Continuities: Philippine cinema yesterday and today
Interview by: Ben and May
By Gaik Cheng Khoo
Filipino filmmaker Raymond Red was in Canberra as part of the Regional Intersections film screenings focus on Southeast Asian Cinema at the Australian National Film and Sound Archive in 7-17 April, 2011. His visit was sponsored by the College of Arts and Social Sciences, ANU. Prior to this interview, Red participated on a filmmakers’ panel discussion that included actor/director Lola Amaria and Mohammad Marzuki, rapper and founder of the Jogja Hiphop Foundation. And after his film Manila Skies was screened, Red took a few questions so there had been ongoing conversation about his work and the state of Philippine cinema prior to this interview.
Raymond Red has been a filmmaker since the early 1980s when as a 17 year old, his experimental short films won him critical attention. While Red went on to make feature films in the Philippines through the 1990s, none were as successful as his short film Anino (Shadows) which brought the Philippines back on the world cinema map when it won the Palme d’Or for the Best Short Film in 2000. Throughout the period, he continued to work, making commercials, music videos and short films. In 2009, Red returned with a feature film he could be proud of, Manila Skies . In the interview I trace the continuities of Philippine cinema history with Red.
Gaik: You're here in Canberra for your film screening of Manila Skies , which is not your first feature but probably the first one with the most control...?
RR: Manila Skies , the original title of Himpapawid (meaning Skies), is my fourth full length feature film and I would say that I definitely had full control over this film because I produced it as well with the help of partners, co-producers as opposed to earlier films. Specifically Sakay (1993) which had a team of producers and financiers, some of them were even unknown to me while we were filming, so there was a different kind of pressure; even though the producers do give you some creative space and respect your decisions in production. In a more commercial set up like that, there are other aspects to the running of the production, there is always the business side which as an artist and filmmaker you try not to think about. And that's usually where the conflict stems from, between producers, and directors and writers. So Manila Skies was one film that definitely came about the way I really conceived it, the way I imagined it to be. Any filmmaker would always wish that maybe they had more money or time to do it ... but generally speaking, I had really total freedom and creative space, even time; it took me on a 2 year journey. The shoot was not a very long period, it was a span of about two months, not really shooting everyday. We shot for 18 shooting days spread out in that 2 months. Previous to that we had maybe 3 months of pre-production and maybe before that, it took me 3 months of conceptualising and writing my script and convincing my friend/actor Raul Arellano who doesn't actually live in the Philippines (he lives near Los Angeles) to fly to Manila to shoot this film. So it was a very exciting experience for me to be working on a somewhat bigger budget film, bigger scale in terms of logistics and production but working on it, pretty much going back to my roots of real guerilla independent filmmaking, having that full control very much the same way I was doing it when I was beginning with my early short films, shot on the small Super 8 film format back in the 1980s.
Gaik: You were mentioning in your interview with Noel Vera in 2000 after Anino won the Palme d'Or that some of that kind of 'do it yourself things' included making sure the crew was fed, having to be producer as well as filmmaker on set ...
RR: Yes, the short film Anino which was very eventful for me back in the year 2000 as it won the Palme d'Or in Cannes that year. In a way looking back now, even though I treat it as a very legit, very serious work from me, whether it's short or long it didn't really matter as it was one serious work for me. Looking back it almost feels like a rehearsal for Manila Skies . It's a different story but the structure of that story seems to have an affinity with Manila Skies . And the experience of producing that film, that film was shot on 35mm, so it required a few more people in the crew, the heavier equipment, and setting up, and controlling some locations. Then again, we shot it almost guerrilla style, running around the city without official permits, sometimes being chased away by cops because we were shooting in areas of the city where they were quite strict ... and also having the actors interact with real people on the streets. Mostly these people were not aware that we were filming. So it became kind of like a practice for Manila Skies . When I shot Manila Skies 8 years later, it was so reminiscent of all the feelings and experiences we had when we were filming Anino.
Gaik: Is it the same area? Because in Anino you see the ending shot of the slums at the bottom and the skyscrapers in the background and then in Manila Skies you also similarly see this. Things seem to happen on this one road in the ghetto in this area in town.
RR: In Manila Skies we purposely went back to locations that we shot in with Anino back in 2000 plus a few more new locations. But mostly moving around old parts of Manila because the texture, the grit, and the chaos of the city, is mostly really felt in these old parts of the city. What's interesting to note is when we did Anino we actually chose certain streets, corners, intersections that were the locations for Lino Brocka's Maynila, sa mga kuko ng liwanag [Manila in the Claws of Neon]. I did admit back then that when I was already shooting Anino, I was doing it like a tribute and I was aware of certain shots and images that I purposely made an hommage to Lino Brocka by doing the shots. There was a specific shot of our lead character, actor Ronnie Lazaro, leaning on a post looking up. That's the opening shot of actor, Bembol Roco in Maynila. So we actually did that; he's wearing a similar shirt, and we repeated it in Manila Skies with Raul wearing this simple typical shirt.
