A Conversation with Ato Bautista
Interview by: Alexis A. Tioseco

Twenty-five-year-old Ato Bautista is an aggressive character.

Sa Aking Pagkakagising Mula Sa Kamulatan ("My Awakening from Consciousness"), his first-feature film, isn't perfect-- a side-plot relating to a gay parlorista's exploits feels unnecessary-- but its power is undeniable. Released in the Philippines in the first quarter of 2005, but to have its international premiere this March at Mar del Plata in Argentina (has Unitel, who picked up the film for international distribution, been neglecting it in favor of its own products?), Sa Aking Pagkakagising Mula Sa Kamulatan was shocking, not just for its imagery, themes or potent filmmaking, but for announcing-- seemingly out of nowhere-- the arrival of a young voice with both talent and a message.

Entirely produced independently the old-fashioned way (with friends chipping in and talents and crew working on scale) Sa Aking Pagkakagising focuses on a group of 'kanto boys'. A concept common to Philippine neighborhoods (though likely not unique to them), the term describes those that one sees night in and night out wasting time, trading stories, and, of course, drinking, at the neighborhood corner store. Through a confident grasp of language and dialogue only gleaned from one who knows well the milieu he is depicting, Sa Aking Pagkakagising brings to life archetypes-- the cocky punk receiving "foreign aid" from his mother overseas, the siga or neighborhood toughie, the petty thief-- each of whom, after each receiving their comeuppance, vent their frustration on a hapless young square (Rey, played by Carlo Aquino) that passes by, beating him to a pulp.

While the film's content is much more abrasive than your average commercial Filipino film, itís interesting to note that its vivid performances are delivered by a troupe of actors largely assembled from the popular TV network where Bautista earned his production stripes, ABS-CBN. Hinting, possibly, at the untapped potential of many young thespians in the country, whose talents waste away on poor material and situation comedies. Soon after its brief commercial run in the Philippines, Criticine sat down with Ato Bautista to talk about how he assembled his group of actors, his filmmaking background, producing his feature in true independent fashion, and walking along the compromise line.

Alexis Tioseco: Where did the money to finance this film come from?

Ato Bautista: My dad had promised me this for a long time. My dad's retired.

AT: What's his occupation?

AB: Policeman. Captain. In the province, San Jose. My dad is an okay cop, he was able to retire. He had promised to get me a car. Second-hand. When the time came that I was looking for funding, I couldn't get anything because nobody knew me. I also joined Cinemalaya for the funding but I also wasn't chosen. So luckily.

AT: Were you a finalist?

AB: I was in the top 30, the semi-finalists. I didn't get into the top 10. Luckily, I wasn't able to join because I was able to finish it on my own. It belongs to me. Well anyway, my dad promised me P150,000 to buy a car. Until one day, I really didn't have any money left; I didn't get anything from Cinemalaya; I told him on Nov. 2. "So Dad, are you giving it to me?" "Yes, that's been set aside already, you can get it when you need it." "You're giving that to me and I should be able to do whatever I want with the money?" "Yes, whatever you want." "I'll use it to produce my own film." My dad said, "Wait." I told him, "Dad, even if I get a car, what will that do for me, I'll just have a car, second-hand at that. But when I make myself a film, I'll have a film. There are so many directors in Manila, with nicer cars than the car I'm going to buy. So it won't make any difference." I convinced him even if he was against it. I called Shugo [Praico, Sa Aking scriptwriter], "Hey man, how much can you pledge? We don't have funding left." "Okay, I'll pledge P50,000."

AT: The contribution of your father is 150?

AB: 150, besides the money I added--some of my earnings--and another 50 from Shugo, who added more as we went on. But that's a secret because his wife will hit him on the head for that.

AT: Ah, he has a wife already?

AB: She only knows about the 50,000. Ketchup gave 10,500 but I have to pay him back for that. Cedrick, who did the visual effects, gave 6,000 when we were on the set. Our budget of 200,000 only made it to the second day. Balicas suddenly wasn't available on the second day. If somebody else rents the equipment, they can't be lent out since they have a client. We needed to outsource. The next day, we didn't have money. Miraculous, man. Mickey [Ferriols] and Archie [Alemania] lent us 20,000, Arnel gave us 30,000, only someone ran away with the 23,000. My mom pawned some of her jewelry, so did my aunt. Then I sold my TV, which was brand new. I'm a TV person, I like watching TV so that was painful. I have a film, anyway. What else did we do? We went through a lot of pockets when we needed the money; that's the journey, man. It's a long story; I can't tell it in one go. My mom is the woman who was robbed in the film. My aunt is the one in the jeepney talking to Kahoy. My mom works in catering so she was the one who would cook on the set; all of us had full stomachs. We ate five times a day. That's what I assured themóeven if I couldn't pay them, everyone would have full stomachs. They were surprised that the food was so good. I still owe my mom. I think I still owe her P9,000.

AT: Where did the story of Sa Aking Pagkakagising come from? Where did it start?

AB: How did it originate? When I was shooting my second short film entitled, Bisitasyon, I was in my senior year as a Communication Arts student in UST [University of Santo Tomas]. I was filming the establishing shot for the house, when some drunkards, some people drinking on the street thought they were the ones I was shooting. So they were shouting, "You idiots, you can't mess with us! Fuck you!" I ignored them because the camera was on loan, so I couldn't fight back. I was holding the camera while I was with my best friend, Alaric, who's also my actor. In Bisitasyon, by the way, I was also the one who acted in it, because there usually aren't any real actors for a school project. After awhile, they came near us and one of them slapped me. After I was slapped, I couldn't retaliate and we just ran away. That's part of where I got the story. As for the other part, I was watching TV, maybe The Probe Team [1], a long time ago. It was about prisoners, those in reclucion perpetua-- lifetime sentence. One of the stories of the prisoners being interviewed was about how, when he was fifteen years old, he was drinking at the store along the street. His friends were heckling him until they beat him up and he was knocked unconscious. When he woke up, the guys who beat him up were still drinking in the same place. What he did when he woke up was, he took an ice pick and stabbed to death all his drinking buddies. That story stuck with me for a long time.

AT: They interviewed the guy. ?

