SUPREME REVIEW: Cinemalaya and its elusive coming-of-age

Francis Joseph A. Cruz (The Philippine Star) - August 13, 2016 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - Cinemalaya has now turned 12. It is roughly the same age as when Maximo Oliveros iconically blossomed and first experienced love and heartbreak, the same age when life becomes more serious, the same age when change is physical and permanent.

Despite its sometimes steady and sometimes turbulent 12 years of existence, Cinemalaya feels oddly the same, just bigger and more celebrated. The trailer, which stars Edu Manzano as a sword-wielding fantasy hero and Jun Sabayton as a disgruntled villain who is complaining how nothing ever changes in their film, offers the same message as the one in the film festival’s inaugural edition. Cinemalaya is the alternative to the mainstream. It is independent.

It is the variety that the Filipino audience will never find in regular cinemas. In the grander scheme of things, Cinemalaya should have already graduated from simply offering alternatives to something else. In its own sense of self-importance and grandiosity, it simply cannot sit down with the fact that its motives and intentions are similar to all the other film events that followed suit, all offering the same kind of alternative as it has been offering throughout the years.

If it doesn’t insist on changing, then Cinemalaya is nothing more than a glamorized production outfit, a cooperative of filmmakers that is willing to work and create for the chance to have their stories be criticized and celebrated during the few days the film festival is alive and kicking. The terms of being called a Cinemalaya filmmaker are lopsided at best, and onerous at worst. It means that certain intellectual property rights are surrendered, making the filmmaker’s task of coming up with counterpart financing with only what’s left of the rights extremely difficult.

For several years now, we witness filmmakers dropping out of the race, relying on kickstarter campaigns, mortgaging personal properties, and begging, just to complete their film. In a way, Cinemalaya is a success story in producing films for the paltriest of sums. It might be a different story from the perspective of some of the filmmakers.

Then there’s the issue of ambition and limitations. There is no question about Cinemalaya’s mission of raising standards in terms of storytelling. Its process of weeding out screenplays and directors to come up with a selection that deserves to be branded as Cinemalaya films alongside modern-day classics like Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros, Jay, and Sana Dati. However, it requires both luck and skill for any filmmaker to turn an approved screenplay in need of various revisions into an actual film. It also requires utmost intuition for that filmmaker to look for a team of like-minded craftsmen, while figuring out where to get the money to start shooting. Finally, it requires an absolute miracle for exactly that same filmmaker to do all that in just a few months. Somehow, some way, films do get made, and some of the films that do get made turn out great, making it seem that the process works. It doesn’t.

 It is counterproductive, and it sends a bad signal to the filmmaking industry of the future that will inevitably inherit that kind of toxic and murderous creative process that forces artists to churn out full-formed works within a limited time.

True, this year, the filmmakers were given ample time to do everything, given that the finalists were announced more than a year back. Yet the problem persists. J. E. Tiglao’s Maselang Bahaghari could not be finished in time, encountering budgetary problems that could not be remedied. The rest of the films did get made, but a lot of them suffer from being rough on the edges, or overly indulgent, things that could have been fixed if the scripts were allowed more time to gestate and evolve, and the production weren’t hurried to meet deadlines. Moreover, some of the films resort to gimmickry.

In two of the nine feature-length films, there were exactly two instances where moments were muddled by needless drone shots. In Derick Cabrido’s Tuos, as Barbie Forteza and the rest of her tribe carry Nora Aunor from their mountaintop village to town, the camera glides away from the struggle to capture the captivating landscape of the highlands where the arduous trek is set.

In Inna Acuña and Dos Ocampo’s Ang Bagong Pamilya ni Ponching, as Janus Del Prado enters the mansion of the family he scammed with a text message, the camera flies off to reveal the lavishness of the house. In both instances, the films abandon integrity in both theme and visual quality all for the sake of bland spectacle. It’s an unfortunate fad, the occurrences of which in this year’s lineup is but symptomatic of the fact that the film festival, which prides itself on its advertised variety and independence, is not immune to influence of whatever else that is hip and happening in Philippine filmmaking.

The lineup’s arguably a mixed bag. The stronger films are clear in motive and execution. Eduardo Roy Jr.’s Pamilya Ordinaryo tackles poverty but from a perspective that feels familiar and fresh at the same time. Its utility of CCTV footage adds a layer of blunt voyeurism into the tale that uncomfortably exposes the humanity from a couple whose marginalization degrades them fully. Jason Paul Laxamana’s Mercury is Mine is a devilishly black comedy with a potent message on Filipinos’ knack for self-deprecation in light of glorifying everything and anything that is foreign and fairer. Tuos, despite its obvious indulgences, gracefully marries its exotic portrayal of an indigenous culture with a resounding slogan of women escaping the clutches of tradition within a predominantly patriarchal society. Ralston Jover’s Hiblang Abo, Atom Magadia’s Dagsin, Ivan Payawal’s I America, David Corpuz and Cenon Palomares’ Kusina, and Vic Acedillo’s Lando at Bugoy are works with a lot of promise that are betrayed by various problems, whether in crafting, scope or misdirection. Yet they are all rough on the edges but ultimately salvaged by an observable earnestness in telling a story and relaying a point.

Interestingly, this year’s lineup feels more about the performances than the films. Judy Ann Santos rescued Kusina from its ambiguous experimentation. Allen Dizon provided enough levity to translate the rustic charms of Lando at Bugoy. Tommy Abuel is the personification of gravity in Dagsin. That there are amazing portrayals is never a bad thing. What is concerning here is that they all outshine the films, turning the festival into a showcase of acting talent rather than films, making it feel like the films are utilizing the starpower and skills of their A-list performers rather than concentrating on the films themselves.

At this point, Cinemalaya can only grow up. Commercial studios are slowly but surely embracing ideas that are results from the 12 years of the film festival’s experience. If the goal of the film festival is to reinvigorate the industry by introducing the possibility that there is an audience to more diverse fare, then that bridge has been built. What the festival needs to do now is to engage its filmmakers by providing real opportunities beyond the initial step of partially bankrolling their projects and creating a venue. The best, hopefully, is yet to come.

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