Found Stories: Brillante Mendoza

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Note: This article was supposed to appear in The Phillippine Star around December 2012, in time for Thy Womb’s MMFF run. I have no idea though if this article ever saw print. 

Brillante Mendoza merely laughed when I told him that his film Kinatay, which won him the Best Director award in the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, has become a benchmark in depictions of graphic violence on screen. In Slant Magazine’s review of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, John Semley cited Mendoza’s film in contrast with Bigelow’s violent scenes of torture. “The scenes are disturbing, but by cinema’s post-Kinatay or The Passion of the Christ standards, Zero Dark Thirty‘s graphic incitements are slight,” Semley wrote. Mendoza somehow finds this amusing, seeing how Kinatay has earned him a degree of notoriety in world cinema. Granted, the film had shocking displays of violence but Mendoza has since ventured on films that are less repugnant, particularly in his film Thy Womb.

Kinatay is perceived to be very violent and Thy Womb is [about] unconditional love,” Mendoza says. “Sa akin naman, nakikita mo yung pagta-tackle natin sa mga istorya, not just because gusto lang natin magpakita ng violence. If there’s an interesting story, yun ang mas tinitignan ko. With Thy Womb, affected ako when I first saw the place. Once kasi na-catch yung attention mo, yun ang gusto kong ikwento. The way I felt during that moment, yun yung gusto kong i-capture sa film.”

Thy Womb premiered at the Venice Film Festival last September and competed in the festival’s main slate against world cinema greats like Terrence Malick, Brian De Palma, and Marco Belocchio. The film has since earned accolades and citations from critics around the world and is currently making rounds of film festivals. This December, Thy Womb is part of the Metro Manila Film Festival, the same festival that rejected it in the first place until another film pulled out of the competition, way after Thy Womb’s success abroad. But Mendoza is more than happy with the film’s selection to the MMFF, seeing this as an opportunity to share his films with Filipinos around the country.

A different perspective

The film also marks the return of Nora Aunor to the big screen. She stars as Shaleha, an infertile midwife who searches for a second wife for her husband so he can have a child. Thy Womb is starkly different from Mendoza’s previous films. Blue skies not only mark a momentary respite for the film but it is actually a reflection of the Tawi-Tawi island that the film is set in. Mendoza used this film as an opportunity to tell a different side of the people of South.

“The first time I went to Tawi-tawi was for me a great discovery of the place. I knew little about Tawi-tawi,” Mendoza recalls. “Like most of us here from Luzon na napaka-minimal lang ng alam natin. Ang alam lang natin diyan, violent yung lugar. We tend to have a lot of misconceptions and we tend to generalize Mindanao as a whole. This is a beautiful island. They Christians and the Muslims coexist peacefully. In the same community, from different tribes pa, you will see mosques and chapels in one street. So sabi ko if I’m gonna make a story here, dapat kasama itong community na ito, dapat ma-capture ito hindi lang yung story na hindi lang nakikita yung lugar. In my films kasi, the place is bigger than the ego. Whenever we tell stories of people, people are just part of the big community and somehow represents the community but this is basically the story of the place.”

Working with the superstar

Inspired by a true story of a woman from Tawi-Tawi, Thy Womb’s harrowing story of self-sacrifice and selflessness needed a mature and experienced actress to tackle the role. Mendoza thought of Aunor right away and the decision was met with a degree of negativity. Aunor is said to be a difficult actress to work with but Mendoza proved otherwise during the filming of Thy Womb.

“With Nora, kahit naman big [star] siya, siguro there’s a reason why she’s [called] the superstar, kung bakit siya nandito sa stature niya ngayon, because alam niya kung kalian siya magluluko-luko, kung kalian siya magpapakatino, kung kalian siya gagwa ng ganito, ng ganyan. She plays everything by heart, by instinct, and alam niya kapag napipinpoint niya yung tao. That’s how I read her. So when I worked with her siguro nakita niya rin yun so wala kaming problema. Kapag nakikita niya na you are really serious with what you’re doing, nakikita rin niya yung commitment ng mga actors, ng mga staff and crew, siguro nadadala na rin siya doon,” Mendoza explains.

A new experience

Filming Thy Womb opened Mendoza to a new experience. He spent months of research and immersion in Tawi-Tawi to somehow tell the story of its people, culture, and environment, through Shaleha’s story. He didn’t want the film to end up as a touristy photoplay or a haphazardly told tale about the South. He took his time in making the film knowing that he is dealing with a culture that is rich and captivating. He even made a cultural event the centerpiece of the film.