Gaik: It's fascinating because that was going to be my question. I see a lot of similarities between Anino and Manila Skies , a lot of themes that keep coming up; one of which is the use of animals like rats and cockroaches and faeces that you see floating in the river in Anino. You kind of see that replicated in the dog shit [Raul accidentally steps on] where the line between the animals like rats and cockroaches and the human is actually quite thin.
RR: It's showing scenes where people in fact almost get used to living with these pests - rodents, cockroaches and all that. They become part of your environment and we kind of play with that, with Raul's psyche. Because he is a man on the edge, in fact going towards being deranged. And that's why we had short moments where he would almost speak to the rat, the cockroach. In fact when we were filming, there were longer improvisational monologues done by Raul. And they were really fascinating when we shot it but when I was editing, I had to focus where I was leading my story and I felt those takes did not really work very well for our story; so I had to cut them out. But as a performance it was very, very fascinating and almost gripping.
Gaik: With somebody like John Cassavettes, the acting seems so naturalistic but then we find out that everything was scripted word for word. With your films, how much improvisation do you allow and what actually is in the script? How do you deal with your actors?
RR: I actually wrote a 10 page treatment, or a story line or even a sequence treatment and that's basically what we worked with. So it did not have very detailed dialogue but it did explain very clearly to the actors what their characters were about. And through our sessions, meetings, and rehearsals (very short rehearsals actually) I did take time to explain to each actor exactly what I imagined, as well as took in their input. So I gave them a lot of space to immerse themselves and to create their characters. I have always admitted I am not an actor's director. I guess it's because my background is primarily visual arts so I've always looked at the film medium as a primarily visual medium so I tell my stories through the visuals. They always say that there is a danger of cinema becoming a little less emotional if it is just purely visual and yet I disagree with that, because as a painter you pour out a lot of emotion through a single frame or canvas, and what filmmaking gave me was an even bigger space to tell those thoughts, feelings and emotions. Now with the inclusion of the element of time and space, you can let your viewers go through that experience, depending on how much time you want them to go through it. So I do feel that I can express those emotions clearly. Going back to the actors, what I do is I look for actors who I'm familiar with already; most of them have become really close friends and that way they understand me very well. So when I explain ideas, thoughts and feelings, they immediately get into it and are able to impart facets of themselves into the elements that I provided. Basically I also give them parameters...
Gaik: ... so like the Crispin character for example, or the bar scenes or the drunken, semi-drunken scenes, those have an improvisatory feel, the dialogue.
RR: Yeah, almost throughout the film, it was mostly improvisation although I do give very specific key ideas, key words, sometimes phrases.
Gaik: . like the taxi scene, when they are on their way to the robbery?
RR: Right, certain ideas and phrases have really come from me or directly from our story line, so I make sure that the actors say those things even though they are improvising. And I do put some control over the improvisation because, you know, improvisation has become really popular now with indie filmmakers, especially young people doing their first films, mainly because it's an easy way into filmmaking, into making a full-length feature without really writing a script. I always say that the reason I wrote a 10 page treatment is not because I'm too lazy to write the script. I do admit I'm not much of a writer. But I felt that this film would work better that way and so I got the actors who were familiar with me, who I'm familiar with, and we discussed all these characters ...they did all those improvisations. Nevertheless I did control it. I made sure that each scene was going towards where I wanted it to go. The danger with improvisation is sometimes the actors will just go on and on and on because digital filmmaking is very cheap, so filmmakers think it's OK and just roll the camera, sometimes even taking hours, and when they sit down at the editing table, they have so much material they don't know where to cut their film.
The best proof that I had real control over film language was by the time I sat down with the editor (who had not been privy to what was happening in the shoot, they didn't know much about how we were filming), he saw the footage, he immediately knew how to edit it. Because he could see in the shots, the takes - how I wanted it to go. You can see the language already. That 'OK, I can use this, maybe cut to this, connect this' and so on. I usually have an improvisation scene, say the drinking scene at the store, and they would improv for several minutes, then I take mental notes and I review it on an HD monitor (the other advantage of digital) which is very clear, and the sound is very crisp. And we can discuss it on set. We say, 'Ok, don't say that line again' [chuckles], 'whereas you, that was a good point. Repeat that on a close up.' So I'm already editing on set. So I'll shoot the close up when you said this, you know, I'll do an alternative of the other line because you said it the wrong way. Things like that. It is really editing and that's why when an editor looks at the shots he already knows where the stories go.
