All set for the filming of Phl’s first historical sports drama

Edmund Silvestre - The Philippine Star
All set for the filming of Phlâs first historical sports drama
Bill during a recent audition he conducted for the historical sports film

1936: The Islanders in Berlin will pay tribute to the Filipino hoopsters who placed fifth overall at the 11th Summer Olympics. Up to this day, it’s the highest finish of any Asian team in Olympic basketball history.

MANILA, Philippines — The little-known saga of the Philippine basketball team that endured historical injustice at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany, is the subject of the Philippines’ first historical sports feature film which will start rolling anytime now.

Veteran sports anchor and writer Bill Velasco, who is the film’s co-producer and writer, said that the movie 1936: The Islanders in Berlin will pay tribute to the Filipino hoopsters who placed fifth overall at the 11th Summer Olympics. “It is up to this day the highest finish of any Asian team in Olympic basketball history,” he stressed.

Veteran sports anchor Bill Velasco is co-producer and writer of the upcoming movie.

Award-winning indie filmmaker and writer Arlyn dela Cruz-Bernal will direct and co-produce under her Blank Pages Productions.

The Filipino squad — called The Islanders from what was then known as the Philippine islands before it became a Republic — was the darling of the German media as well as adoring blonde girls, who sent them scented love letters mainly due to their exotic looks and agility when basketball was played outdoor on a dirt court and without shot clock.

“What we wanted to do was to somehow honor this team and bring to light the historical injustice committed against them,” said Bill, who is venturing into feature film after producing documentaries for international cable networks since 2010.

“It’s well-documented that the Olympic basketball rules were changed when the Philippines was winning and while the tournament was going on,” Bill pointed out in a detailed account based on extensive research and recorded interviews, including one with the late Sen. Ambrosio Padilla who, at 26, served as team captain.

The late Sen. Ambrosio Padilla had served as team captain.

“There was really no opportunity for people to raise hell about it because the war broke out and there were no Olympic games in 1940 and 1944, so it got forgotten,” Bill explained. “What Filipinos remember now was Caloy Loyzaga’s era which was already the 1950s.”

The rules of basketball were totally different when it made its debut in the Berlin Olympics, Bill noted. “At the time, you had the jumpball after every made basket so the game was so slow and boring,” he said. “And because of that rule, everybody had to be the same height. The height limit was set at 6’3 and everybody complied.”

However, Germany, under Adolf Hitler, allowed the Americans to violate the rules as a political accommodation to avoid a boycott by the US over the banning of Jewish and black athletes, according to Bill. They let the US double the number of its players and let four athletes over 6’3 in height to play; the tallest was 6’8.

“This made everyone else an underdog,” Bill said. “On the third day, organizers declared a change in format that whoever lost from that point would be eliminated. As luck would have it, the Islanders’ next opponent was the US. And with numerous jumpball situations, the Philippines was knocked out…yet they competed with total sportsmanship and set records that still stand today.”

(Left) The Islanders competing at the 1936 Olympics. (Right) Poster for the film to be directed by Arlyn dela Cruz-Bernal.

Bill said casting for the film has been completed following a grueling audition. Signed up were character actors, aspiring actors and athletes who have knowledge in basketball, he said.

He revealed that one actor being considered for a major part is Jhong Hilario to play Padilla’s co-team captain, Jacinto Ciria Cruz, the Islanders’ best player who later became a World War II guerilla and was beheaded by the Japanese in 1944.

“Jhong and Jacinto have the same built, same height, color and everything…but Jhong is too busy with TV projects (Ang Probinsyano, It’s Showtime!) and as Makati City councilor,” Bill said, adding that he has already talked to the actor-host.

Bill said the 1936 Olympics has over 4,000 hours of footage commissioned by Hitler himself and which can be used for the film since they are now public domain. The biggest challenge, he said, is the set design, of which “everything has to be recreated.”

The Philippine Olympic Basketball Team to the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin.

“We found a supplier of 1930s cars in Kamuning, and we found locations like the Court of Appeals complex in Baguio City that looked like Germany in the 1930s,” Bill said. “Finding the ball is the hard part because they don’t manufacture them anymore wherein the leather was hand stitched and the inside inflatable part was separate from the skin of the ball.”

Bill added that one of the film’s highlights is the unimaginable travel of the squad to Europe at a time when there was no commercial flight yet. They spent three weeks on a ship to get to Paris — enduring seasickness, boredom and lack of rice — and another week crammed into tiny compartments on a train to Berlin.

Bill said he has sought the help of the Philippine Olympic Committee and the Samahang Basketball ng Pilipinas to make representations to the International Olympic Committee and FIBA to honor the Islanders, all of whom are already gone now.


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