With each film that he makes, Mendoza is bent not just on showcasing our culture but also our capabilities as a filmmaking nation. “There’s such a thing as a Filipino filmmaker doing it in a Filipino way na hindi pwedeng gawin sa iba at hindi nagagawa ng iba. Whether we like it or not, iba tayong gumawa ng pelikula, dahil nasa kultura natin yun as Filipinos. People just love to share, they just love to help. Kultura natin yung tumulong. YungSige wag mo na akong bayaran’, ‘Sige pang-taxi na lang’. You can’t do that abroad. These are the things that I share and I’m proud. I’m proud that I’m a Filipino filmmaker. ”

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Apocalypse Now and Forever: Lav Diaz’s Norte

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How do you end a world consumed by its own corruption? In Lav Diaz’s Norte: Hangganan ng Kasaysayan, Fabian (Sid Lucero), a law school dropout, sees no point in continuing the morality imposed by societal conventions on a dying civilization. Fabian goes on to ramble about his philosophy to his professors — the coffee shop they’re in being the most innocuous venue for such discussion — how the negation of truth and everything society perceives as “wrong” is also an act of liberation in itself. After minutes of discussion, he then proceeds to borrow rent money from his audience. Fabian postulates his ideations as somewhat that of a radical’s, someone who is drunk on the power of living, enough to put his own theories to their own destructive course.

It is here that Diaz freely plays with Dostoyevski’s Crime and Punishment — the Russian author being a life-long obsession in Diaz’s filmography — transposing the Russian psychological warfare into the dust of a third-world setting. Fabian is Raskolnikov, Dostoyevski’s handsome dilettante whose loathing towards normalcy and ethics is the spark that sets off an upheaval of another world. High on the sway of his own call to arms, Fabian goes on to murder his pawnbroker (Mae Paner, devoid of her Juana Change contraptions) and her daughter, launching into ruin not only of his own but of another parallel universe. In Norte, the fall is taken by Joaquin (Archie Alemania, far from his comedic comfort zone), a DVD peddler accused of the pawnbroker’s murder, his ties to her include a mountain of debt and a short burst of a tantrum after she refused to return his wife’s pawned ring.

Fabian goes on about his life as if the act of killing is a necessary recourse of existence. He further isolates himself from the rest of the world, even from his closest friends. Joaquin’s family, on the other hand, suffers from the shattered life they are consigned to living. Joaquin’s wife, Eliza (the quietly powerful Angeli Bayani), tries to make ends meet, selling vegetables in a rickety cart around their town while Joaquin desperately lives his saintly disposition inside the prison, never crossing boundaries and keeping his mouth shut if needed. This is a set-up for a dreary exposition into squalor and defeat, but Diaz, never one to indulge in such games, opts instead to steer his four-hour film (which runs like breeze even for a millennial attention span) into an astonishing study of madness and its accompanying instruments.

Norte is Diaz’s first film in color for over a decade, and his first working with material co-written by another playwright, Rody Vera. The film still bears Diaz’s distinctive mark, its blood coursing through familiar themes that the filmmaker has closely explored in his career. Norte only occupies a unique place in his filmography, being his first Cannes Film Festival entry and one of his most lauded films to date, landing on top yearend critics list such as Sight and Sound, Artforum, Sense of Cinema, and La Internacional Cinéfila.

Praised for its epic scope and intimate look at the lives caught in time’s undertow, Norte offers up a relevant response to how our country has gradually been victim to our crimes, even those that we commit to the ones we hold dear.

Sumpa ang mabuhay, Joaquin. Dahil hindi natin hawak ang buhay,” a character ominously proclaims, the specter of death hanging like a palpable scent in the air the characters breathe in. Norte is never happy, despite the stark blue of the skies that follows its characters. Its novel-like length gives Diaz the freedom to explore his characters in more detail, allowing high-caliber actors such as Lucero, Alemania, Bayani, and the ever-reliable Mailes Kanapi, as Fabian’s Bible-thumping sister, to sink their teeth deeper into the turmoil. That Diaz’s direction allows his actors to roam freely into their characters’ psyche adds only to the film’s rattling thrum — the sound that echoes with the fury of our cries.