me about how he was ready to give up on the industry, how he was supposed to start working on a cruise ship, until he was convinced otherwise by a peer and a friend.

A Small Gesture

We walked back to our hotel, took some pictures of fountains, old houses and other sights that are part of the entire soul-searching experience. Before saying our farewells, he gave me a bag of journals with a note of gratitude. It was a small gesture, but a critic rarely gets thanked by a filmmaker who rarely received praise from him or her. I was just overwhelmed by this man’s humanity.

Months after that short conversation by the Mekong River, Francis is gone. He died of a heart attack. A lot of people are blaming the harsh working conditions for his demise. They’re probably right. Francis worked hard, but that was not because he was a slave of the system. It was because he was so overflowing with passion, not even his health would stop him from toiling to make the films he wanted to do, films we will never see. He simply took his family name too seriously, the same way he took my advice to search for his soul in the little town of Luang Prabang seriously.

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Tweet the author @oggsmoggs.

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