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Cinemalaya widens horizons for regional filmmakers |

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Cinemalaya widens horizons for regional filmmakers

Kristofer Purnell -
Cinemalaya widens horizons for regional filmmakers
Clips from the Cinemalaya 2022 short film finalists

CABANATUAN, Nueva Ecija — The Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival has a special place in my heart as a film enthusiast. In college, the film organization I belonged to brought that 2016 winner "Pamilya Ordinaryo" by the late Eduardo "Edong" Roy to my university, and I took the girl I had a crush on to see it. Looking back, I remember the feeling of watching the award-winning film more than sitting next to her.

Three years later, as part of the workforce, I covered all the gala premieres of the participating feature films, an experience that widened my horizons on the local independent film scene. Direk Edong won Best Director that year for "Fuccbois," but the big winner of Cinemalaya 2019 was "John Denver Trending" whose director Arden Rod Condez I became good friends with because of my coverage.

His film was very much deserving of Best Film, among other awards, not just because it was shot in Direk Arden's home province of Antique but it was a contemporary story about the effects of bullying. My Cinemalaya 2019 coverage remains one of my most favorite work assignments, and it made me look forward to the 2020 edition — until the pandemic struck.

After two years of celebrating the festival virtually, Cinemalaya returned to its home the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) this 2022 in hopes of bringing back viewers to where it all began and to look ahead. Being back in the CCP for Cinemalaya during the media launch in July made me emotional, but filmmaker and Cinemalaya Main Competition Director Jose Javier Reyes snapped me out of reminiscing and brought me back to reality.

He said that in the short film category, where 12 films were competing, only two were made from directors that originated outside of Metro Manila to the point that nearly all the regions were accounted for.

At the awarding ceremony for Cinemalaya 2022 just over a month later, Zig Dulay's — born in Isabela—"Black Rainbow" about a young Aeta boy who dreams of going to school by learning to use a computer keyboard bagged the Best Short Film, Best Screenplay, and the NETPAC Award.

"Mga Handum nga Nasulat sa Baras" by real-life Ilonggo couple Arlie Sweet "Kat" Sumagaysay and Richard Jeroui Salvadico — both were mentored by Direk Arden, who is a producer on the short film — won the Audience Choice Award. Meanwhile Gabriela Serrano accepted Balanghai trophies for Best Director and the Special Jury Prize for her silent split-screen film "Dikit," which was shot in Bulacan.

The winning short films of Cinemalaya 2022: (From left) "Dikit," "Mga Handum Nga Nasulat Sa Baras," and "Black Rainbow"

As someone who never gave much thought about the short film competition of Cinemalaya, even during its time online, it dawned on me just how more people thought the same way. And this year, a huge majority of the selected short films were by regional directors, each with their own compelling stories to tell.

I always knew Cinemalaya as an institution was a beacon of hope for independent filmmakers, but for filmmakers who started their careers in the provinces — some of which are still based there — it must mean much more got the chance to talk with Zig, Kat, Gabriela, and several of the short film directors for Cinemalaya 2022 before the 18th edition rested it sails about the festival's ties with filmmakers from the regions, and how it is blossoming further in giving them a voice.

A growing effort

Experienced directors like Zig, Xeph Suarez ("City of Flowers" from Zamboanga), and Raz de la Torre ("Kwits" from Rizal) who participated in past editions of Cinemalaya have always known the festival to be supportive of regional filmmakers. "There is no bias towards Manila-based directors, no delineation, it should only be that films are fairly judged and beautiful," Xeph told partly in Filipino, a sentiment that Raz agreed with in a separate interview.

Raz compared Cinemalaya to film festivals in the United States, some of which often "reserve a slot" for entries that are about or involve a minority, "Cinemalaya has always been encouraging filmmakers from the regions to participate and give them a platform to showcase their talents... many of the filmmakers are there on the merit of their strengths."

However for younger directors like Estela Maria Paiso ("Ampangabat Nin Talakba Ha Likol [It's Raining Frogs Outside] from Zambales) and fresh graduate Kyd Torato ("Si Oddie" from Capiz), recognizing filmmakers from the regions such as them is a gamechanger especially as a young artist often overshadowed by those from major cities with more opportunities and resources to make films and join festivals.