Gaik: You work quite closely with your editors because I noticed that in the credits there were a few...
RR: There were three editors including me. I did sit through the whole editing process. Creatively the three of us were editors.
Gaik: Are you happy with the results?
RR: Yes, generally speaking, it's a film that I really feel strongly for, and I believe it's evoking everything that I wanted to say and visually being a cinematographer ...I treated it like a painter. I think the visuals do contribute to the story. It's not just pretty cinematography but really, having visuals that jive along with what you're trying to say.
Gaik: I like that you didn't show the violence and the conflict that the two guys getting shot... that was just left as a blank for Raul to find out only at the end. It's not gratuitous.
RR: If you look back into the film, it's being told from the point of view of Raul. It's almost a cliche when you say it's a point of view; then you have to have a lot of actual POV shots (the first person view's point of what's happening). I actually try to avoid that, I try to stick to very traditional film language, very simple story telling because I didn't want to distract the audience from the story. At the same time, visually, you are experiencing it through the eyes of Raul even though you are kind of confused. That's essentially what was happening to Raul then. That's why in scenes like the heist, you basically experienced it the way Raul did. It was just so puzzling, he fell asleep and suddenly what happened, then he realises,
Gaik: And, and it's also interesting, the soundtrack. We're not sure whether it's the soundtrack or whether he hears three gunshot-like sounds that woke him up in the cab.
RR: Yeah. It's an experience a lot of us go through when we're half asleep and then suddenly a sound wakes you up and you're not sure, 'did I really hear that or was that the end of my dream or something', so I wanted to impart that to the viewers. That's how I played with the image and the sound. Eventually in the climactic scene of the the hijacking, that was also intended as something seen either from [Gaik: some imaginary things that happened] or from the point of view of a passenger. Actually at a screening I think in the US, someone commented maybe we didn't have the budget to show the cockpit. [chuckles] We were actually shooting on a plane so I could have shot in the cockpit. We had the resources to do special effects, which we did in the jump. But I chose not to show it because I wanted the experience of being in the cabin. And that's why all the shots if you notice were like (telephoto shots, long shots) it's almost like you're watching this [un]folding right in front of you while you're sitting there. There were no fancy angles, I tried to avoid them, though sometimes they can be very powerful you know, (low angle shots...and so on) but it's not a natural view. So I wanted to see everything the way someone would witness this if you were inside the plane. And nobody ever sees the cockpit. And that's why that's so mysterious with these pilots going in and out and so on. And that was intentional. Even his jump was meant to be like that. He kind of jumps off and we almost like see him jumping out from inside the plane. And then I cut to a point of view almost the way you might see it from the ground, if you were looking up [and seeing] someone jumping from the plane. Of course that last shot with him with the parachute is just one such a magical shot. It was a special effect. That was the only shot that would not necessarily be a normal point of view, unless you were also sky jumping.
Gaik: How did you shoot that scene?
RR: We shot in a real plane. We rented a real plane that was decommissioned so it was just sitting on the airport tarmac. We shot it day till night and we had to light it.
Gaik: What about when the door opened?
RR: When the door opened, the plane was quite high up on the ground, 14-20 ft maybe. It was still quite dangerous. So we had to put platforms just outside. We had to put the blue screen...some cushioning, just a mattress actually, so it was pretty dangerous. We had this giant improvised wind machine, you know in the Philippines they are able to improvise on effects and machines and because it was cheaper to rent. It was fabricated by a group using an old Volkswagon engine, and putting an airplane propeller [Gaik laughing] and then welding grills just to protect you from that. But still it looked really dangerous because Raul had to jump out onto the platform with this giant fan blowing straight at him. You saw the grills, you know. They were quite widely spaced and Raul's head could fit into the spaces in between so his head could have been chopped off. But anyway, Raul agreed to do the stunt himself so he jumped out. Basically it's all post effects as well. We had footage of the ground and some mist and wind and all that.
Gaik: It was very well done. I kept thinking, 'Oh no, how could you open the door?' Because of course the first thing that's going to happen is the effect on all the other passengers who don't have their seat belts on.
RR: At the screening in San Francisco, some viewers were arguing that it was impossible. Then I said, 'You're telling me it's not possible but this is the way it really happened.' [chuckles] it's based on a true event.
