A SOJOURNER’S VIEW: To tell a story that moves

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/22 May) — “Everybody’s a filmmaker today,” was an opinion shared by John Milius (of Conan the Barbarian and also wrote the screenplay of Apocalypse Now). Perhaps in no other historical era is this most true than today, when technological advancements in filmmaking has made the art of making movies more accessible to those who dream of making a film!

But Peter Bogdanovich (Paper Moon, The Last Picture Show) warns us: “You see so many movies… the younger people who are coming from MTV or who are coming from commercials and there’s no sense of film grammar. There’s no real sense of how to tell a story visually. It’s just cut, cut, cut, cut, cut, you know, which is pretty easy.”  Or just because you have a camera and an editing machine, does not guarantee that a budding filmmaker could make a name of her/himself in films.

On the other hand, James Cameron (Titanic, Avatar) would dare anyone with a desire to become a filmmaker: “Pick up a camera. Shoot something. No matter how small, no matter how cheesy, no matter whether your friends and your sister star in it. Put your name on it as director. Now you’re a director. Everything after that you’re just negotiating your budget and your fee.”

Well, it could just be as easy as that.

But budding filmmakers must accept that there are basic requirements. One is that they should have the gift of being a storyteller. “I was always a filmmaker before I was anything else. If I was always anything, I was a storyteller, and it never really made much of a difference to me what medium I worked in,” are the words of Nicholas Meyer (Star Trek II). But make sure, your film moves, literally. Howard Hawks (Rio Bravo, Red River) posits that “I’m a storyteller – that’s the chief function of a director. And they’re moving pictures, let’s make ‘em move!

But be sure, it moves the heart first and foremost. Heed the words of another outstanding film artist – Stanley Kubrick (2001: Space Odyssey, Wide Eye Shut) “A film is – or should be – more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. The theme, what’s behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later.” Ingmar Bergman, the celebrated director of stark black -and-white dramatic movies (Persona, Cries and Whispers) makes it clear that : “No art passes our conscience in the way film does, and goes directly to our feelings, deep down into the dark rooms of our souls.”

But a film ought to have a vision, otherwise it only yields to the cravings of the moment but has no contribution to make beyond the here and now. An assertion from a director – Edward Zwick (Glory, Legends of the Fall) – who insists on having a vision: “There is no reason why challenging themes and engaging stories have to be mutually exclusive – in fact, each can fuel the other. As a filmmaker, I want to entertain people first and foremost. If out of that comes a greater awareness and understanding of a time or a circumstance, then the hope is that change can happen. The England-based graffiti artist, political activist and film director  Banksy (Exit Through the Gift Shop, The Antics Roadshow) dares to say that “Film is incredibly democratic and accessible, it’s probably the best option if you actually want to change the world, not just re-decorate it.”

Clearly, filmmakers must be able to share a vision of why they are in this art form and not just come up with their own style. And this vision relates to an opinion, whether overt (e.g. the films of Mike del Leon’s e.g., Stella L and Lino Brocka with his Tinimbang Ka Nguni’t Kulang, Maynila sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag) or stated symbolically (those of Ishmael Bernal). “A style is not a matter of camera angles or fancy footwork, it’s an expression, an accurate expression of your particular opinion,” asserts Karel Reisz (Isadora, The French Lieutenant’s Woman).

To be able to make a film with a vision and opinion and yet fulfill the demands of film as language and art, in the words of Robert Wise (The Sound of Music, West Side Story), filmmakers must have possess “passion, patience, perseverance. You have to do this if you’ve got to be a filmmaker.”

Comes now EJ Fernandez, storyteller, writer, filmmaker. In a field that has become a most vibrant location for making films in the Philippines today – namely Mindanawon cinema that has produced the likes to Lav Diaz, Sheron Dayoc, Teng Mangansakan, Arnel Mardoquio, Arnel Barbarona and others — EJ Fernandez is one of those staking his claim to belong to this select few. Still rearing to finish a full feature film, Fernandez nonetheless has began to produce short films that have a clear vision, are products of a passion and perseverance and are begging to attract attention for its attempts to move his audience.

But nitpicking critics (to include everyone who these days feel a right to do spontaneous art criticism) would refer to Fernandez as “pretentious”. But it has been said that one has to be pretensions to become a filmmaker, after all the idea of making a film is pretentious.

One can only admire Fernandez’ all-consuming passion to pursue the muse that has pushed him into filmmaking. With “a little help from his friends” and collaborators who take turns sharing the tasks of such an artistic endeavor – from being assistant director to cinematographer, actors, production designer, providing music and songs to looking for the much-needed funds (including his partner Eva, Francis Arroceros, Giovanni Carillo, John Irvin, Joana Gundalph and other students of his classes at ADDU Senior High) – Fernandez has just presented to an enthusiastic audience three short films, namely: Statistics, Bakasyon and Sweet Corn.

