Today is Wednesday, June 03, 2020

Current Session of Résidence du Festival de Cannes

Journal Entry No.1: Anticipations of Light
Feature by: Raya Martin

The first installment of Raya Martin's journal as a part of the Residence du Festival de Cannes.

In my early days as a child, there was not much to look at in terms of filmmaking potential. The most pronounced and personally memorable, bit from my childhood was playing with my uncle's camera. I presume every Filipino family, who has at least two or more relatives working overseas (specifically as seamen), will have a video camera with them. The sole camera would then travel to the different immediate families on important occasions: reunions, weddings, graduation parties, 10th birthday celebrations. So when my older brother and sister would have their commencement dinners, the camera would be in our hands.

During celebrations, teenagers would separate from their elders and find their own corners in the house. Theatre actress and then mortal enemy Banaue Miclat (who plays granddaughter Huling in Lav Diaz's epic Evolution of a Filipino Family) would hole up in the computer room, in an intimate telephone conversation with a guy. In between breaks, she would pretend to be a desk lady from a disaster relief center. Shooing me away, I would later shoot the cracks of the house in a jagged manner, run the water hose against closed windows while shaking the blinds, knock down flower pots-- it was an early attempt at Bruckheimer cinema.

My involvement in filmmaking could not exactly have come from my father's influence, having had an unstable love-hate relationship with me when I was young. He wrote for publications as a student, articles on the introduction of cinema in the islands and profiles of great Filipino producer-directors like Vicente Salumbides. Later, he would revise these, one of them included in an anthology book of significant film essays. He was a member of the Film Chamber Club, one of the early film organizations (put up by now film director and Cinemanila founder Tikoy Aguiluz). Gradually, his interest in film writing waned out, and my father became a journalist and a staunch activist during the Marcos era. Yet, he would still be in touch with friends who had gone on to pursue their film dreams.

It must have been in the first Cinemanila Film Festival where he and I saw an Iranian film that bored him to death. He dozed off for almost the entire film, while I was trying to comprehend what the tedious shots of rocky terrain meant (reminiscent of Abbas Kiarostami's style, to which I was very much oblivious then). Outside, an Iranian approached him asking what he thought of the film. Admitting that he slept through it, he instantly pointed at me. To my surprise, I remember being a very articulate young boy, talking about spirituality in films, something which I still cannot fully understand today.

A year or two later, still at the same festival, we saw Walter Salles' much celebrated and highly popular Central Station. Right then and there, we had a feeling of agreement about its beauty: for him an interest in Brazilian culture and its similarities to local characteristics, and for me, a personal attachment to Fernanda Montenegro's character. I had just separated from my nanny then, who had moved back to her province.

It was not really about my love for form, my experience in the darkened room, or wanting to share an interesting feeling. My filmmaking origins came from the love-hate relationship with my father. My wish was to impress the father who had then been concentrating well on my brother as a budding writer, and my sister who he loved as unica hija (the only daughter). I must have wanted to prove something to him, and to do so in the field the secretly enjoyed as well. In short, we had found a common ground.

In highschool, I directed a class short film, conscientious object-or: The Reality of Olaf, that was a visual interpretation of an e.e. cummings poem. It premiered to a packed auditorium, where suspicious teachers and nuns only made subtle congratulatory remarks as a reaction to a then-shocking head-dunking-to-toilet scene. Needless to say, as in the competition, we did not win.

I took up journalism in the mountain province of Baguio, the summer capital of the Philippines. I had been traveling there every summer, and my godfather had been teaching in the state university since he moved there. As my original plan to study film in Manila did not work out (not passing the entrance exam), my option was to finish a year in the mountains before shifting back to the Manila campus. I swore, after much sleepless nights crying my heart out, that if ever I was not able to shift that I would drop out of college and pursue my film education through workshop courses. In the middle of the year, Khavn dela Cruz, programmer and director of .mov Digital International Film Festival, informed me that our highschool film will screen in the program. I immediately took the next bus back to the city.

In the Philippines' only film school, there is not much to do. Most of the viewing was limited to class hours and required titles due to an inefficient archive system and inexperienced professors. Yet I was able to catch what turned out to be some of my greatest film discoveries: Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon, Andrei Tarkovsky's Mirror and Andrei Rublev, Mikhail Kalatozov's I Am Cuba and the early actualities of the Lumiere Brothers and Thomas Edison. It also helped that in-between I had been writing for the college section of the most widely-read paper in the country. I had written on independent filmmaking, a topic I was not really knowledgeable on then, but that eventually led me to my love for Stan Brakhage, Kenneth Anger, knowledge on the films of Wong Kar Wai and the Dogme Movement.

As a class requirement, my groupmates and I had agreed to do a short film on the aswang, a legendary witch whose body cuts itself in half at night. Eventually, this led to Bakasyon, a quiet film about a young girl's startling discovery of provincial reality. Submitting the film to the Cinemanila film festival in the hopes to get it screened, it had surprisingly been shortlisted as a competition film. The jury that year included Ho Yuhang, whose Sanctuary I later saw and very much loved. Eventually, the film won the Ishmael Bernal Award for Young Cinema. And I was able to profess shortly to Yuhang my interminable love for Russian Cinema.

In the summer after my sophomore year, I had gone to Batanes on a whim. Hearing ceaselessly about the island from social science professors and seeing its charming scenery in pictures, I had decided to take loads of tapes and a digital video camera (my parents had bought it for me as a graduation present) for an almost guerilla shooting. In two weeks, I had finished almost all my tapes, totaling to 23 hours of footage. Failing to finish the film before I turned 19, school had suddenly preoccupied my mind. Only after my internship with Kidlat Tahimik a year after was I able to muster enough courage again to go through the hours and hours of footages. After almost a year of editing, Ang Isla sa Dulo ng Mundo was made and quietly premiered to family and close friends at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. (My father was the first to see the finished work, and told me earlier that it was a strange work, and that no one would be able to relate to its slow and quiet style. It was also my father who best expressed his joy when the film won the Best Documentary at the .mov International Digital Film Festival 2005, by texting every single person in his phonebook.)