AB: They interviewed the guy; it was from the POV of the guy. Yes, in the jail in Muntinlupa. Then I said, if he was 15 years old [at that time], they can't imprison him right away, right? He was sent to Boys Town. Then when he turned 18, they transferred him... When he was being interviewed, he was in his late 40s already. That means, [he was there] from 15 years of age to his late 40s, he's probably in his mid-50s now. In one instant, everything was gone; his future was erased; even with the odds that he might be released, he has nothing to return to. I was struck by what he said.

Anyway, I lived in Sampaloc for five years. That's where I went for college; I lived there for three years as a college student. I was in Cavite during my first year. For those three years, four years, five years after I graduated, I was still living there. I had a love and hate relationship [with the place]. I was supposed to put, in the last part of the film, 'For Manila, the place, the city that I despised and loved.' Because Manila, man, it's love and hate because it's grimy, noisy, stinking, chaotic, but you still love it. Everything's there.

AT: It's the same way. I grew up abroad; I grew up in Canada, spent 14 years there. Coming here, your impression of the Philippines is you have so much corruption, so much pollution, the traffic. Then I came here, and despite these things, it's home. Yeah, you do love it.

AB: I had a hard time leaving Manila, but I had to. I've been through a lot, man so even if I can't afford the apartment where I'm staying now, I still went for an apartment that I could own. I was almost a vagabond; having a house is really important. I used to stay at other people's places, I'd stay in different places. In Sampaloc, there was a time wherein I was told by Ricky Lee, my mentor, "Ato, your Manila is finished, you must move on." Coincidentally, I ran away from home because my elder brother and I got into a fight. I was crashing at someone's place; I didn't have a job; I was looking for a job. This was after Mowelfund man, because I left everything behind.

AT: How old were you then?

AB: 21.

AT: You finished university at 21?

AB: Yeah, I was 21 when I finished college. My life is colorful, man. Anyway, I was in Prudencio, where I was living with my best friend, who I dragged along from the province. I noticed [that] from the time I was in second year until I graduated, the people hanging out in the streets, those playing basketball, the people drinking they were still there even when I left Manila. So it's a cycle and I thought the characters in the story are characters I've met and mingled with. Their attitudes, parts of their attitude are those of Shugo [Praico], my writer. It's uncanny; it's strange because Shugo thinks like I do, exactly. It had been 2 years since I'd made my last work, [the one in] Mowelfund was the last, there's really an emptiness to the filmmaker. If you're really a filmmaker, it's like feeling you want to piss but can't piss. So I decided, I'll turn Sa Aking Pagkakagising. ("My Awakening. ") into a short film. I got in touch with Shugo, Shugo Praico. When I got in touch with him, I told him, "Hey man, didn't I tell you before, let's do something.Here it is, I have the material." So we met here, in Cibo [restaurant in ABS-CBN, the Philippines largest television company. -ed], then I narrated the story; I told him, I have a short film that I want you to write, which is Sa Aking Pagkakagising.

When I'm narrating a short film, my style is per character. Even if it's not included in the script, each character that you see in the story comprises one film, man. The script was so thick; it was one film; we had to delete some parts otherwise it would drag out. Well anyway, when I told him, "The short goes something like this. ", he told me, "Ato, that's not a short film; that's a full-length. That's how I'll write it." And I was thinking, fuck, but okay, write it. While he was writing it, it was weird because sometimes I would suggest a scene or call him, "Hey man, please take out this scene, it seems unnecessary". He'd answer me, "Dude, I took it out already." And how he writes, how he talks in the script is almost the same as the way I do. The story of why I don't write anymore is because of the 35mm film that I did, which is Sulyap for Mowelfund.

My attitude with scripting is that I don't write the script until it's complete in my head. My first [short] work, for instance, didn't have a script. I can shoot directly as long as it's complete in my head. Then when I trained under Ricky Lee, I learned that I need to write the script down. But what became my practice is I complete it in my head after which I write it down. I made Bistasyon, then one docu. The fourth film, Sulyapóthat was when I obtained discipline. It went through 14 revisions; I perfected the script since it was a poetic narrative. Then when I was shooting, I was crossing out my own script. It was painful.

AT: Crossing out the script because you didn't have a budget or. ?

AB: Not the budget, I think it's the support of the group. I was a newcomer then and even the audio man, the one who does the audio in my group would ask, "Why is your shot like this?" "Because I do like it that" [I would reply] So it's really hard, man. My discipline before was, I would make a storyboard. I get everything planned in my head. When I was shooting, I wasn't able to do it. I only completed 15% of my work, so from then on, I was depressed for six months; I gained weight. Because once I get into something, I really get into it. There's no looking back, I'm like that. I found writing painful. So Shugo is a writer, he really told me that he realizes he's more of a writer than a director. I was teasing him that Paul Schrader, the writeróScorsese is my godóyou know Paul Schrader is a good director if you watch his films, you can't disregard that. But he still writes for Scorsese, so I said you're Paul Schrader. The difference [between them] is that when Scorsese makes a film, it's not sexual; Shrader is sexual. As for Shugo, he's very good at writing slightly sexual scenes, like the one in the taxi, even if that was my experience. When he wrote it, he wrote it well.

AT: Was there any of Shugo's experience that was put into it?

AB: Every time people ask us, whose scene is this, whose is that, I don't know anymore. It's become one. I'm not pulling anybody's leg, I'm not bullshitting you, because that's the best thing you can hear, but it's true. Sometimes we ask ourselves whose character is this one or that one, like Pacquiao, the kid who was a snatcher. When a friend of mine asked me who thought of that, I said that from what I know it came from Shugo. When I asked Shugo, he said, didn't you suggest that I put a child character because I'm a fan of the short story, Children of the City, I don't know the author, forgive me. There's a part like that. Then I said, "There should be a reflection of the [snatcher] character so that you can recognize it in the child." There are scenes that I thought were mine, but turned out to be Shugo's input so we don't know anymore. I told him that even if it's my concept, it's our 'Story By', the two of us. "What I'm telling you now is brief compared to an actual script, you've included more there" [is what I told Shugo].

