3 good reasons why we enjoyed Palm Springs Filmfest

Raymond de Asis Lo, L.A. Correspondent (The Philippine Star) - January 14, 2014 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - To a movie buff, a weekend spent watching movies is similar to a child watching Disney Channel reruns on television  it’s hard to explain but it’s certainly not an addiction. Well, maybe.

The first weekend of the New Year saw this writer and three of his friends spending about two hours on the road for a 100-mile trek to Palm Springs, a desert oasis east of Los Angeles to attend one of the most important film festivals in North America, the Palm Springs International Film Festival, which, this year, is celebrating its 25th anniversary. This is my first time attending the festival and I had a very good reason why. Oops, make it three good reasons why, namely: Transit, Metro Manila and Ilo Ilo. These are the much-heralded trio of films about the Filipino experience (as one friend eloquently puts it) that have been making waves at various film festivals all over the world!

Ever since last year’s Sundance Film Festival, this writer has been waiting for Metro Manila to screen in Los Angeles. The UK-produced film about an impoverished Filipino family who left their farming village for a chance to better their lives in the city only to find a Metro Manila that, in the eyes of British filmmaker Sean Ellis, is prosperous but filthy and ridden with many things criminal, has been winning accolades from every film festival it screened and was the entry by the UK to the Oscars. (Metro Manila did not make the nine-film shortlist but was nominated by the BAFTA, the British Academy, for Best Foreign Language Film of 2013.)

 The movie is a tough film to watch if you are a Filipino. It’s a stark reminder that the city that the great Lino Brocka introduced to the world more than three decades ago has not improved at all. The crime, the poverty and the inequality — everything that Brocka wanted to change through his searing films are still there. If the movie offered any hope for the marginalized city dweller, it came from the satisfying but ultimately morally questionable conclusion. The movie is primarily a thriller but it works in so many ways. A good friend disliked the depiction of extreme poverty in the movie but I thought it was necessary if only to arouse some sense of anger (not pity!) from the very people this movie was clearly intended for but — and here comes the irony — when the movie was shown in theaters, virtually no one came to watch it. And that makes it more depressing.

Jake Macapagal, the lead actor in the movie, shared during the post-screening Q&A that the movie had a one-month run at one cinema and an eight-day nationwide run in the Philippines but received a muted response from the public. The mostly white and senior audience couldn’t believe it. What movie topped the Metro Manila Film Festival this year again?

The director of Metro Manila did not make it to the festival but Hannah Espia, the Filipino 26-year-old director of Transit and Anthony Chen, the Singaporean 29-year-old director of Ilo Ilo were there and both received warm welcome from the audience when they introduced their respective movies. All three enjoyed sold-out screenings (with Transit screening in two theaters) the two days we were there. This writer saw three more movies at the festival: The Broken Circle Breakdown from Belgium (part of the nine-film Oscar shortlist), Tatuagem from Brazil and the South Korean deceptively cute but harrowing drama Han Gong-ju.

Transit, the official entry of the Philippines to the Oscars (which, along with Ilo Ilo, failed to advance to the nine-film shortlist,) is an engrossing film based on the stories that the director gathered through her travels abroad. The movie revolves around five members of an extended Filipino family living in Israel and it tells of their various struggles during a period in 2009 when the Israeli government enacted a law calling for the deportation of children of foreign workers aged four and below. It’s a film that confronts the audience with questions on citizenship, nationalism and patriotism in today’s modern world where poverty in one country drives its citizens to seek better lives in another country.

It struck me as ironic as to how the family vigorously fought the law and insisted on staying in Israel where they are treated as second-class citizens instead of just going home to the Philippines where they are first-class citizens. One character in the movie supplied the answer to me (translation is mine and the quote approximation): “What are you going to do in the Philippines when you will just die of hunger anyway?”

Similar to the theme of economic inequality tackled in Metro Manila, the poor family featured in Transit left the city of Manila for Tel Aviv and they are luckily finding better economic success there than the family in Metro Manila — but the struggle comes in another form anyway. And the battles are still fought with their lives — and their future — at stake.

 In the heartwarming Ilo Ilo, the Filipino character had to leave the Philippines as well but the struggle this time is less intense compared to the characters in the other two movies. A strong humanist drama from a first-time filmmaker, Ilo Ilo is set during the 1997 financial crisis and tells the story of a Filipino nanny in Singapore who must deal with a difficult 10-year-old kid, her longing for her infant child she left in the Philippines, and the economic recession that forced her employers to make a difficult decision whether to keep her or to send her home to the Philippines.

 Ilo Ilo is my favorite of the six movies I saw. I liked how the director was able to fashion a story that feels so authentic and so sincere. The film was inspired by the filmmaker’s own childhood nanny who spent eight years looking after him. During the Q&A, Anthony shared that he didn’t see his nanny for 16 years and only saw her last year after Ilo Ilo premiered at Cannes. He brought his nanny to the Singapore premiere of the movie and he got one of the best reviews to his movie: “You make me laugh, you make me cry,” said his nanny to him after the screening. I, too, laughed and cried while watching the movie. And, yes, I provided the biggest applause to the movie during the end credits!

 But the proudest moment for me during the two days we were at the festival was during the Q&A for Transit and how Hannah handled the philosophical and political questions being asked by the truly intrigued audience who were so taken aback by the discriminatory law passed (but has now been abolished) by Israel. She was so poised and confident and articulate that I just wanted to hug her after — which I did. The film’s producer Paul Soriano also graced the screening along with Dean Devlin, the American producer who is handling the international distribution of Transit.

Transit and Ilo Ilo will also be featured in next month’s Santa Barbara International Film Festival, still in California.

This year’s Palm Springs International Film Festival runs until today and has over 180 films from 68 countries in its program.

Postscript: Having seen Erik Matti’s acclaimed On The Job last year, I can now say with full confidence that Transit is a far superior film.

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