Tokyo International Film Festival champions Kidlat Tahimik, Brillante Mendoza & Lav Diaz
A scene from Lakbayan, an omnibus film collaboration among Kidlat Tahimik, Brillante Mendoza and Lav Diaz

Tokyo International Film Festival champions Kidlat Tahimik, Brillante Mendoza & Lav Diaz

COUNTERACT - Pristine L. De Leon (The Philippine Star) - November 12, 2018 - 12:00am

‘The chance for the audience to watch art house films is getting smaller. The film festival is more important than before.’

It was Halloween in Tokyo, or at least in this restaurant called Chinese Café Eight, where bats and pumpkins populated the walls and where three journalists — this writer, included — had cornered Kidlat Tahimik. He had just flown in after having been declared National Artist for Film and Broadcast Arts. Holding his chopsticks, the Baguio-born and bred filmmaker smiled and told us, “I am still the same person, a storyteller in a bahag.”

Philippine National Artist Kidlat Tahimik poses with his bamboo camera, what he calls his symbol of telling the local story.

True enough, the director came in his bahag the following night with his bamboo camera in tow. To the beat of his son Kabunyan de Guia’s makeshift drum, Tahimik danced and performed his own version of rap. In attendance were a larger audience who had just watched Lakbayan, an omnibus film collaboration among three independent film stalwarts, Tahimik, Brillante Mendoza, and Lav Diaz. After premiering at the recently concluded Busan International Film Festival, it has now made its way to the 31st Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF), which had its well-attended run from Oct. 26 to Nov. 3.

Brillante Mendoza heads the international competition jury at the 31st Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF).

Film festivals are like the Olympics, TIFF director Takeo Hisamatsu pointed out. “These events are aimed to increase tourism in the cities where they’re held.” Despite the fact that it opened with the high-profile Hollywood movie A Star is Born, TIFF intended to champion diversity among Asian filmmakers. Here, there was a focus on Southeast Asian films with music as their binding theme; the Asian Future section highlighting emerging directors across Asia (including Filipino filmmaker Perci Intalan who presented Distance); and another Asian Three-Fold Mirror which brought together directors from Japan, China, and Indonesia.

Takeo Hisamatsu in his second year as festival director.

Added to that, Brillante Mendoza played a more prominent role in this year’s festival. After TIFF gave him a retrospective, “The World of Brillante Ma Mendoza,” in 2015 and included him in the 2016 Asian Three-Fold Mirror, Mendoza was now the first Filipino jury president, tasked to judge 16 films out of over 1,800 submissions in the competition section. “I’m a filmmaker coming from a developing country,” said Mendoza. “We are celebrating 100 years of Philippine cinema this year until next year so I think it is also important for the artists from my country to see that a fellow filmmaker is heading the jury in a developed country like Japan.”

What the festival directors saw in Mendoza, however, was beyond the fact that he was Filipino. “He is a leading director not only in the Philippines but in the whole Asia,” said Yoshi Yatabe, programming director of competition. While Bryan Burk — responsible for films like Mission: Impossible, Super 8, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens — is also part of the jury, the festival directors specifically wanted the point of view of an independent filmmaker like Mendoza. “I was interested in how these two very different filmmakers — a very art-type filmmaker, and a very Hollywood entertainment filmmaker — will watch the movies, discuss, select, and go through the judging process,” said Hisamatsu.

Programming director of competition Yoshi Yatabe on the 16 competing films: “They are trying to tell the story of individuals trying to survive the very harsh reality of the modern world. The connection between world and individual — this is (what the films have in common).”

To maintain the balance between art and entertainment, independent and popular movies remains TIFF’s guiding agenda. Japan’s capital, despite its ever-expanding urban landscape, has seen the decline of art film theaters in recent years. Yatabe said, “People watch more Asian films in the festival. In Tokyo, (we now have less) arthouse film theaters. The chance to watch Asian films, European films, and arthouse films for the audience is getting smaller. The film festival is more important than before.”

As independent filmmakers, Mendoza, Tahimik and Diaz are notorious for defying cinematic conventions. “That’s the idea of having the three of us in one film,” said Mendoza, “because we have very diverse film aesthetics and approaches to cinema.”  Diaz — whose four-hour-long Ang Panahon ng Halimaw was also showing at the festival — is known for championing slow cinema. Tahimik, who has been here since TIFF’s first iteration, didn’t work with a script, and explained the relevance of veering away from the mainstream, in terms of style or story. “I am very much an advocate of coming back to our Asian culture,” says Tahimik. “Maybe this is why I tried to remain independent of most of the commercial films.”

Japan’s Drum Tao gave a thunderous performance at the festival’s opening ceremony at Ex Theater Roppongi. Photo courtesy of 2018 TIFF

Lakbayan will certainly resonate with Filipinos, with narratives of miners braving the perils of land, sea, and swamp (Diaz); of farmers undertaking a thousand-mile protest march to Manila (Mendoza); and a Baguio resident meeting indigenous tribes and artists on his long road trip to Davao (Tahimik). Yet, the message of Lakbayan isn’t so much limited to their stories’ local contexts — it is also about the voyage of these three acclaimed independent directors getting here. Independent cinema remained a strong force at the festival, as it should be in any part of the globe. As National Artist Kidlat Tahimik declared while dancing in his bahag, “Let’s hope the indie-genius of our people will spread around the world.”

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