Moving images

published 19 Oct 2009, Manila Standard Today

It is perfectly natural to ask: Why hold a festival in an environment of tragedy and loss? But it is equally perfectly easy to come up with an answer: This is not just any other festival. It is, after all, the Cinemanila International Film Festival.

The event, which kicked off last Thursday at the Market! Market! in Taguig City, seeks to do more than showcase nearly 100 films from 30 countries in the span of 10 days —although that is not by any means a small achievement. The festival, according to its Web site, seeks to continue the legacy of the late Filipino director Lino Brocka, who pushed for the creation of films uniquely Filipino yet able to play to the international market. (Cinemanila used to be the name of Brocka’s independent outfit that produced classics such as Mortal and Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang).

This year’s theme, “Moving forward with moving images,” is a message so apt for the times the country is in. Director Tikoy Aguiluz, who founded the festival in 1999, says Opening Night may as well be called Thanksgiving Night. “The filmmaker is down from the ivory tower. The filmmaker is also a citizen.”

It is the same citizen who follows Lola Sepa and her eight-year-old grandson as they utter a prayer at the Quiapo church, walk against strong winds and rain to a spot by the side of a bridge. They light a candle (the old woman got it on the sixth try) by the corner; this is the exact place where the woman’s son is killed the previous night. The son was stabbed after resisting a thief’s attempt to get his cell phone.

So go the first few scenes of Lola, the latest offering of Brillante Mendoza —who bagged the Best Director Award at this year’s Palm D’Or International Film Festival in Cannes, France for his film Kinatay (The Execution of P). The screening of Lola opened Cinemanila; the film is the Philippines’ entry to this year’s Venice Film Festival.

Lola Sepa tries to raise the money for her son’s funeral expenses. The white-haired, bedraggled old woman, played by veteran actress Anita Linda, takes us to the narrow and chaotic streets of Manila and into her home in Sitio Ilog, which can only be reached by paddling through murky waters. Immediately one associates these scenes with the real-life images of flooded barangays in Marikina, Pasig, Pangasinan and other areas brought about by recent storms.

When the eight-thousand-peso coffin is brought by boat to Lola Sepa’s modest home, it has to be titled steeply in order to make it to the platform and to the very narrow entrance to the shanty. Here the viewer cannot help squinting, half expecting the corpse to slide out of the coffin and plunge into the water. The rest of the film shows the realities of old age and poverty: Sepa pawns her ATM and looks like a corpse in the ID photo, passes urine outside a comfort room under repair in the justice hall and occasionally loses her temper with her playful grandsons who live with her.

Mendoza, after all,has made a name for himself portraying the real—the awkward, the unrehearsed, the imperfect.

There is another Lola in the film,Lola Puring, whose grandson Mateo is in jail for the killing of Sepa’s son. She is advised that the offense is non-bailable and that they should just ask the family of the deceased for a settlement. Lola Puring sells bananas and vegetables on a kariton for a living and takes care of an invalid son at home, Another grandson helps her. To raise the settlement money, Puring resorts to pawning her television set, cheating her customers and visiting relatives who give her fresh eggs and more vegetables, which she tries to sell on the way home. And then she visits the wake of the man her grandson has killed and speaks to Sepa’s daughter, who is more open to the idea of a settlement than her mother is.

Finally Sepa is able to bury her dead, after which she relents and decided to take Puring up on her offer. Puring gives Sepa P50,000 to drop charges against her grandson. The money is bundled up in a handkerchief that Puring secures in her pocket with several safety pins. The exchange takes place in a crowded and noisy eatery that doubles as a bingo place. Face to face at last, the two Lolas make small talk—about food they can and cannot eat, about diseases that threaten them and which have claimed their loved ones’ lives. The suit against Mateo is dismissed.

The last scene shows the two old women propped up by their family—Sepa is assisted by her daughter and Puring is helped by her grandson, the vendor—on their way out of the courthouse and going to separate directions. But they must first let pass a convoy of luxury vehicles, escorted by motorcycles at the front and the rear, before they can cross the street.

“Feel-good” is definitely not an adjective to describe the films showing in the festival. When I interviewed Mendoza just after winning in Cannes (Brillante’s darkness, June 1), he said he would considered himself successful if he sees his films haunting—living in—the audience long after they leave the cinema.

Cinemanila’s closing film, “Himpapawid,” which will be shown on Sunday, Oct. 25, is likely going to be just as haunting. It is the story of “a lone deranged hijacker pushed to the edge of insanity as he struggles with the oppression of surviving in modern society,” says one synopsis. The film is inspired by the true story of the hijacking, made by “a desperate man from the countryside,” of a Philippine Airlines flight from Davao to Manila in May 2000. Red is a Cannes awardee himself for his short film Anino (Shadows) in 2000 and is considered both a pioneer of the modern Filipino independent cinema movement and mentor/ inspiration to aspiring filmmakers.

Between Lola and Himpapawid are nine days of a mix of international movies, local digital creations, short films from the young and from Southeast Asia, both for competitions or exhibitions. Just as we Filipinos are eager to share what is ours to the rest of the world, filmmakers from other parts of the world have their own stories to tell. The circumstances may be different but in the end, the range and depth of emotions we humans are capable of feeling are the same.

In the awarding ceremonies to be held on Friday, Oct. 23, the trophy that would be handed out is the image of the Bulol designed by National Artist Napoleon Abueva. The Bulol is a diety that represents good harvest—not necessarily in material things, but an abundance of good quality films.

If you want to expand your world, be moved and bothered, or if you simply want a break from the trite and unrealistic plots of commercial entertainment, get out of your comfort zone and take part in the festival. For screening schedules and other information, go to