How do Shugo and I work? I'll pitch something; I call it a pitch and when he likes it, "Hey that's good!" We'll develop it. Usually, the concept comes from my germ, a small story; he gets interested; he gives his input and we'll throw some ideas around. It belongs to the two of us, not just to me.

AT: When it's being written, you would meet up, talk about it? But you wouldn't be there during the actual writing?

AB: I'm only there when it's all been laid down, when the structure has been laid down. It's given to me, with not much dialogue, as a sequence treatment, and then I read through it. While reading it, I see that man, you're favoring too much here; then we restructure it, that's how we work.

AT: How old is Shugo?

AB: Shugo is only 26. He's also from here. He was the head writer of Spirits and Nginig[TV shows on ABS-CBN].

AT: Who among the actors in the film are from here? [ABS-CBN]

AB: All of them except Lito Pimentel and Hector. All of them are from the Talent Center. We all used to be part of a gang; we'd go out and drink. When we're drinking, the storyteller in me [comes out]; I'll tell them my story. When I was telling them this story, they were saying, "That's good, let's do that." They probably didn't think that when we talked about doing it, I'd really do it.

AT: That was brave that he [Cholo Barreto] did that scene! [wherein he is raped by Lito Pimentel's Police Captain character, Lakay]

AB: It makes you glad that Mr. Johnny Manahan, head of Talent Center allowed it. Mr. M is very sensitive about [the use of ] cigarettes and the image of the actors. Since the actors really wanted to do this, they asked permission for each one, man.

AT: How did he-- why did he agree?

AB: It was the handlers of Ketch [Ketchup Eusebio] and Cholo who did the talking. They said that when they give scripts to Mr. M, he really reads them. My script is the only one he didn't give back. After that I learned that it's a go. As for Carlo Aquino, he's part of my dream cast for that role, for the role of Rey.

AT: You mean he kept it and read it?

AB: I think he read it and kept it. My take is that Mr. M is also an artist; he understands these things. The script is brutal; there's a lot of cursing in it. Everything's there, but he still allowed it, so we're thankful.

AT: So you had worked with all of the actors before?

AB: Yes, I've had a lot of rackets here in ABS. We're part of a gang because of common friends. There was a time that we were always together, drinking; I'm still young, they're all young, so it's okay. As for Carlo, I told him, "If you don't do this, if this doesn't go to you, it's not my fault. It's up to you. If you don't get to fight for it, it's not my fault anymore. But that's yours, I'm not giving it to anyone else." Carlo is part of the gang, though I wasn't sure because I wasn't that close to him. Those close to him are Ketch, Cholo. He's the one I really wanted for the role. It's really designed for him. I was hesitant because it's Carlo Aquino, his directors are Joel Lamangan, big directors, Chito Rono, [he's an] award-winning actor. But these guys in my troop, Cholo, Ketchup, they've been spreading it around, talking about it, and making people jealous until other actors like Carlo heard about it. One time, on Ketchup's birthday in Malate, I was approached by Empoy, Empoy was first. "Direk, how's the script?" Empoy is Kahoy, the snatcher in the film. "Direk, I want to do it." Empoy's a good kid, "I want to do your film, I want to join." I saw the passion in him; it locked in that it was really him. While I was talking to Empoy, Carlo approached the table. "Ato, it looks like you're making a film and you haven't told me about it, as if we're not friends." "Man," I told him, you're my dream cast, you're my dream actor for the role but you're Carlo Aquino." "Idiot, you're an idiot," he said. "Let's not fool each other, man, you're Carlo Aquino. You have a show, you're in a band, how will you manage your time. Besides this doesn't pay." "No, just give me the script." The journey of Carlo and I's relationship is great because among everyone whom I gave the script toówhen I gave Carlo the script, he read it in front of me. I was glad because he got the depth of the VOs and appreciated the pacing of the script. He's an intelligent actor; I really believe in him. As for Empoy, he's the last person I gave the script to because I was busy taking care of some matters. Man, I'm the producer, at the same time the director, you know, the PA, all of it [on this film]. When I gave it to him [Empoy], he read it right away. I was glad that what the writer worked hard onóthe conceptówas something they appreciated; they really understood what I wanted to say. Not looking at just the scenes, the traumatic [incidents] but the whole point of the story.

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AT: Did you enjoy working here or was it just to earn?

AB: I enjoyed it because itís still directing, instead of working in a call center. This is not the States that you can be a Pizza Hut [cook] and end up being Billy Bob Thornton. Or a truck driver and end up being James Cameron. If Brad Pitt could be a mascot of Pollo Loco, and heís Brad Pitt now, well this is my Pollo Loco job. This is my Pizza Hut job; at least itís still directing.

AT: Did you learn anything here?

AB: A lot, man, I can never deny that. The quickness, the pressure, the pipeline, pacing. This used to be the number one network, and it still the largest network here in the Philippines. All the training that you can get, may it be technical, the strength of character, when your co-workers are treating you badly, youíll learn everything, even corruption. But, you need to apply the corruption, the politics. I used to be quiet before man, the type that would stay on the sidelines. But you canít do that if youíre the director.

AT: You have to kind of be in command.

AB: That kind of command is the hardest thing to learn because you canít be taught that. You just have to acquire it, all of a sudden. When I was working as an AD, they would be disrespecting me, even the utility guys. Utility is the one who fixes the coffee, the food, [even] theyíd be disrespectful. Thatís the culture here: if youíre new, they roast you; they give you a hard time. As time passes, youíll learn. How you can order someone around without looking bigheaded. I learned a lot, the enormity of whatís placed on your shoulders. When youíre on the set, thereís a crane there, thereís all these people; youíre commanding about 60 people or more. For a novice, youíll really be shaking [in your shoes]. Besides the deadline you have to meet, you have to be quick. If youíre quick, youíre good--thatís the equation here. And if it rates well.

AT: What you said about control on the set, did you not feel that when making your shorts?

AB: When I was making my shorts, I had that, man. I believe and many have said I have a strong personality, I have command. Though I donít know how to make people move. Itís different from just knowing how to do what you do; letís say youíre good at what you do compared to those who are around you and just follow you. It used to be that before I passed it on to someone, I would do everything myself. Thatís the tendency of the indie filmmaker, to do it all. Iíve learned that it canít be like that here in the network, in the mainstream. Thereís a breaking point to your energy, thereís a breaking point to your patience. [The thing is to learn] how theyíll obey you, without getting surly, without getting mad at you; itís a Filipino thing.

