The latest edition of the Philippines' independent film festival got going on July 26. From experimental, ultra-cheap films shown only to a handful of film fans when it began nine years ago, Cinemalaya - which concludes today - has gained a reputation for showcasing world-class movies focused on gritty social issues, and now attracts distributors worldwide while its best offerings win rave reviews on the global indie festival circuit.
"We remain a small festival in Asia, but we have become a springboard for brave movies to be shown abroad," says director-actress Laurice Guillen, Cinemalaya's competition director.
Cinemalaya was launched to discover new, passionate filmmakers who are willing to push boundaries and create alternatives to the usual feel-good Filipino and Hollywood films that dominate the Philippines' box office. "We show films that are based on real stories that break new ground and are done with a human heart," Guillen says. Still, it hasn't always been easy.
The first batch of festival entries were films shot and recorded on mini-DV (digital video) whose audio quality was far below that of big-budget productions and criticised as crude, Guillen says. But with seed money from a Filipino businessman and mentoring from veteran directors, the quality has improved.
"Many [people] recognised later that there was something brave and innovative going on," the competition director says. "People came and watched because they wanted to see what the filmmakers were saying. They saw the heart and soul in the movies that were shown."
Cinemalaya accepts as many as 200 applications for film grants from aspiring filmmakers across the archipelago. A selection committee whittles the number down to the best proposals from 15 directors, who are then called in for interviews.
Once they pass that, they are given funds so they can begin producing their work, with Cinemalaya experts reviewing the rushes and giving technical and creative advice. Guillen says that, considering each film cannot exceed a production cost of 3.5 million pesos (about HK$625,000) the end products have been, for the most part, astounding. Among this year's most anticipated fest entries is Porno, which its director Adolf Alix describes as depicting three lonely people seeking fulfilment in their empty lives through pornography.
Alix, considered one of the Philippines' young emerging talents, is a Cinemalaya veteran: Porno is his fifth film at the festival since 2006. His previous offerings include last year's Wildlife, a brooding tale about poorly armed soldiers stationed on a Philippine-occupied island in the Spratlys, an archipelago in the South China Sea claimed by China and other nations. It was named best Asian film at the Warsaw Film Festival.
"Cinemalaya has been the right vehicle, allowing filmmakers like me to showcase our off-tangent subjects that may not be for commercial production," says Alix, whose other film this year, Death March, had its world premiere at Cannes.
For first-time filmmaker Hannah Espia, this year's Cinemalaya has given her a chance to honour the millions of Filipino overseas workers whose remittances keep the Philippine economy afloat. The 26-year-old's movie, Transit, tackles the plight of a single father seeking to protect his young son from being deported by Israel, where he works as a caregiver. "We say [Filipino migrant workers] are our modern-day heroes, but we really do not know their struggles," Espia says.
With screenings expanding in recent years from Cinemalaya's traditional home at the Cultural Centre of the Philippines and into commercial cinemas across Manila, audience sizes are also growing.
"I always say that if you want to understand our culture, you need to watch our films," Guillen says.