Gaik: So he did say, 'Go down to 5000 feet'—
RR: He said Go down to 5000 feet' and at that level, it's basically skydiving altitude. And the pressure equalises. So I told the viewer, you watch too many Hollywood movies, you're expecting everybody to be sucked out. They were flying at 5000 feet and it really happened that way. The only difference was that it was a male steward who opened the door in the true story. Of course in my story I had this special character played by Sue Prado who played three characters... but that's the way it happened: they opened it, in fact the door was ripped off because of the speed they were going. In the real account, the hijacker was in fact just standing by the door for a long time. Maybe he was having second thoughts. He kept saying, 'I'm going to jump, I'm going to jump.' He just kept saying that. And everyone was panicking already because the door had been ripped off, it's open and the wind was rushing in and so the flight attendant pushed him out. That's how it happened in the real event. We had a little of that if you notice. Raul was really about to jump and then she really pushed him out as well. I kind of included that bit of fact, basing it on the treatment.
Gaik: What I find interesting, again some similarities with an earlier film, A Study for 'The Skies', is this sort of naïve quality of the characters for technology. There's this sort of determination to transcend one's limits, to make a connection with a higher being or nature or whatever, you see that in the little drafts that the man in A Study for 'The Skies' has, and then you see that very quickly in [Manila Skies ] which if you don't look, if you're distracted by the cockroach, you don't realise that that's the manual for how to build a parachute.
RR: Right. Yeah, there was that scene on his desk where there were all these magazine clippings, cut outs, illustrations and so on, just scattered on his table. And there was this one very eventful moment where the cockroach crosses along these images. Usually the viewers will totally focus on the cockroach but that was actually giving you a hint of what's going on in his mind. It was already a hint because you had seen him, weaving
Gaik: though we were not quite sure what.
RR: Yeah, you're not sure what it was but somehow you know he was collecting these strike banners and then these images.
Gaik: So what is your fascination with this kind of naïvete or determination of these characters for technology? Because the two characters in Manila Skies talk about flying; well, one doesn't talk about it, he hijacks a plane. But the boy says, 'Will I be taking a plane to the city?' So there's this fascination for flying that you see manifested earlier in Study for 'The Skies'. But at the same time, here you are, you're always innovative and using the newest technology to shoot your films. Although in the past you were more nostalgic for film or more of a purist for film.
RR: Well, maybe it's not so much about that fascination for technology in the films and stories - although you see that in the story. But maybe from an artist's point of view, it's more this effort to try and reach something that seems unreachable. As an artist you're looking for an audience. It began from my early days in painting. I was actually a frustrated painter, because I didn't really know where it was going. But I did do traditional acrylic paintings, oil paintings ... my subject matter was mostly very representational - human figures, but you can see a little bit of a story in the scenes I was painting. I was more into impressionism and also a bit of surrealism. So when I discovered filmmaking, I realise maybe this is a better medium for me to be able to tell a clearer story. And from that point on that I started shooting Super 8 films, I never got back to painting, although I do miss it and have always thought about trying to go back, but it needs real dedication and focus. And since I'm so focused on filmmaking, it's really difficult to go back. So yeah, I would say, that element of the story of these characters always seem to be searching and reaching for something is a manifestation of me as an artist, trying to reach an audience, trying to find people who feel and think the same way as I do.
Gaik: So [your films are] completely secular. And I say this because there seems to be a kind of nihilism or searching for God who is not there. And I'm only saying that because in the context of Catholicism and the Philippines that there's such a hopelessness and you see how life is cyclical and the passing of certain negative things from one generation to the next, to the younger generation. I know you talk about the possibility of hope and ambiguity of, of ....
RR: It's true... most of my films seem to be very negative, in feeling, in ideology. But I always think there's always a hint of hope in the end. There's always this questioning...
Gaik: Even in Study for 'The Skies'?
RR: In Study for 'The Skies', it was almost like a spiritual awakening and realising. It was very poetic in that sense. Here's a man trying different contraptions to fly. And eventually he realised that all he needed to do was just to set himself free. And it was symbolised by being naked, and he just jumps off. But at the same time some people can interpret that as him jumping off a cliff. Maybe he died. Maybe death was the way to freedom, to reach the skies. So you can interpret it in many ways.