AT: You had that when you were making this film?

AB: I think so. But more than that, I found the people I am supposed to be with. People who give me support and believe in what I believe in, who turned out to be my friends. Thatís why I told you that I was surprised that they were all there. I didnít notice that the people I was hanging out with, my friendsóI hate the word butócould be used, could be taken advantage of, could be utilized. I didnít expect that. If you just met me today, Iím the type of person who youíd know right away likes making films, because thatís all I talk about. Arnel Ignacio, for instance, said Iím autistic because every time I see him, ďFilm, man.Ē This guy only talks about film. Iím kind of like that, man. When you talk to me, you might mistake me for someone bigheaded; who is this person who talks like this. The gauge of intelligence isnít in what you say or whoís saying it or even in who has the right to say things like that. I think that the reason why a lot of people join me in my work, what I sell to them is more than anything else, isnít money because thereís no money there; itís not camaraderie. What I know Iím selling is dreams, man. Dreams. To make something. I respect those people around me because Iíve seen that theyíre artists themselves. The one who did the titles is Ivan Despi, a graphic artist. What he really wants to do is work on comic books. Cedric Hornedo, whoís my friend is also a painter. Heís the CG director, animation director here in ABS. Thatís not all they want to do. They also want to do something that they could be proud of and call their own. And there are a lot, Shugo, everybody. All of them have entered the mainstream already. The difference with [these guys and other people who do] indie is that weíve all done mainstream [work]. Weíre done. Weíve penetrated that. From an amateur turned professional, you penetrated ABS-CBN, thatís okay. So what else? Is that the end-all, be-all? Itís not. So you want to do something. You only pass through this. So the unifying factor is that all of us want to do something else. All of us are exhausted. Itís like that, but we need to live.

AT: Whatís your deal with Unitel? You say theyíre going to distribute it in the theaters locally?

AB: No. This is what happened. I approached Tony [Gloria] and we watched the film. They liked it. The deal is 70-30, they donít give us any money. We didnít have any money yet. The deal is whatever they earn, if they manage to sell it abroad for co-distribution or show it abroad, we get the 70%, they get the 30% minus the expenses.

AT: PostersÖ

AB: Yeah, promotional tools, shipping, that sort of thing. As for the DVD rights, thatís theirs as well. 70-30, no cash out. The film is theirs for seven years; theyíll be the sole distributor.

AT: What parts did Unitel cut out? Erwin [2] mentioned that there were some cuts.

AB: What you saw is the directorís cut. When we submitted the film to Unitel, I hadnít gone to the MTRCB yet. I didnít have a screening yet. They suggested, over the phone, Ting Nebrida [of Unitel] suggested lessening the conversation, the first part, Ketchupís establishing scene. Instead of four women being talked about, I trimmed it down to two. I took out the adlibbed parts, but I kept the ones in the script. Itís still seamless, you wonít notice that there was anything taken out or not. But the toughness of the person was lessened, of Pogi. So we agreed. They said it might be too trying for the audience. They said it dragged on too long, that people wonít be able to watch a Filipino film thatís full of cursing from the start. To fill it with cursing like that right at the start, no one is that brave. Although they really liked it, Ting said it might not be the same in other countries. What I showed MTRCB was my cut. If it goes through, if itís approved, at least itís my original cut. They liked it; the panelist even congratulated me, ďWhen are you making the next one?Ē Itís weird, man. Making a film should be filled with tension, but it was the [rating of the] MTRCB that made me nervous. I thought they would give it a X Ėrating. They understood that I didnít put anything exploitative. Their review was, R-18, ďIt has sodomy, foul language but it deserves public exhibition because it deals with the seamy side of societyÖĒ, something like that. Then I was congratulated by the reviewers, three of them. Maybe I was also lucky with the reviewers. Hernando, Mario Hernando. Lanot, the wife of Pete Lacaba. And Bengzon. Then they congratulated me, the film was good, when were we making the next one. They said the scripting is tight.

AT: That was all they cut, Unitel, just opening bits of dialogue? Nothing else?

AB: Thatís it. Nothing else. Thatís also why I agreed to it. I thought they would ask me to cut out the part with sodomy. I figured, if I compromised that, fuck it, I hadnít shown it to the MTRCB and I was already being screened, but it wasnít that. They reasoned that it was too long, the audience might get bored. The term they used was Ďtoo trying for the audienceí, which I didnít understand. When Tito Velasco and I had a meeting, it ended with me bringing my master or digi-betacam to transfer. He was surprised because he thought that what was passed to the MTRCB was their cut, what they suggested. What I gave them is the directorís cut, they thought that their cut was the one to be screened in Glorietta. When I had the premiere, the audience kept laughing, they were reacting to the opening part. I call that the Quentin Tarantino sequence, a long sequence where the characters talk nonsense. Whatís being established is the psyche of the characters.

AT: When I first watched it, it was with my friend, well, two friends. One of them is a filmmaker, John Torres, the other is Jean Tan, a graphic designer. She was laughing and laughing during the opening sequence. And during the dialogue between Ketchup and Taba [in the parlor], she was laughing.

AB: Because itís funny. I talk like that. When youíre all guys, all of you are friends, youíre really crazy. Youíre only different when youíre with other people. I told Ketchup that itís only a script, itís just a guide. I make it a point that theyíre acquainted with the character, that they know who you are. Beyond the script, you should know what the character eats, what he wears, what he smells like, what perfume he uses. They should know so that whatever comes out of your mouth, in your dialogue or whatever actions you do goes with the character youíre playing.

When we were shooting that opening scene with all the cursing, I broke into a cold sweat, there were so many people watching. I donít know why Pinoys are conscious with cursing when we hear that everyday in Hollywood movies. Itís nice to hear when itís in English. But if itís in Tagalog...