"Because when we talk about previous films that qualified for Cinemalaya, those who make the cut are limited so it gives the impression that creating flims specially for us [filmmakers] from the regions are difficult; it is more intimidating to join," shared Kyd, another mentee of Direk Arden."What Cinemalaya did this year is conveying a message that if you entered, even if you are new, you just need a good story to tell, which I think Cinemalaya is trying to highlight."

Intimidation is a shared experience among budding filmmakers, admitted Mark Moneda ("See You, George!" from Ilocos Norte). "Growing up from the province and watching films on Cinema One where I also thought of making films, writing, tell a story, act — what held me back was: 'I may not be cut out for this because I am from the province and far from Manila,'" he said in Filipino.

As such, Mark felt that regional filmmakers often grapple with an inferiority complex that hounds them even as they are already pursuing their passions.

Mark was part of the team behind "Ang Mga Nawalang Pag-asa at Panlasa," a documentary about Ilocano cuisine during the pandemic which was included among the Cinemalaya 2021 entries — an experience that boosted his morale. "I am thankful for what we submitted last year... [We realized] we have a place here, that people like us are welcome. We were given confidence and hope," Mark said.

Kat and Richard meanwhile were entrants during the 2020 edition for "Utwas," an experience where the former said she really felt the support of Cinemalaya for regional filmmakers. "It was great because they were always complimenting us for our cinematography and representing our region. Now that we have returned, they were happy because there is need for mre stories from the islands," Kat happily recounted partly in Filipino.

Their new short film "Mga Handum nga Nasulat sa Baras" follows three Ilonggo children who must teach their mothers basic school lessons for them to be capable of guiding the kids during the pandemic's height as the form of learning then was through modules. Kat added that being in Cinemalaya is truly an honor, especially with the opportunity to tell stories of people from the regions: "There is no limit in Cinemalaya."

The 2022 batch of Cinemalaya short films come from all around the Philippines like Zamboanga's "City of Flowers"(left), Zambales' "Ampangabat Nin Talakba Ha Likol (It's Raining Frogs Outside)," and Bohol's "Duwa-Duwa (The Play)."

For Estela, the realization about inclusivity for regional filmmakers never crossed her mind as she initially worked in post-production. "Back in college I was enjoying Cinemalaya because of the variety, it was not a homogenous selection and there are various narratives," she said.

But all that changed when she made "It's Raining Frogs Outside," her first short film. "When I joined, I became conscious of my roots, which is Sambal, because of the language... when I was included, I was like: 'Okay so there is really an effort to broaden horizons when it comes to programming and selection.'"

In minimal contrast for Nena Jane Achacoso ('Duwa-Duwa (The Play) from Bohol), being a regional filmmaker was never a conscious thought to her at all as she has embraced it as her identity. Yet, she is glad that Cinemalaya welcomes stories from all regions.

"I always think that the Philippines isn't just one region or language, it has diverse cultures, stories, and realities... it's not the place that matters but the intention, I'm happy that Cinemalaya recognizes that," said Nena, adding how significant it is for someone like her who isn't quite "known" yet in the film industry.

Close to home

For many of this year's batch of short filmmakers, their films are quite personal. Zig drew from his own experiences  growing up in a home situated in the fields in his film "Black Rainbow." He also took inspiration from his friend Norman King, the first Aeta to graduate from the University of the Philippines (Norman also stars in the film).

Xeph has always made films about his home province of Zamboanga and is particularly drawn to the 2013 Zamboanga Siege which figures in his "City of Flowers." And "Si Oddie"—a play on words for COD or cash on delivery—follows a delivery rider searching for a woman to deliver a huge package, inspired by Kyd's experience interning for a delivery company eventually leading to her first short film.

The driving force behind Estela's decision to make "It's Raining Frogs Outside," apart from pushing the boundaries of post-production as it heavily uses a variation of visual effects to depict loneliness and self-introspection, involved her Sambal roots.