What's interesting about A Study for 'The Skies' is that it is in fact a study. That's why I call it that. Because I actually have with my friend artist/collaborator Ian Victoriano, he's a schoolmate from the Philippine High School for the Arts [Gaik: he wrote the script, right?] He wrote the whole story and I expanded it. And we collaborated to write it into a full screenplay. We actually have a full script, a fictional story about Filipino rebels fighting in the last days of the Filipino-American war at the turn of the century in the 1900s, as the Americans were colonising us. That idea was also because those years were just a few years before the Wright Brothers eventually flew in the first aeroplane. It was like the space race of the 1960s. What if there were Filipinos trying to beat the French, the Germans, the Dutch, and the Americans into inventing a flying machine? But at the same time it was a symbol of their desire for freedom because they were in fact fighting in the Filipino-American war for independence. And we do have a full screenplay of that and that is a more naturalistic drama. Since I couldn't imagine doing a film like that for a very little budget, I feel, a script like that would only work if it feels very real: it has to look like the period, it has to have some of the war scenes. It can be a costly film so I realise maybe I can do a study. And that's why I did Study for 'The Skies'. I didn't know that as a short film, it would become very successful. It was recognised as a very strong, powerful short film, locally and as well as when I started showing it at film festivals abroad. And funny thing is that until now, I haven't found the right funding to do that film in feature-length. In fact for so many years and even after Anino, I was dreaming of doing that film. But since we couldn't find the right money, I decided to use the same title, because the title was , Himpapawid,, which means 'skies', I decided to use it on this new film because I thought it also has that affinity with the story and the subject - this hijacking event. So I asked permission from Ian. I said, 'I'm going to use the word but I'm not going to put the word 'the' ('Ang')' because our original title is Ang Himpapawid (The Skies). I've virtually rewritten parts of that for that screenplay and we now call it The Legend of the Skies so that in the event that we find producers and financiers, we will make that film.
Gaik: My next question was going to be, if you had the opportunity, what film would you make. You had mentioned earlier in the 2000 interview with Noel Vera about Makapili. I guess that film wasn't made either?
RR: Actually Himpapawid is one of the earliest concepts or scripts that I had because Ian Victoriano and I conceived of it, way back in '83 when we were in university in the College of Fine Arts, UP. We had just graduated from the Arts High School. In fact we attempted to shoot it as a full-length feature back in 1986 on Super 8 film. We shot a few rolls of it, we were on location. We had built some flying contraptions and had a different actor than the one from Study for 'The Skies', and that's when I realised, 'It's not gonna work because we need real money to do something like this.'
So we stopped shooting. Unfortunately, a lot of the Super 8 footage was lost. It had dialogue, we were shooting with mikes and all, using Super 8, it would have been very interesting to archive. I think we have a few stills of that—you see two characters ... and the flying contraption. Eventually in 1988 I did Study for 'The Skies' and that's when I said, maybe I can use the short film to propose for funding. Eventually I was able to use Study to try and propose for funding grants from Germany in 1990, two years later. And I got an artist-in-residence grant, I lived in Berlin for a year, and that was the time I wanted to develop the full screenplay and try to look for money in Germany. That time I saw grants possibilities but I realised the money was still not enough to do something like Skies. I ended up doing my first feature which I thought was much more feasible, Bayani [Heroes] in 1991-92.
Gaik: So what about Makapili?
RR: Around the time, I was also shooting a short film called Makapili. It was based on the Filipino collaborators with the Japanese, I was focusing on the subject of enemy collaboration during wartime. It's based on true events. There was in fact a formal organisation that declared their allegiance to the Imperial Japanese Army during the last months of World War 2. So as unusual or as negative as that may seem to a lot of people who were waiting for the Americans to liberate us, it's interesting to note that the core people who organised that did have very strong convictions. Basically it was anti-colonial; in fact some of the leaders were from the Filipino-American War. They had grown old fighting for their convictions and they'd rather side with the Japanese.
Gaik: Wait, did they not see the atrocities, I mean it's interesting that they should have this organisation only at the end when the whole Japanese promise of the Greater Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere became, of course, just a blatant lie? It was so obvious in Malaya.
RR: It's quite puzzling because the organisation was formalised towards the end of 1944 when the Americans were already about to land ... they were already going to invade the Philippines. Cos it took several months before they could finally invade Manila which was the main target, being the capital. It was those many months of suffering and conflict that my film focuses on because we actually saw, again, the internal conflict within Filipino society and then the different factions, the different ideologies. In fact the communist movement had already been growing as well. At that time the guerrillas were all fighting one common enemy, but eventually
they realised the extreme difference of their ideologies - between the pro-Americans and the communist guerillas. That's another story altogether but my story actually ends there, implying that some people went on to the hills and didn't surrender their arms.
Gaik: So Makapili was made as a film?