AT: Like what Johnny Delgado's character said in La Visa LocaÖ [voice gets softer]

AB: Yes, Iíve been saying that for a long time. Why is it offensive when you say vagina. Look, youíre even lowering your voice. Maybe thatís how our culture isóconservative. When I was shooting that, I was breaking out in a cold sweat, fuck it, there are kids watching. But thatís what came out, I canít do anything. If I was filtering the material as early as that point, I would be fooling myself. Why else did I go independent? As for the scriptóthe stabbing, the part of Kuya Bodjie, the blowjob scene with on the bed, what was in Shugoís script was OSóoff-screen. That means you only hear it. But when I was there, it wasnít like that; I felt it had to be seen. For the blowjob, my original design for that was for only the door to be seen. You [only] hear the sounds but you know thatís whatís happening. A lot of people were surprised why the callboy was the one doing the blowjob when it was supposed to be the gay one. Thatís what you think, thatís why youíre renting the service. Thatís why youíre renting, [for the other person] to do you.

AT: This is the heavy question. While itís still recording, [Iíll ask about the] film: what are you saying with it? What is it that you want to say?

AB: Wake up. Actually, thatís the easiest thing to answer because I know that already. Wake up, man. When I told Shugo the title itself, [he said] it seemed quite lengthy. I said no, thatís really it. Sa Aking Pagkakagising Mula Sa Kamulatan (ďMy Awakening From ConsciousnessĒ) is an oxymoron. My awakening from consciousness, nobody can be awakened from consciousness because youíre already conscious and thatís how we are, what we are here in the Philippines. Iím speaking for myself as a Filipino, we see things, we see all these things and we donít care and we donít even recognize it, because youíre used to it. So wake up. It presented these characters, this life, theyíre there, they know their situation but cannot see it, cannot realize it. Filipinos are passive, theyíre very passive; the character of Rey comprises, generalizes the character of Filipinos that explodes in the lives of these guys. Itís the character of Filipinos who hang out all the time. I can bet you that if we go around right now, there are people drinking at the store, playing basketball, and every street you visit will have a court, a store. Filipino culture.

AT: But then in the film, is there a character that wakes up? Is it Carlo Aquinoís character? Is what he did the right thing?

AB: No, Iím not saying he did the right thing. Itís just a mirror, you just reflect what really happens. Thatís why itís ĎSa Akingí, The Ďmyí, the first person, is important to me because every time you say or you read the title, youíre saying it to yourself. My awakening from consciousnessóĎsa aking pagkakagisingí. I could have entitled it ĎPagkakagising Mula sa Kamulataní but ĎSa Akingí is very important. Because when you say, ĎSa aking pagkakagising mula sa kamulataní, it might make you think, you might wake up and realize things.

AT: ĎCause thatís what youíre intending to with the filmófor the audience? Not what any of the characters do?

AB: For the audience. The reason why you liked the film is because you saw yourself in it, in one or several of the characters. Thatís what I want to say: this is enough; we have to wake up; weíve been like this for so long; film is dead. Itís still the same; there was EDSA Dos, there was even EDSA Tres; weíre still the same. Wake up. What happens is a vicious cycle.

AT: For me, itís an angry film, talks about violence but I actually thought that at the end of it, the characters are a lot more sad than anything else.

AB: I donít even know why itís violent. Is it violent?

AT: Definitely, thereís violence in the film. When they start to beat up Rey and then when Pogi kicks him and tells the other people, this feels good right, itís actually sad.

AB: Itís supposed to be sad. Look at it this way, Alexis, the effect of what happened in the basketball court [the brawl at the start of the film] should be far more enormous, because it was more violent. But what I did was I tried to make that simple beating up of Rey heavier. The one in the basketball court is more of a riot, but the feel of violence is greater when one person was being beaten up.

AT: A lot of the other scenes, the violence, at least for the main characters, a lot of it is very reactive. When Cholo and all of them start attacking Rey, when the dad kills the nephew, a lot of it is reactive. Except for the basketball scene.

AB: But if you think about it, that should be more violent since a lot more happened. I tried to treat it so that it would be inferior, you wouldnít notice it much compared to a stabbing or beating. Whatís the question again?

AT: Sad part in the violence.

AB: Youíre right, itís supposed to be sad.

AT: For me that was the undertone of the film.

AB: Like in Taxi Driver, Scorsese said in his biography, he tried to watch one of the screenings in the theaters and he was surprised that when De Niro took out his gun and began shooting, people were saying, ďBring it on!Ē He was surprised because it wasnít supposed [to elicit] that kind of reaction. His ambition was for you to be struck by what happens.

AT: How do you feel about that? Do you think he didnít succeed?

AB: It depends on the times. Then, it succeeded. Thatís my favourite film in the whole world.

AT: How did you react to that scene?

AB: I was quiet. What I felt wasnít the Ďbring it oní type.

AT: Because for me, it was also like thatóquiet. But how do you reconcile that when half the audience has a very, very different reaction and half of them completely get mixed by the message.

AB: Well, even Woody Allen didnít like 2001: A Space Odyssey of Stanley Kubrick until 2 years later, until he viewed the film the second time. Different times probably. There are some films wherein the reaction of the audience changes depending on what the trend or the norm is. I donít know what the reaction is, although most of what Iíve heard is sadness. Itís hard to comment on the reactions of people, I canít judge that.

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AT: How do you feel, that there was an old couple that walked out [at the premiere of the film at the NCCA]? Thatís the news I heard.

AB: I was glad. Truth is Iím glad. Iíd be scared if everyone I spoke to like the film. That means I did something wrong. Thereís something wrong if everyone, if every single person liked it. Thatís scary. That means you didnít do anything. For those two people to walk out on the film, that means they were affected, youíve gotten to them. On that alone, youíve gotten to them. For those people who were angered by the film, I got to them, they reacted to it. But if everyone I see liked the film, didnít have an opinionÖWhen you step out of mostly Hollywood films, itís ďThat was good, come on letís eatĒ. Donít you have that? Itís like that Will Smith movie I saw, they call it visual masturbation. When youíre in the theater, it feels good. When you step out afterwards, ďCome one, letís eatĒ, you just donít talk about it. But for those people who walked out, that means, theyíll tell other people about it. Even if itís not for them, theyíre a means to reaching other people.