"I can only talk Sambal to my mother and if I meet someone from Zambales, we don't speak the same kind ofSambal," Estela shared, which is why she felt the need to have pieces onscreen in the language she talks to her mom with.

Kyd said that it was upon the encouragement of Direk Arden to shoot a project in one's hometown — just as he did for "John Denver Trending" — as it is a shared experience especially for people in the regions. "People will be more involved because there is no such opportunity for them, it's an honor and pride for them," Kyd continued. "And people are more comfortable with each other because they know each other; it's easier."

The fresh graduate also pointed out that there is a deeper layer in a director shooting in their hometown, because they know best how a space is used by the community. "If you aren't from the area, the story becomes artificial, it lacks depth."

Most of the Cinemalaya 2022 short films touch upon or are inspired by the COVID-19 pandemic such as (from left) "See You, George!," "Si Oddie," and "Kwits."

Involving people from the regions to work on a short film also increases their chances of being acknowledged or recognized by a larger audience, especially on a project so close to homes as Raz echoed. "Because imagine a scenario they could have brought in filmmakers from outside or Manila to help... you get to see the talent not just in terms of writing stories but in the other crafts of filmmaking like cinematographers, production designers from the regions manifesting their talents through these short films," the Rizaleño director said.

On a broader note, Kat said that "Mga Handum nga Nasulat sa Baras" is a story that every Filipino — not just children or Ilonggos — can relate to. "Because even if we are from the regions, it's a very Filipino story. Although dreams are uncertain, we Filipinos are very hopeful," Kat shared, joking that Filipinos are "experts in dreaming" thus we jump at every chance we get.

Speaking of chasing dreams, it was Zig who shared best and truly from the heart on why he decided to shoot a film set in the regions, loosely inspired by his past and about the indigenous community. "I chose to tell a story from the regions to inspire filmmakers at the sidelines, that [the industry] is not Manila-centric; show that they can push for their dreams at this time because it is already democratized — everyone is given a chance to tell a story," Zig said.

The "Black Rainbow" director believes the reason why the term "regional cinema" was coined was to label or create space for such pieces in the Philippine film industry, however he also believes that in showing Filipino films internationally at film festivals or foreign theaters, it is unfair to say we've claimed an identity as Filipinos when majority of the films showcased take place in Metro Manila.

"Of course the Philippines is an archipelago so the identity should come from its different corners and islands. I feel like if storytelling like this flourishes, that will form our identity, showing diversity," Zig admitted, adding that in showing stories about indigenous people normalizes their presence in the local film industry and will show them they indeed have a place. "We all have dreams, we need education, do things for our families... it helps that we show that we are all the same."

Where to go from here

With the 18th Cinemalaya officially over though several theaters nationwide are still showing both the feature films and short films that competed, the 2022 batch of short film directors are already looking forward to the future of the film festival as it attempts to draw even more crowds to cement its identity as the home of Filipino independent cinema.

Some have quite specific expectations like Xeph who hopes no kind of censorship will take place, "[That] it would still be the free, true Cinemalaya where they give filmmakers the freedom to tell their stories at no one will interfere regardless of who is in power."

Raz and Gabriela both lauded Cinemalaya for creating a safe community for filmmakers and film lovers alike, and the two hope this community only grows further. "It has become a repository of all the different unique stories that we Filipinos have, that's what fuels the beauty of Cinemalaya," Raz expounded. "It's the fact these filmmakers with their talents are able to tell these stories that you don't normally see on television or film."

The "Kwits" director believes that Cinemalaya is very much aware of the role it played nurturing the modern Filipino film culture, and for young filmmakers like Gabriela—who started out as a frequent attendee of the festival—keeping this commitment means more for audiences.

The author with Cinemalaya 2022 short film directors Gabriela Serrano of "Dikit" (left), Zig Dulay of "Black Rainbow" (center), and Raz de la Torre of "Kwits" (right) at the closing ceremony. / Kristofer Purnell

"One special thing that I got from participating this year—and a privilege to—was talking to the other filmmakers who all speak so dearly about having gone to Cinemalaya as audience members. I hope the organizers know how important the festival has become to moviegoers, I hope they continue to provide that experience for filmmakers, students, and enthusiasts," said Gabriela.