RR: There was another attempt. I was able to do a short film on Super 8 again back in '89. I wasn't happy with what I was shooting, because it was low budget, small format and again I realised it was such a rich subject that I should develop it into a full-length screenplay. So I never released that short film. But a few people were able to get a copy of it. I always intended it to be just a study that I didn't even want to show to anyone. I only wanted to show to prospective producers. My co-producer Roger Garcia (for Manila Skies ) actually helped me with that so he's a co-producer of Makapili. Anyway, years later, for some strange reason some copies of that study circulated to a few people and Alexis (Tioseco) was the one who was really fascinated by that because he was able to get a copy. And I always beg them not to show it to anyone else because it was meant to be just a study.
Anyway, so, you will see that through all these years of my filmmaking I, made many attempts to do certain things and then the realisation that I had to shift or, not really give up on a project but put it aside, and Makapili was one of them. There were many attempts. Right after Anino, I actually attempted to do another study, by doing a screen test. And this time a little bit more ambitious, I shot the screen tests on 35mm film and I tried to hire more known actors and actresses and did screen tests on them and hope that these screen tests were scenes that I could show to prospective producers [for Makapili]. ... with The Skie s still at the back of my mind, and still waiting there. And, you know, I really went to different institutions that would have support. I was even in the Pusan Film Festival where they had the Pusan Promotion Plan, you know, where you can take a proposal and pitch a project to prospective financiers, producers. So we pitched Makapili, there were one or two very curious very interested producers but a few years later, we just couldn't agree so all these talks fizzled out.
Gaik: Do you think it has to do with the fact that it is so much entrenched in Philippine history, and filled with the particularities of Philippine history?
RR: I guess that was what most of the potential producers saw, that maybe it was too specific to Filipino history, that the international audience may not be familiar with Filipino culture and Filipino cinema and then giving them something even more specific about our history can be confusing. But sometimes I disagree with that. I have always argued that the issue of enemy collaboration is quite common. It was happening in Europe, it was happening in France, Italy and so on. And there were all these war crime trials after the war, stories of war criminals being prosecuted. It happened exactly that way in the Philippines after WW2 and the same people who were in power before the war or maybe into the war were in power again all the way to the 1950s. I wanted to focus on that because it's basically looking at the roots of this eternal conflict which is really the root problem with Filipinos. We always say we are different islands, you know, different regions and so many different dialects that no matter how we try to pull ourselves together, there's always that friction.
Gaik: Is it because of that or is it some people might say, let's go back to 1898, and to the splits or the factions already between Bonifacio, and Jose Rizal [sic.] that ...
RR: Well, in a way in the feature films that I've been doing, I have actually been focusing on that, using history as a view of where the roots of all these problems were coming from. That's why my first film Bayani (1992) was based on the conflicts of the Katipunan Revolution against the Spanish, but focusing more on the infighting that was happening between the different factions of the Revolution; between Andres Bonifacio and General Emilio Aguinaldo who eventually becomes recognised as our first legitimate president of the Republic, although it was short-lived because the Americans immediately took over. So, I had been focusing on this issue. It's true that if you look back on that, it had something to do with being regionalistic. The Katipunan revolutionaries, basically this organised revolution, was comprised of different factions. The factions were divided according to provinces and regions. And that's why eventually there were disagreements on how to go about with the revolution.
Gaik: Benedict Anderson has written a chapter on the Philippines where he talks about imagined communities and the birth of nationalism, about how modern nationalism is really very much a product of the imagination that is realised through the dissemination of print and the media (through printing presses) and that is a very credible, very seductive idea. Because if everybody is not sharing the same language and reading the same newspapers about their country, whether it's somebody who is living in Luzon, or in Iloilo or in Mindanao, then what is it that actually binds them, right? Um, I, as an outsider, don't quite see the regional differences or pluralism as a problem, coming from Malaysia where the government is constantly playing racial politics to divide and rule. I think that for us, our biggest thing that binds us all is an anti-corruption position that is for accountability and equal justice and fairness and all of that. And I think that perhaps that is not so very different in the Philippines.
RR: It definitely is the same, you know, in that it does bind us, the conviction to fight against, at least to speak out against corruption
Gaik: at all these different levels, as many of your films point out
RR: ...the fact that it has been happening for more than a century now and all keeps repeating itself in history and in the most critical times ... all the way to our so-called People Power Revolution in 1986 which made the Philippines famous. It was a peaceful revolution. Yet years later, people realise life was pretty much the same. The only difference is that, you realise that you have so many enemies around you. During Martial Law years, it's like everybody thought, 'ok we have one enemy, Marcos,' so we got rid of one person but everyone else was still in place in the Philippines. And now the mud-slinging starts, you know, so it's like left and right, and now you don't know how your real enemy is. And it's been happening like that ever since, well, for 25 years now.