AT: Thereís a Malaysian director I spoke to recently, U-Wei Bin Hajisaari, and we were talking about the film of another Malaysian director, Ho Yuhangís Sanctuary, on DV also, made with a really low budget. I like it; itís a very good film. We were talking about it and U-Wei said he liked it, and that Yuhangís a very good filmmaker, [he said] "But in the film [Sanctuary], all these negative things happen to the characters, one after the other. And then the film ends, thatís it. I think itís a very good film, but when you make a film, you have to have hope, there has to be some kind of light."

AB: If youíre asking me, what the light there is, itís the awakening. Though itís realistic, I still ended the film in a dream, in what one dreams of. For me man, I believe that for people to accomplish something, for them to really do it, he should think that if he so much as makes a mistake, heís going to die. The exchange of failure for the things we do is death. If youíre going to do something, you have to give everything; you have to give your life. If you make a mistake, youíll die. The film is like that. One more thing, I donít know if you got this. The ones who are drinking, they donít want to drink anymore, right. This is enough; they didnít want to drink anymore. They were the ones who were awake. But when Rey wakes up, his companions were the one knocked out. What happens to their lives the next day could have been another story. Maybe Pogi wonít look at women in the same way; maybe heíll change. Maybe Jopet will have a different life the following day. Kahoy may go back [to snatching], but heíll also be changed; he wonít want to drink anymore. When Rey wakes up, on the other hand, we donít know what happened. What do you think; do you think he killed them?

AT: You cut and then you put the bloody table, so people assumed he killed them.

AB: But the bloody table is from a dream. Though for me, he really killed them. Thatís the hope youíre talking about when you watch the film. Youíll acquire hope [in reflecting on the idea that] these people had no chance. You know they were never given a chance. When you watch it, maybe it will make you think. Maybe tomorrow, you wonít do that [type of thing] anymore. My aunt was asking me, about three years ago, what type of films I wanted to do, the ones with hope at the end [she asked]? I said I wanted to make films that were like Lino Brockaís. Everyoneís voice is different. I donít oppose films that are heartwarming, the ones with the happy endings, the ones with hope. Thatís how they tell their stories; I cry at the end of these films myself. My style, as a storyteller, as a director, as a filmmaker, I show you what you should not do. This is what will happen; donít do this. I donít glorify violence, man. Have I glorified violence? No, I didnít. Thereís more violence in Bad Boys 2 or any other action flick in Hollywood. They go on a shooting spree, killing people off easily. In my film, thereís only a stabbing that you donít even see. You know the part with sodomy isnít even real.

AT: I agree also. I think that sometimes if you end it like that [bleak], it can be more thought-provoking for the viewer. Like in La Visa Loca [dir. Mark Meily], at the end itís kind of neatly tied up and you donít think about it as much anymore.

AB: Right, man. Because if thereís anything shown to you, ah ok, everythingís fine, everythingís good, so? Yeah, cinema is entertainment, but I donít want to give them escapism. Fuck it, I will take your one and a half hour or more than two hours to influence you, to say something, that I can die with.

AT: So would you make a Star Cinema [3] film?

AB: Well, I liked Central Station. The quote-unquote Star Cinema film? I wouldnít use that term. But using the director as smuggler, I can smuggle. But now that Iíve made this on my own, why would I sell out now? Itís nice to think about making that kind of film, but I donít feel like doing that right now. You have to be true to yourself. I donít know man; I would be making fools of the audience [through those films], that the poor really dress like that when they donít. That thatís what really happens when they donít. Iíve lived with sadness, with failure. Erwin asked me, how I came up with that kind of language, that dialogue. Shugo and I looked at each other. ďWhose dialogue was that?Ē, Erwin asked. I talk like that. I may not be like that when Iím talking to you. Iím an educated person, even if I curse a lot. Itís hypocrisy when you say that children donít hear cursing. I grew up with my grandmother who curses a lot. We grew up in a place where everyone curses. This violence, this cursing, itís not new; you see it everyday; itís in front of you though you donít see it. Itís always been there; thatís what Iím trying to say. So if you love these people, for one and a half hour, you have to show them, with the use of this medium, whatever it is; may it be DVD, digital or film, that thatís reality.

AT: In terms of Philippine cinema, who are the ones you look up to?

AB: My favorite film in the Philippines is Scorpio Nights 1 of Peque Gallaga. Thatís how I lived, man.. Life in Manila is like that. Of course, Lino Brocka. Peque Gallaga.

AT: What kind of influence, if any, did Maynila have on the end? [Maynila ends with a character being cornered, Sa Aking ends with a character rising to action.

AB: The end, itís a homage to Maynila sa Kuko ng Liwanag. In Lino Brockaís film, the last frame shows that the people are afraid. I said that in this one, they would fight back. In this one, it would be the reverse. But I only thought about that in the end.

AT: During the editing, you mean or during the shooting? Was it included already?

AB: It was included when we were shooting. But in the process of writing the script, it wasnít included. The ending was supposed to be a dog running away. I didnít include it anymore. That still wasnít the ending. My ending was that it would fade in from black and the place would be empty; the people wouldnít be there and there would be no traces of blood. The store would open; there would be shots of the MRT, of Manila. Then you would see the dog. The beginning was supposed to be Rey and the dog staring at each other before Rey gets beaten up. The dog wants to cross the street. The ending would be the dog crossing the street against the flow of the traffic. Heís crossing, the leftover meat dangling from his mouth.

AT: But you didnít get to shoot it?

AB: Not anymore. I scrapped it also.

AT: Would you have wanted to shoot it on film?

AB: Thatís our dream, man. Film is really my dream. Film, man.

AT: But this film, itís a different medium.

AB: I donít believe in that. I should have placed my speech on that CD [I gave you]. It says everything I think. May it be DV, digital, film, the content is whatís important. But if itís on film, you can show it in the theaters, thereís a bigger chance that more people will see it. Filmís easy to transfer to telecine, itís cheaper. But itís more expensive to blow up DV. If youíre a storyteller, if youíre a filmmaker, you definitely want more people to see it.

AT: But then thatís a question of after the film is done, how you can show it. If the whole Manila, the whole Philippines had digital projection, thenÖ

AB: Itís okay.

AT: Itís only a matter of the audience? If they all had digital projection, then you wouldnít want to shoot on 35 anymore?

AB: No. I still want film, I just donít have the money thatís why itís on DV.