It was Tikoy Aguiluz, festival director of Cinemanila, who suggested that I apply for Festival du Cannes' Cinefondation. It was one of the few film residencies in the world as well as the most prestigious. The residency states, it "provides accommodation in Paris to young filmmakers and assists them in bringing to fruition their project for a first or second feature film." As a filmmaker friend had said, it was the "Formula One of almost-there filmmakers."

At the time, I had just shot my thesis film cum-feature attempt, a period film titled Maicling Pelicula nang ysang Indio Nacional. Tikoy thought it would be beneficial that I finish such an ambitious project in the best of conditions and facilities. Previously, Filipino filmmaker Mariami Tanangco (whose thesis film Binyag remains to be one of the country's most awarded student films) had submitted her application to the residency, but was not able to get in. I thought it would be a long shot, but was worth a try.

I had mailed the requirements in the nick of time. My father had accompanied me to the nearest FedEx, driving while I finished the application inside the moving car. The questions, I thought, were bogus, such as people who I'd like to meet at the residency and things like that. I had filled it up with Aleksander Sokurov, Jonathan Rosenbaum, and producers who would be interested in South East Asian co-productions. It was coming from someone who previously had previously been spending boring days inside the house, in front of the computer, walking aimlessly around the city at night.

I had almost forgotten about that application. A few months later, I was in the midst of a week of disappointing letters of regret that I received in the mail. Festival after festival had turned my entries down. This made the impact of the Cinefondation news that much more pleasant. I froze on the spot for a few seconds before rushing to my parents' room. "You look pale", my Dad remarked. I was shortlisted together with 11 other finalists from abroad, including countries like Australia, Argentina, Poland, and South Korea. Immediately, my instinct was to Google each of their names, and the dreadful information came about their numerous previous involvement with prestigious festivals, including Cannes itself. At that time, I had not been able to participate in any international festivals (yet my local image seemed to operate otherwise). My parents had said that it was enough for me to be flown in to Paris for the interview, and that an extra week of stay was an additional graduation gift (earlier, I had been to Singapore for the SIFF as Press).

I was flown in to Paris for the final interview (all expenses paid by Cinefondation), and informed that the shortlisted filmmakers of 12 shall be cut down to 6. Upon arrival at the hotel, I kept guessing which of the guests were part of the interview. A bunch that included a Korean-looking girl were suspects, and to my surprise later in the afternoon, they were.

At the Cannes headquarters in rue Amelie (that I found quirky, as everyone kept saying how Jean Pierre-Jeunet's film has the biggest impact in France today), I was astounded at the sight of Cahiers du Cinema, and a festival catalogue that were free. Needless to say, the Filipino in me picked up copies to bring back home. I even reminded the Polish, Peter Otlowski, to pick up his own copies.

The interview was scheduled for the day after my arrival, and as it turned out, I was the last to be interviewed. This year's panel included Christine Laurent, who was the head juror, and wrote for Jacques Rivette, as well as being an actress and director herself. In an informal interview with a jury of around 10 filmmakers and producers, including the foundation's current director, Georges Goldenstern who was most accommodating, I thoroughly regretted not being a smoker-- the tension was one of the greatest I have had in my life. Here I was, in front of producers and distributors of films I was only familiar with from pirated DVDs, talking about my approach to filmmaking. One of the most memorable moments was when I mentioned Mikhail Kalatozov, whose The Cranes are Flying remains one of the most memorable pieces I had seen during my starting years in film school. While bragging about my Russian Cinema background, I had hoped to impress them also with insights about the phenomenon of piracy in the region. Yet they weren't surprised. And it was me who got surprised, days later, when I found a store by the Centre Pompidou selling pirated CDs.

Kislap ng Kalyeng Paroo't Parito (English: Glint of an Alley in a Rush) is hopefully a tribute to filmmaking, and I plan to get these homages out of my system as early as now. Yet more than that, the new project is essentially about growing up in the midst of That's Entertainment (a popular local show in the early 90's akin to today's American Idol), horror movies, movies made for television, the mass media. More than a lesson about today's generation disconnecting themselves from reality, it is about my relationship with particular people, how that has evolved throughout the years, and how its future appears in my head.

Georges, the foundation's director, had promised to call for the results in the early evening on the same day of the interview. The very nature of waiting is a cruel joke. As we were all waiting for the results, each of us seeing the other through our balconies at the hotel room, everyone kept a somber look on his or her face. One by one, heads disappeared as phones rang in our rooms.

Then, mine.

Georges' first words were "Don't worry" and it registered differently in my head. Needless to say, everything got clear when I had visited the office a week after during my visit's extension, where they handed me the official letter of selection instead of mailing it to Manila.

It still feels surreal, writing about all this in my new Parisian room, at the heart of what they say is the young producers' neighborhood (and right next to the red light district). Next to me is a poster of a father about to hug a woman (that quite refers to my film), while outside are pictures from what seem to be a Bresson film. My room is a mess now. It feels good to write all this, get ready to get down and dirty starting next week.

Everyone has their own reasons for their involvement in cinema. Filmmaking has become a tool for me to understand what is happening around. More importantly, it is my way of mapping out and analyzing what has become of me as an entity of emotions. I'm quite getting there with pleasing my father, but the bigger hope of trying to make sense of this world looms over.
The title is borrowed from a Ken Kelman article published in The New American Cinema anthology edited by Gregory Battcock.

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