The 2022 Best Director for Short Film and her fellow young female director Estela also praised Cinemalaya for expanding the commercial screenings across the Philippine archipelago. This plays into the common aspiration by many of the short filmmakers that Cinemalaya will continue to recognize the talents of regional directors, not because of where they come from but for their outstanding talent.

"Everytime we are at Cinemalaya, we feel the importance of film to us — it is a good feeling as a regional filmmaker that someone views your work," said Kat, expounding on the importance of being appreciated for one's work. "Since Cinemalaya is there, someone sees us, hears us, I hope they continue their love for regional films."

Zig reiterated that Cinemalaya has always supported regional filmmakers. "It's democratized, they do not look at others as different — they are objective, no bias — it doesn't matter if it came from Luzon, Visayas o Mindanao. It just so happened that this year, it was recognized where they came from... I hope it continues," Zig said, adding that more focus should be given for short filmmakers especially when they tell stories of the marginalized.

In line with that, another common expectation by the 2022 batch is that short filmmakers be given more funding if not for the production of their projects then at least for distribution and promotion. For a student filmmaker like Kyd, such help would go a long way because they feel intimidated by the daunting tasks.

"If Cinemalaya supports regional filmmakers then the art will continue, the initial support must come from them — I do not like it that they are only saying it," Kyd said. "I hope in the future discussions about film distribution especially among young filmmakers are expanded, it's something that needs to be known."

Both Raz and Claudia Fernando ("Roundtrip to Happiness," Marikina) agreed that Cinemalaya can do more for short films when it comes to the exhibition stage. During this phase of the competition, its the production team themselves who have to pay for DCPs or digital cinema package, additional hard drives for theater screenings, poster printing, among others. As much as Claudia understands that Cinemalaya does market their films, she thinks financial help during distribution is the way forward.

Some suggestions that Raz gave was that Cinemalaya could partner up with sponsors who could provide DCPs and hard drives, especially now where the short film event is so competitive and directors could have more space to breathe if they don't have to think about extra costs. "We are willing to sacrifice because that is already Cinemalaya, but I realized our hardships too — scheduling, flying in. We hope we are given support because we want to interact with our fellow filmmakers," said the Ilocos-based Mark, speaking on behalf of his fellow regional directors.

Mark, Raz, Claudia, and Kyd's inclinations may be turning for the better as the Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP) recently announced that it would be giving grants for the 2023 batch of Cinemalaya entries—P1 million for the feature films and P100,000 for the short films.

Newly-appointed FDCP head and veteran actor Tirso Cruz III told during the Cinemalaya 2022 closing ceremony — which I just couldn't miss — that the initiative was conceived during the early days of his term and was made possible by what he referred to as "angels," and he expects such a measure will continue in the future, hopefully with even bigger funding.

When I attended the closing and awarding ceremony, I opted to stay backstage rather than have a front row seat as I did when I was covering in 2019. Back then I was busy wracking my brains guessing who among the features would come up victorious (and my guesses were mostly right), but this time around Cinemalaya felt even more genuine. I wanted to personally congratulate the amazing short filmmakers I had the pleasure of talking to because they deserved all the praise they've been receiving since the moment they entered Cinemalaya.

So as Kat (with Richard), Gabriela (twice), and Zig (four times, as he also won for Best Editing in the features category) all received their awards, I was one of the first people to share in their post-crowning moments as they stepped off the stage. Each time I could feel the pride and joy they felt not just in winning but understanding that their film was recognized by fellow film lovers like them, like me. And whenever I crossed paths with their fellow batchmates like Raz and Xeph, I made sure to give them the same amount of love and praise.

I've been following films for a number of years now, and it still surprises me how much the art form continues to teach me about the value of stories. The Filipino film industry indeed has its faults, but with the cracks are also some silver linings that can be found all over the archipelago. If more viewers like me would open their minds and eyes that the regions too have incredible stories to tell, we may indeed finally find our identity as Filipinos just as Zig pointed out. And with a figure like Cinemalaya there to guide us on its balanghais, the voyage will be as wonderful as its purpose.

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