From news reporting to film directing

STARBYTES - Butch Francisco -

Around the middle of this year, a friend of mine who was with the screening committee of the Metro Manila Film Festival was raving about one of the scripts submitted to them. The title was Banal and it was distinctive in the sense that all the characters were gray — not the usual black and white we see in most Filipino movies.

It turned out that Banal was scripted by Cesar Apolinario, one of GMA News and Public Affairs’ ace reporters. Eventually, Banal was accepted as a filmtest entry and the film was eventually shot — in 12 days.

Cesar must be the first news reporter to have turned film director. This shouldn’t really come as a surprise since he has a film background — and a formal one of that.

Excelling in numbers, Cesar initially wanted to be an accountant. In fact, he enrolled at the Philippine School of Business Administration (PSBA) in 1993 — hoping that he would someday be a CPA. But during his first semester in college, his English professor advised him to shift to Communication Arts because “he (Cesar) could write.”

The following year, Cesar followed his teacher’s advice and moved to UST  where he took up Communication Arts. At the same time, he also enrolled at the State University and was a special student (like Richard Gomez before him) in film.

While shuttling between the two schools, he still found time to work as production assistant to Peque Gallaga in the fantasy film Perlas ng Damotris (Part 2 of Magic Kingdom).  This was when he realized that filmmaking is a jealous master that doesn’t allow him to be a slave to others (in his case that time — his studies). Cesar promptly quit his job to concentrate on school.

In time, however, he ran short of funds and had to leave for Bahrain to work as a  fastfood attendant to raise money for his remaining years in college. Although life was difficult abroad, he managed to save enough for his education. In 1998 — thanks to his OFW stint — he finally collected his AB Communication Arts degree from the University of Santo Tomas.

Soon after, he worked as researcher for Nick de Ocampo at Mowelfund and when De Ocampo did the film Mother Ignaci, Cesar also served as casting director and researcher for the movie.

A year later, he left Mowelfund and tried his luck with GMA 7. He was eventually accepted and joined the I-Witness team of Luchi Cruz-Valdes as cameraman-researcher. He became a reporter after six months and was  assigned to crime stories.

Hardworking and very  resourceful, he eventually because one of the top reporters of the news and public affairs department of GMA 7 in such a short time. His story on the Payatas dumpsite tragedy of 2000, in fact, was  already entered by the network as one of the entries at the 2001 Hawaii International Film Festival. He was up against a US documentary on an expedition in the Arctic Circle (voicwd by Liam Neeson) that cost $5-M. The total budget of his Payatas docu: P10,000. That same year, his docu also took part in the Zanzivar International Fil Festival in Africa.

In 2005, Cesar received a grant and trained for a month with the CNN people in Atlanta, Georgia. But while deeply immersed in the world of TV news reporting — always on the lookout for exposes — his desire to make a full-length film never deserted him.

In January of this year, he found himself making small talk with Makati Chief of Police Col. Gilbert Cruz and the both of them were asking each other why cops in movies are often depicted as a useless bunch that gets to the scene several moments too late. Why not make a film where the police actually see action?

That  became a challenge to Cesar who spent one whole night working on this peg about cops who are both heroes and villains. Col. Cruz later suggested some characters (real people, but no specific names) to add to the story.

With the help of Cris Lim, Cesar wrote the first draft of Banal, but it came out a bit too violent. Also, the initial material of Banal was intended to be an out-and-out indie movie. It was only later that  Cesar considered entering it at the Metro Manila Film Festival.

In comes former actress Ina Alegre, who decided to produce the film under her own newly-formed movie outfit Comguild Productions. They also got a lot of help from Marnie Pulumbarit (girlfriend of Jiggy Manicad) who serves as the film’s associate producer.

Now an official entry to the 2007 Metro Manila Film Festival, Banal opens Jan. 1, 2008 and stars Christopher de Leon, Alfred Vargas, Paolo Contis, Paolo Paraiso, Leo Martinez, Evangeline Pascual and Cassandra Ponti. These stars are  supported by real cops (who really know how to handle weapons) and bona fide members of the SWAT team.

Cesar also uses in his movie real news reporters in the persons of Candice Giron (a former GMA 7 newscaster/reporter, but is now with UN TV) and Karen Tayao from IBC 13. He would have wanted to cast friends from GMA news and public affairs like Sandra Aguinaldo and Raffy Tima, except that this is not allowed by the network.

Understandably, Cesar is on pins and needles with how the public and the critics would accept his very first attempt at filmmaking.

I haven’t seen the movie yet, but if he insists that he put in a lot of hard work into it — the way he does with his every news story — then it should be a good film.

(Next: Cesar Apolinario’s Top 10 news stories)

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