AT: But if the whole Philippines had digital projection, then do you still want to shoot on 35?

AB: Thatís probably a different story. Because your questionís tricky man. If all theaters had digital projection, that means there wonít be film projection.

AT: If they have both?

AB: Still film. Film has been tested for a 100 years, itís tough. Storage, the quality, in-depth, the color. Film is more flexible, but of course I would like to edit it in non-linear, in Avid. Still film. Iím not a purist when it comes to editing. I still love the medium of film. Itís just too elitist until now. Itís too expensive. But for me to think twice that no, it has to be filmÖ

AT: As long as you can finish it.

AB: For me, thereís no conflict. For other filmmakers thereís an issue with film and DV; for me there isnít.

AT: I think that if youíre gonna shoot, you have to approach it differentlyóif youíre going to be shooting on DV or shooting on film. It affectsÖ

AB: No, I donít think so. For me, I still use the film discipline, how you would shoot on 35. The only difference is that you donít need to do a reading, but we made it a point--Odyssey Flores and Ióthat we have the same discipline as with shooting on 35. For example, I only used 10 DVís [miniDV tapes] for the whole film. I donít do more than five takes. Most of the heavier scenes only took one take. All of those are one take. Three takes is a lot for me. In decision-making, as I stated earlier, Iíve decided already; itís preparation. Take Hitchcock, didnít he say that if only he wouldnít shoot because it was finished in the office? The storyboardís been done, itís done in the office. Hitchcock is about technique. For me, itís not like that. Thatís Hitchcock, he has the money. For me, itís discipline man. It's not that because youíre using DV, you can shoot, you can just buy more since itís cheap.

AT: But if not in the process of shooting in the same film, itís the effect of the visual on the audience. Just like what you said the depth of field of film, the feel for the audience. For example, itís more realistic shooting on DV compared to film.

AB: I still wouldnít. Because you can adjust the lighting to make film look grittier. You grade it colder or shinier to make it look glossy. Itís the same. The only difference is the quality, film is still different. For the filmmaker like me who doesnít have the money, Iíd go for DV. For other people, thereís material for DV and thereís material for film. It isnít like that for me. Itís like saying Iíll shoot you on digital, your face is for a digital camera or your composition is for a digital camera, this one is for film. Itís not like that, itís a story. It only changes because of the times; you work with what you have. Film used to run at 15 frames per second, but why did they make it 24 when they could have made it 30? From 8mm it became 16mm, then they came out with 35, after 35, there was 75. Erwin and I were talking about how there's some material thatís good for DV and thereís material thatís good for film. I donít understand that, but I get his point. 35, thatís the dream of everyone, man. His article made me glad because there were some comments about the explosion of DV, of digital, thereís so much trash. From what I understand, what heís saying is, itís not as if there were good films when everyone was using celluloid.

AT: What Erwin said is also right.

AB: I was saying that whatís happening now is like what happened in the early 90s, 1991, 92. When the Eraserheads [a popular Filipino band in the early 90s. -ed] came in, fuck it, bang! Everyone was in a band, there were so many bands. The time will come that theyíre the only ones left behind, whoís real. Itís become part of pop culture already.

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AT: What are you working on now?

AB: Carnivore. Working title is Carnivore.

AT: Whatís that about?

AB: About Lino. The character of Lino, that hopefully Carlo Aquino will also play.

AT: Lino? Not Lino Brocka?

AB: No, the name is homage to Lino Brocka. He went to Manila, he wants to be somebody. Heís admitted to one of the universities.

AT: Where is he from?

AB: Itís unknown, I wonít say, one of the provinces. Itís close to my life because I also came from the province. From San Jose, where Lino Brocka came from. Iím proud of that, Iím the only one whoís followed [in his footsteps] as a director, after him. So he goes to Manila, wants to be somebody. But heís doesnít get that because he doesnít know anyone, heís a nobody. So he joins a frat so he can build connections. He wants to be a senator in due time, the youngest senator. The story seems hard to narrate; I donít know how to narrate it, whether I just talk about the metaphorical value or the story itself. He goes there, meets Ely, a bunch of four guys. Itís about corruption, you know the idealism of a person thatís broken by society; you donít realize that you were corrupted even from the start. Hazing takes place. The final initiation is where they end up in the woods. When they get there, theyíre blindfolded on the way. Theyíre asked to dig a hole and stay inside for two days, nodody is to leave. Itís the final test, before they pass. Two days go by, nothing. They start to feel paranoid, itís dark, and the hole is covered. Lino falls asleep and when he wakes up, his friends are outside. Theyíre hungry, thirsty. They donít know the masters are gone. So they wander in the forest until they lose consciousness and are rescued by a family. Eventually, they turn out to be a family of cannibals. Itís hard to narrate; Shugo can do it betterÖ Iíll call Shugo, I want you to meet him; you havenít met him, right? If the film is good, itís all because of him. Heís a really good writer.

[interrupts with phone conversation]

Weíre meeting at eight, heís still writing, weíve already laid out where itís going, where itís been. I donít want to talk about it first, I wouldnít be able to give it justice. All I can say is that itís still about society. Itís not a genre film, itís not horror. More of a psychological thriller.

AT: You mentioned that a big part of your film is to wake people up, awakening and you donít like escapist films.

AB: Itís not that I donít like it; itís just not my voice.

AT: Then how do you reconcile the work that you do here? A lot of the shows might be termed escapist or just for entertainment purposes. And do you think that they contribute to the dulling of the consciousness of the Filipino. They do one thing and your film, you counter that, youíre trying to do something entirely different.

AB: Thatís a good question. Itís like this, when youíre in prison, you have a uniform you have to wear. Itís like in the films we watch, if you donít wear it, youíll be punished. Or maybe, you end up dead. But while youíre in that prison, youíre thinking, you want to do something. So you go underground. Like what Rizal did before, they formed an underground movement and wrote then they smuggled their writing. Thatís probably my answer; youíre there, and you have nowhere else to go. It wouldnít matter if I was like Mike de Leon who has the means. Itís a compromise between what I want to do and what I can take.

AT: Itís like, the slaves, they tell you to dig, be in uniform, you do it even if youíre doing something just for their service. But it contributes almost directly opposite to what youíre really trying to attempt to do.

