I had a good week. I spent most of my weekdays inside the various venues converted into screening rooms at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. This week I was not a filmmaker: I played the role I love best. I became a movie fan. Better yet, I partook of a feast. That is the celebration of the best of Filipino cinema today.
To those harbingers who make pronouncements that Filipino cinema is dead, the Seventh Cinemalaya Film Festival did not only prove them wrong but rather asserted that it very much alive but reinventing its form and content.
For those who still believe that the Filipino filmmaker is not worth the P150 to P300 spent on movie tickets, we care not to argue.
Yes, there is happiness in wearing 3-D glasses and enjoying the spectacle of First World cinema technology. But that is tantamount to a thrill ride, similar to a significant human experience obtained from a few minutes on a roller coaster. It is a reassurance that we are living in the 21st century with all the gimmickry and gadgetry defining our quality of existence.
To each his own: we have distinct definitions of happiness. Cinema should offer wide enough a range to cater to a spectrum of appetites. There should be enough room to appreciate Tilda Swinton in I am Love as well as Kristin Stewart in the Twilight franchise. Inasmuch as there should also be room to shriek in ecstasy watching romantic comedies as leave room for the gasp in watching films like Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang or Himala. There should be room and choices for everybody. The imbalance arises when only a specific kind of movie becomes the staple diet for everyone. This is when the audiences start looking for better options --- and the operative word is choice.
Deprive people of choice and they will lose faith in what you can and have to offer all together. Apparently that is what happened to mainstream or commercial filmmaking in the Philippines for the past five years. We have simply been deprived of choices.
But that seems to be slowly changing. What is significant about the emergent Filipino cinema is that the boundaries between independent and mainstream filmmaking are slowly dissolving.
The astounding attendance of Cinemalaya screenings this year --- extended to two movie houses in Greenbelt --- manifest widening patronage that was once assumed to be an insignificant niche audience. Suddenly, you do not only see ComArts students required by their professors, cinema buffs and Pilosopong Tasyos, or even members of that small yet loquacious community of indie filmmakers crowding the main lobby as well as the venues outside the Little Theater and Huseng Batute at the CCP. Now you have everyday people who literally went out of their ways to go to Roxas Bouleavard to watch these films.
Much to everyone's surprise and jubilation, 90% of the tickets were sold for most of the screenings, including the ones at Greenbelt. Two New Breed entries, Marlon Rivera's Ang Babae sa Septic Tank and Erick Salud's Ligo Na U, Lapit na Me were running on sold-out theaters so much so that Cinemalaya had to accommodate extra screenings just to fill out the unwavering demand.
Now is that not reason to celebrate? OK, admittedly Ang Babae sa Septic Tank --- the biggest hit of the festival --- is a showcase of the comic genius of an actress named Eugene Domingo. Her marquee value alone can fill up any theater after proving her worth through years of dedication and determination. Even in the mainstream scene, Eugene Domingo is already an A-Lister. Adding the sharpness of wit in Chris Martinez' script and the impressive directorial debut of Marlon Rivera, Ang Babae sa Septic Tank is one kind of indie movie that is shamelessly and definitely commercial without insulting the intelligence of its audience or pandering to the law of the least common denominator in taste.
For Eugene Domingo, like Cherry Pie Picache, Tessie Tomas, Mark Gil, Alfred Vargas, Marvin Agustin and other dedicated performers, Cinemalaya has become a venue to push their craft so much further than what is permissible in mainstream cinema --- or, God forbid, telenovelas. As one of these actors bluntly put it, appearing in an indie movie (yes, even with that exaggerated metaphor of being fed only Skyflakes and cat food)is an act of liberation ... if not affirmation that they have talent beyond autopilot acting required from other venues.
But consider Ligo na U that stars an extremely competent but underutilized Edgar Allan Guzman and an indie darling named Mercedes Cabral. Here is an example of a movie that allegedly cost only P1.8M and has become the second highest grossing Cinemalaya entry this year. Based on a novel by Eros S. Atalia, Ligo na U did not depend on a major star to give wind to its sails. Rather, it is the strength of the material, the crispness of the script and upbeat direction that has sold this movie to the audience it was targeted to entertain.
The bottomline is: with a good material, great script and direction ... the star value becomes peripheral if not incidental. The real star of the film is the film.
Then consider two of the best movies among the New Breed Section: Lawrence Fajardo's Amok and Loy Arcenas' Nino.
There is absolutely no way that any commercial producer, regardless of lofty intentions and messianic delusions, will ever invest their money in movies such as these.
Why? Because focus groups will allegedly not understand and therefore not give high scores to ensemble pieces whether they take place in the busiest corner of EDSA and Taft Avenue or especially in an old decaying residence of an age lost and irretrievable. Why? Because neither movies fall within the template of what is considered commercially viable or that pre-conceived recipe for a project to have strong chances of being a box office hit.
But these two films represent the best of what Cinemalaya had to offer this year. Fajardo's Amok is a marvel of filmmaking, rich in its grit and never sensationalizing its subject matter in observing an orchestra of characters moving around a busy urban intersection. Amok never went the route of poverty porn --- the kind so wonderfully spoofed by Babae sa Septic Tank --- that has characterized the trademark of Pang-international Filmfest Ito! Instead, this complex and intricate ensemble piece is so beautifully acted by well-honed actors especially Mark Gil and Dido de la Paz who deliver performances with such rawness and courage. Bravo!
Then there is Nino, Loy Arcenas' eulogy to the death of an age of manners and propriety, an epilogue to the Filipino delicadeza and amor propio as he studies the final blows in the deterioration of once respected but now highly dysfunctional family. Whereas Amok is about grit, Nino is all about gentility ... about culture. Whereas Amok reeks of the rap music being sung by young boys peddling their cigarettes and candies in the streets, Nino is about a faded opera singer --- wonderfully portrayed by Fides Cuyugan-Asencio --- as she musters all her courage to sustain herself while being completely aware that she has outlived her use. I am so ... overwhelmed.
Where else but in Cinemalaya can you get such a joy to watch two films such as these? Where else but in this festival of independent films can we assure ourselves that ... yes, Filipino film is still alive and reinventing itself in a language that has always been understood but never quite spoken because of blatant obsession for commercialism.
Where else but in Cinemalaya can you get to watch a film as lyrical as Aureus Solito's Busong or discover that Rocco Nacino and Paolo Avelino are such promising young actors in Ang Sayaw ng Dalawang Kaliwang Paa whereas you tend to dismiss them as beefcake and pretty boys on tv? Where else but in a festival such as this can you find brilliant performances by Art Acuna, Sharmaine Centenera-Buencamino and Raquel Villavicencio in Nino, Cherry Pie Picache and Bembol Roco in Adolf Alix's Isda, or JM de Guzman and Kean Cipriano in Babae sa Septic Tank?
Where else can I be assured that there is an entire generation of new, brave and brilliant filmmakers just waiting in the wings to bring Filipino cinema to new heights?
There is only one true Filipino film festival ... and it is called Cinemalaya. And that is why I am ecstatic. That is why I am celebrating.