Gaik: I notice, maybe it's not so much a trend as a strand of Philippine cinema where people are making historical films, on the one hand. So you have people like, not just yourself but also, Raya Martin, and Lav Diaz working on a much broader canvas, and on the other, using also a very social realism, or a very gritty socialist realism that goes back to Brocka. So there's this combination of Brocka's social realism and then also history. Where do you see Philippine cinema going with this?
RR: I do have to admit that it's that generation of filmmakers in the '70s who were really provoked. That's not to say that there may have been other filmmakers much earlier who were using film or cinema as a medium to be almost like an activist or to speak out with their convictions and ideologies. But it was the '70s that became very prominent. It was the decade of martial law under the Marcos regime where they really tried to mould and control the whole society. And so artists started using their different mediums to speak out; and obviously Lino Brocka became very prominent because his films started travelling to prestigious events like the Cannes Film Festival. There was an emergence of many filmmakers. Of course we had Ishmael Bernal and Mike de Leon - and Eddie Romero. Romero had been making many films before that; in the '60s he was focused on making these American B-movies. But in the '70s he started doing period films that were not exactly directly socio-political in their message but did touch on the question of identity, of nationalism, that was somehow still linked to what Lino Brocka and other filmmakers were doing. That era is in fact now referred to as the New Wave from that time, that was the first new wave. Eventually in the '80s, we were inspired by that. I think it's been continuing strongly since that movement.
My generation of Super 8, 16mm filmmakers in the '80s were inspired by that first new wave. A lot of other mainstream directors in the '80s were working on very serious relevant. That's the era when directors like Peque Gallaga came about... Jose Javier Reyes, [sometimes known as Joey Reyes], Marilou Diaz had been working since the end of the '70s so she just kind of came about towards the end of the '70s when Mike de Leon and all these other guys were already quite popular - and many other directors all culminating by the time People Power happened. The funny thing is that many people were saying that after the People Power Revolution, Filipino cinema started to decline, both Filipino cinema as a cinema, as a cultural heritage, and as an industry. We can trace the slow decline from that point on; and then, probably the more radical decline with the advent of rampant piracy, cable tv, and now internet downloading. But the interesting is that many filmmakers, myself included, continued to make films.
Gaik: You didn't have that many films coming out in the 1990s, but definitely from post-2000 you had this kind of return to the Brocka tradition that is making head waves overseas.
RR: As a Filipino, if I look at the development of cinema, the '90s was in fact very important. In relation to world cinema, if Philippines cinema was not so prominent, it was simply because not too many films went to international film festivals. There were a few. But it was actually in the 1990s that Lav Diaz started making feature films. His films were still normal length, 2 hours long, he only began making longer films in 2000, in this last decade. There's also Jeffrey Jeturian, a prominent director who worked both in the mainstream as well as being independent started making films in the 90s. There were several filmmakers but maybe we didn't get any prominent festival exposure during those years; and that's why many international film critics felt that Philippine cinema was in a slump. That it disappeared. But in fact the movie industry was still very active. Those were the years when I did my first and second features. Admittedly a film like Sakay I intentionally did not make any efforts to show it abroad.
RR: So continuing on after talking about the '70s and '80s, in the '90s a lot of filmmakers have become really active especially in the independent scene. That's when filmmakers started using other formats like video. There were no consumer type digital cameras yet, not until the mid '90s but early on, a lot of filmmakers were working on analogue video or video 8 or digital 8. Regardless of format, there were a lot of filmmakers working on different categories of filmmaking like documentaries, even experimental film, such that indie cinema eventually got more recognition. Award giving bodies and institutions started supporting it. The government suddenly had more programs to support filmmaking even in the universities. and so you saw the growth of indie filmmaking amongst young people. Eventually when digital came out, a lot of young filmmakers, being inspired by Lars von Trier and so many others in Europe and America, started working in this format. The most popular then was mini DVD. Of course, we now know that in the past decade many other technologies came about, hard disk recording, HD ... many filmmakers took advantage of that.
What we're seeing now with filmmakers taking advantage of new technology for me is reminiscent of what we actually started back in the '80s when we took advantage of Super 8 film which was the cheapest film format back then. So Super 8 was our digital. Or you can say that these new digital cameras, even these digital SL still cameras with HD function are the new Super 8s of today. So we're seeing the continuation of that, the democratization of filmmaking wherein almost anybody can just pick up a camera, it's more accessible and affordable and it's happening all over the world. So Philippines is no different. And that's the reason why a lot of films are being produced now and getting recognition and exposure in international events.