AB: But youíre born with it.

AT: Youíre born with it and you have to do it, and youíve learned and youíve done it; now that you have, will you go back? Would you go and work on another TV show?

AB: I think so, I would. Itís been said that the revolution isnít in the mountains. The revolution is in the cities. You do your revolution here in the industry. How do I get actors? How do I get my team? How do I know how to do this and how to do that? But I have no money. Iím not born with a silver spoon [in my mouth], man.

AT: Then push your film! Push it abroad, push it through festivals. The pennies they give you abroad is gold here.

AB: What Iíve tried to perfectówell we can never reach perfection, at least try to get thereóis to hone my craft as a filmmaker. It goes hand in hand with marketing, something to do with business. One has to suffer. So right now I have spent years honing my craft, how I can sneak through, where I have to pass. Take a gun, for example, it can be good or bad, depending on how and where itís used. Letís say these shows; we know which shows these are. The least that I can do is get money from it and do something independent, do something different. Even without me, these shows are here, these shows will be there. They have been there even before we were born.

AT: Thatís also like saying, these Star Cinema films are there, Iíll just do them.

AB: But thatís different. TV is different from film. When they talk about filmography, when you do your personal work or independent work and it still looks like a Star Cinema film, thereís something wrong. Iíll give one example. During my stay here in ABS, I make it a point that everything I do is done with quality. I make it with quality. I try to defend the quality, I try to defend a vision which of course is very hard, which is why Iím jobless. The music video, itís in black and white; I had an idea which the producer doesnít approve of, but I fought for it and it was shown. There are certain ways to approach Ėfor lack of a better termóan enemy. From the time I was born, there was compromise already. We live with compromise. But donít do it for those things which you can control. If you compromise in the independent [scene], in what you do personally, then thereís a problem with you. With this film man, personal film, Iím the producer; my only compromise here is that I wasnít able to do everything I wanted because I didnít have the money. Thatís it. The vision, what I wanted to say, I make it a point that itís there because I can do it, itís in my hands. I share the same vision with those people I worked with, the ones who gave money. Itís hard man, say you have money, man and give it to me to use in making a film, like they say, put your money where your mouth is. Donít put othersí money where your mouth is. The most that youíre probably capable of doing is smuggling your ideas. Itís like that. Thatís why thereís endless struggle of businessmen and artists because artists arenít born naturally good in Math.

AT: Say for example, you can eat, you have your food, your rent is paid, and then youíre getting funding for your film, you wouldnít work here?

AB: In a heartbeat man, in a heartbeat. The only constraint is that we have to live; we need the tools to create. Like I said, many times, why I donít just become a poet, all I need is a pen and paper to do my art. Why didnít you just make me a good painter; all I need is canvas and paint. But even painters compromise. Even poets compromise. What about me? Iím a filmmaker who needs a lot of people, who needs money, who needs these kinds of things to fill the canvas. Itís very hard, you know. You have filled the canvas, itís there, but where are you going to show it, thatís another problem, fuck. Like I told you, my ultimate dream or of any filmmaker for that matter that is true to what they are doing, is to just do what they want, tell the stories they want to tell. Besides that, their lives can be taken from them while on the set or while watching a film. A friend of mine asked me once, what do I feel when I shoot. I feel: this is life. This is where I feel most alive, when Iím shooting. If I was shot there and I died, I would die happy if I was shooting a film. Many people would find it weird because itís rare that people talk about it, manÖ

Iím telling you man, weíre not rich, and we donít have money. My father is a cop; my mother just caters [food]. But I made a film because I wanted to. I donít have a job, but I was able to make a film.

AT: How much is your rent?

AB: My rent is seven, if you include the lights, eight. Every year, every month, days go by where I donít do anything. Thatís why I have so much respect for Jon Red. Jon Red makes a film every year, fuck it, I canít do that. Maybe if I was born into wealth, I wouldnít be a filmmaker. Lifeís ironic.

AT: The other thing is, you really have to fight, so you donít have to make those compromises.

AB: Like you man, 2bu. You started as a 2bu writer. Youíll do that. Youíll eat shit, man. Youíre so familiar with that taste, you donít even recognize the taste of shit anymore.

Carnivore is my voice, thatís what weíre going to say in Carnivore. Before you reach wherever you destination is, youíll eat shit, youíll definitely eat shit. Thatís just it, until you can barely taste that youíre eating shit. The only thing is we reflected this in the flesh of human beings. Thatís just it. I used to be so real, man. But you canít be like that. I have learned that you can just keep quiet; you donít have to talk or if you need to, just look for something nice to say. Man, if I had a place to live, if I could eat everyday, I would have given it up already. Itís hard to stay in Manila, I canít go back and forth from San Jose City, Nueva Ecija to Manila, that would be costlier. Thereís no contest in San Jose, how am I supposed to make a film there, thereís no equipment there? Itís still hard. When you watch Sex and the City, you get jealous of Carrie. Think about it, sheís a columnist in the newspaper, she buys Manolo Blahnik shoes. Fuck, sheís just a columnist, how can she have that kind of lifestyle? But in the Philippines, youíre a film critic, you come out on TV, you get what, P500? Itís not even enough to pay for our beer.

[pause]

You know to tell you honestly, you know how I wasnít able to make a short or anything for two years? I figured that after I made a full-length, maybe the emptiness will be gone. Fuck it, itís like Batman, the Batman syndrome. He gets back at the people who killed his parents until he became a vigilante. What I feel is something like that. Itís almost as if I became hungrier, like I wanted to do more. You realize that there are still so many stories that you want to tell.
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(Interview transcribed and translated into English from Tagalog by Tiffany Limsico)

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End notes

[1] The Probe Team is an investigative news show on ABS-CBN

[2] Erwin Romulo, writer-director of the digital feature-length film Camiling (2005), sound designer, columnist for the the Young Star section of the daily paper The Philippine Star, and radio host of NU 107ís Gweiloís Hour

[3] Star Cinema Productions, Inc., a subsidiary of the Philippines' largest broadcasting network, ABS-CBN. ABS-CBNís film production arm.

Copyright ©2005 Criticine. All rights reserved.