Thursday, November 6, 2014

adventure # 210: Why a film like "Bimyana" matters

Let's get one thing out in the open- I'm writing about my little sister's debut film (Bimyana)- so as much as I want to make this post to be as objective as possible, that will be challenging. 

Years ago when my sister told me that she'll enter film school, I warned her to make sure to try her hardest to be a good filmmaker. I'll not rave about her work if she comes up with something that I don't believe in. Yes, I can be a mean big brother (my version of tough love). But to my defense, I just want her to toughen up and develop a thick skin specially since that the industry that she aspires to be part of can be brutal. 

People around me knows that I'm a child of the cinema. Year after year, I would take a leave from work to just live in the Cultural Center of the Philippines to catch the Cinemalaya Film Festival; I actively search for great movies from around the globe; and I also have my own aspiration to be able to write a screenplay and see my work on the big screen. 

According to an article I read: "films are supposed to be cultural artifacts that reflect our culture and, in turn, affect us and our outlooks towards life. Most films are considered art, for entertainment and a powerful tool for educating — or indoctrinating — society. But nowhere can we find our culture or any significant message of consequence in our films. Films are powerful tools of communicating ideas and who we are as a people." 

Spending a few hours in the cinema is more than just a way to entertain myself. It's a visual exercise to see how societal stereotypes and/or other prejudices are either being patronized or challenged. It allows me to travel inside the minds of other people and view both their struggles and aspirations. Cinema has always been my great escape- a big road trip to a world of the unexpected- a journey of epic proportions to some extent. 

Dr. Romulo A. Virola, Secretary-General of the National Statistical Coordination Board, wrote in his column “Statistically Speaking”- the local movie industry has been producing films “far from the quality of those made during the golden years of Philippine cinema.” In addition to this, he mentioned that “unfortunately, good local films do not necessarily make good money.”

It's sad to see that majority of the films being produced every year usually showcases a myriad of sequels, tired cinematic tropes and disposable stories. It's always the same old love story slash song lyric used as the movie title. Don't get me wrong, I watch my fair share of films like this and I perfectly understand that a movie needs to earn because hundreds of people in front and behind the camera depend on films to survive. But what really saddens me is the lack of variety. And watching films has become an exercise of spotting the countless of ways on how certain standards are being patronized- the beautiful, fair-skinned actress as the protagonist; characters always going to "America" to change their lives for the better; older actors are reduced to supporting roles, etc. 

If films are a society's reflection of its culture, then I have to say that our local industry hasn't been doing a great job in showcasing the rich and wonderful stories of our people. As a development worker, I've traveled to numerous communities and have a met a lot of very interesting people with stories that are not only inspiring but at the same time real. These people don't all have fair complexion- they actually don't care about the shade of their skin, or how old or young they are. All they care about is that they have a voice and a story to share. 

Earlier this year, my sister approached me to help brainstorm ideas for her thesis film. Since I do development work, it was just fitting that I pitched several story concepts that has something to do with various social issues and advocacies. We were able to shortlist a few ideas but the story that my sister gravitated towards the most was the story of the Aytas. When we did our research, we found out that there were several films that featured Aytas such as Brilliante Mendoza's Manoro and other documentaries. The common thing that we noticed in all of these films, in terms of tone and perspective, was that it focused more on the negative things that challenges the Aytas.

As a filmmaker and as a storyteller, the unending challenge is to present to the audience something fresh, something they haven't seen before. In addition to this, the film or story has to mean something- what does it want to say? What does it want to provoke? 

To help put more substance to my sister's research, I connected her to my good friends Pauline and Jarryd of Mission Katutubo Village- a non profit organization that provides opportunities for groups and individuals to contribute in the development of the indigenous peoples of the Philippines. She decided that if she's going to make a film about Aytas, she wants it to be as authentic as possible. Together with some of her teammates, my sister spent days at the Katutubo Village in Porac, Pampaga to really be with the Aytas- listen to their stories, understand their culture, figure out the best way to represent them as a community. In the beginning, she noticed that the community was a bit apprehensive to work with her. She found out that in the past, a TV production from a major network as well as other film crews have been to this community armed with a truckload of promises. After finishing what they needed to finish, they just disappeared without properly saying goodbye. Because of this, the community felt a bit used. So earning the community's trust was a major challenge in the beginning of the production. Fortunately, with the help of the Mission Katutubo people, that was sorted out. Other challenges that my sister's team faced were the engagement of non actors in the film (almost all of the actors who appeared in the film were from the community and have no background in acting), logistical issues such as the lack of steady power supply, and the very limited budget. 

The film team was definitely shaken by the numerous challenges during the entire production process. I can attest to that since I was able to be with them for one of their five day shoot. But the driving force behind the team that kept them going was the genuine desire to make a film that matters. In the process of making the film, they were educated about the endless struggles of indigenous peoples communities like the Aytas face- majority of which circle around development aggression in the form of land grabbing and the threat of cultural degradation. 

I was present during my sister's film defense in CSB last September. When the thesis panel asked her what inspired her to make this film, she said that she grew up watching Disney movies and has always been fascinated with movies with simple narratives. Moreover, she said that when she began writing the script for the film, she found out how truly wonderful and magical the Ayta culture is- how happy they are as people- that despite the many challenges they face, they still continue to dream.  She was inspired to make a film that shows the Aytas in a different light; create a new "Disney Princess like" character that embodies everything that's fantastic and magical about the Ayta culture. Hence, the character of "Bimyana" was created. Her film's foundation was an old Ayta legend that tells about the fight between Apo Namalyari  and a powerful evil spirit called Bacobaco. This epic Ayta story was juxtaposed with the current challenges that the Aytas as well as the other Indigenous Peoples communities face- lack of access to the basic services such as education; inclusive development; and gender empowerment. 

A few months ago, her film was chosen to be part of this year's Metro Manila Film Festival New Wave section. According to publish reports, out of 88 film submissions, her film is part of the top 5. Definitely an unexpected but much appreciated blessing! 

My sister's definitely happy that she got this opportunity. However for her, the real victory is just the idea that through her film, the Aytas of Katutubo Village will be given a bigger platform; a chance to further amplify their voices to be able to connect their wonderful, magical stories to more people in a way that has never been done before. This made me more proud of her!

As a lover of cinema, what excites me about this opportunity is the idea that moviegoers will have a new and fresh road trip to join- an adventure that doesn't include an overexposed love team, a song lyric as a movie title, and another excuse to travel to America to change the characters' lives for the better. Instead, "Bimyana"offers a different kind of adventure which includes a cast of dark skinned non actors, a story inspired by the wondrous and magical world of indigenous people communities, and a young girl who despite the odds still continues to dream. 

I know I'm already exaggerating and obviously very biased by stating that "Bimyana" aims to escape the usual pitfalls of mainstream cinema. However, what I'm definitely sure is that the film's foundation is the hope that in the future more and more movies will be produced that truly reflect the stories of the others that make our culture truly vibrant and magical. That moviegoers will be up for the challenge of joining a different kind of journey- a walk to an exciting, less familiar path. 

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