Gaik: My next question is, to what extent do foreign film festivals set an agenda for Philippine cinema?
RR: What we've been seeing recently is that definitely the recognition and the opportunities to exhibit films in international film festivals help promote the cinema, more specifically indie cinema, because these are the films that are selected more often than the commercial films. Plus the fact that the commercially produced Filipino films have declined in numbers, we've seen the decline really of the movie industry as a business but Philippine cinema is in fact very much alive and active with the number of filmmakers. .But film festivals have become somewhat the main target of filmmakers.
Gaik: We had this brief discussion about Brocka before and how, perhaps the way Brocka was held up in foreign film festivals has something to do with the kinds of images that we get to see of Philippine cinema overseas. How is that replicated today?
RR: Yes, the downside is that as I've said, many filmmakers now probably are making films specifically to get into festivals. It's basically the same thing they are accusing of commercial films, of working on formulas. So, in a sense, exoticising the socio-political situation of the Philippines and putting it on screen has become a formula. You know somehow that foreign film festivals would pay attention to films with this subject matter.
Gaik: Although Anino was made in 2000, before the new wave of Filipino Cannes and Venice winners/attractions like Brillante Mendoza's films and Lav Diaz's films... were you making a statement about your own position as a filmmaker? Are Filipino filmmakers making a living by 'stealing' images of poverty and selling this image overseas to foreign film festivals? What is the difference between the social realism of Brocka then and the social realist films made by a younger generation of Filipino filmmakers today?
RR: Regarding Anino, I somehow wanted to pose the question and the challenge to both myself and to other Filipino artists, to ask themselves the most important question, "why am I making this film?". Anino somehow touches on the issues of sincerity and conviction of filmmakers who tackle sensitive sociopolitical subjects. Thus, I represented the artist as a down and out struggling street photographer for hire in old Manila, a familiar character for many decades and yet is now a dying career. I set out to do Anino the short film with the intent of only showing it in local Philippine events and try to reach a truly significant sector of Filipino audiences. The eventual recognition in international festivals is really just treated as a big bonus to any filmmaker, definitely helping promote him or her, but more importantly bringing attention to the emerging cinema as a whole. It must not be considered a personal achievement but rather recognition of a collective effort.
Observing the trend in Filipino independent cinema today, it seems that it is in danger of finding false recognition and affirmation through being legitimized by international film festival awards and recognition, while remaining generally obscure in its home front. This may lead to defeating the true purpose of the cultural heritage of cinema, which is to reach a true audience that matters the most, the very people whose stories are in fact the roots of this cinema. It is sad to see so many films being hailed now in festivals but remain as just news items or familiar titles due to the publicity it generated in its international exhibitions. It is even worse that it is inspiring an army of filmmakers now simply making films to get into the film festival gigs. There has to be a concerted effort in solving the biggest obstacle now for an emerging cinema, and that is finding a means to reach a local audience, a system to efficiently distribute and exhibit the films.
Along with the feature films, I continue to make short films as I have always believed in the power of the short form, which is the origin of all of cinema. In the past decade for example, I did the short films Salvaged Commercialism 2002 - a montage of outtakes from tv commercial productions I did, Melancholy 2004 - a very short visual poetry using the first mobile phones with video function, Mistulang Kamera Obskura - a short narrative about questions on identity 20 years after the 'People power' revolution of 1986, and lastly Pusila (Shoot) 2010 - a parody on the issue of corruption represented in an homage to the "Russian roulette" scene from the movie Deer Hunter. I have continued to do both narrative as well as experimental short films, a tradition I've continued for almost 30 years now, and I will continue to promote it amongst new filmmakers, so that they can recognize the art form as separate from full length features or even from treating shorts as mere exercises or stepping stones to bigger and longer films.
We had to rush to another appointment as Raymond was giving a seminar so the interview ended abruptly and he later followed up via email. In the post-seminar discussion on campus immediately following this interview, Red admitted that perhaps some critics would see his work as contributing to this type of subject matter too. He is aware that his middle class position and values might play a role in this, but he also explained that he grew up in a neighbourhood where he mixed with kids who did not have the same opportunities as himself.
All in all, Red's ouevres, vision and beliefs portray a picture of the nation's political, socio-cultural and economic conditions shaped by its living history. It is one that asks questions about what it means to be human, what the general environmental conditions of possibility are to sustain basic human rights let alone nurture the spirit. These are factors that no conscientious serious Filipino filmmaker can escape tussling with, in their individual filmic representations of Philippine society whether yesterday, today or even tomorrow. I'd like to thank Raymond Red for agreeing to this interview.