Like his earliest short films (especially the one under the series of Sunshine), Fernandez is starting to “break waves” as he attempts to mirror aspects of life in Davao/Mindanao in the now and the future. Statistics’s setting is the typical university campus where millennials maneuver through both their academic and love lives in order to find meaning in their day-day struggles, namely to comprehend a difficult subject matter or to understand the heart’s longings.

Bakasyon’s storyline unfolds in a young girl’s imaginary world as she desperately makes an attempt to find resolutions to difficulties that come about with a dysfunctional family revealing how young people manage to cope and not descend to madness. Sweet Corn is set in the dystopian world of 2037 when human greed further led to the collapse of the planet’s delicate ecosystem. But in this desperate times, an unlikely hero arises only because his mother’s memory gives birth to what could be referred to as a retelling of the biblical Resurrection myth!

Of course, as can be expected of a filmmaker that has just began to discover film aesthetics, literacy and techniques, that there are lapses in these three films. Statistics could have benefited if there was a sharper differences in the two male protagonists’ characterizations. Bakasyon could have done away with its tendency to follow the teleserye route of a histrionic melodrama.

And Sweet Corn could have been more tightly edited and further shortened to allow its gritty tale to suggest the urgency of the issue at hand. For a short film, there were parts that were a bit dull. ) Fernandez ought to listen to the words of Frank Capra (It’s a Wonderful Life, It Happened One Night): “There are no rules in filmmaking: Only sins. And the cardinal sin is dullness.”

Still, Fernandez and company more than made up for these lapses. There is truth in all three films and Fernandez as a writer captures how real people speak. Statistics and Bakasyon benefit from Fernandez’ familiarity with Davao millennials’ “language” which is challenging the notion of a Pilipino language. A kind of English-Tagalog-Cebuano jumble of words and vocabulary that could be condescendingly referred to as some kind of “pidgin-English”, this “language” is more and more a reality of young people not just in Davao but also in other urban centers of Mindanao. Sub-titles are provided to make sure foreigners could understand the dialogue, but for Mindanawons this kind of language has become more and more an everyday reality. Ironically, Sweet Corn – set in 2017 – is pure Cebuano-Bisaya, perhaps the author’s assertion that he is also adept at the mother language of his ancestry.

Clearly, Fernandez aims at making sure his films are filled with symbols and he gets a lot of help from his cinematographers. Frame after frame, the viewer needs to be attentive to the symbols that erupt in the picture frames. Even as the meanings of symbols are eventually appropriated by the viewer – independent of the artist’s intent – nonetheless the viewer needs those images that help them to deconstruct from their own perspectives. Visually Fernandez’ films are symbols-laden and for all its cinematic limitations, Davao City provides him with the locations appropriate for his movie’s setting. The dystopian world of Sweet Corn, however, could have benefited if the production design made the film looked really desolate!

As for his actors, Fernandez did relatively well. Most of the actors he got to play the main as well as support roles – despite being mainly amateurs – managed to reveal emerging gifts. With a lot more film experiences, most of them could have a future in movies if given the breaks. For a budding filmmaker, it is crucial that the director knows how to motivate his actors. Brian De Palma (Carrie, Scarface) warns us about the usual problem of films involving amateurs: “The biggest mistake in student films is that they are usually cast so badly, with friends and people the directors know.”

However, one must say that most of the actors in these three films did well. Perhaps Fernandez realized the dictum of John Frankenheimer (Birdman of Alcatraz, The Iceman Cometh): “Casting is 65 percent of directing.” He made sure he had good actors despite not having the funds to tap the services of seasoned film artists.

At the premier of these films held at Ponce Suites last 20 May 2017 (to a room packed with mainly students and professors of ADDU), Fernandez was quite candid in terms of the limitations he faces as filmmaker. As is true of most independent filmmakers, access to funds is the perennial problem. One can only quote very successful filmmakers and what they thought of working within such limitations.: Francis Ford Coppola’s (Godfather Trilogy and Apocalypse Now) words: “There’s nothing creative about living within your means;” Orson Welles’ (Citizen Cane, The Third Man) opinion that “the enemy of art is the absence of limitations.” And the incredibly successful Walt Disney said” “We don’t make movies to make money, we make money to make more movies.”

So one needs to tell those who want to commit themselves to filmmaking despite all the heartaches, struggles and difficulties that: “Pain is temporary, film is forever! (John Milius). But embrace the pain. Ryan Connolly (Manfish, Tell Tale) has wise words for them: “What I always tell people is… Unless you are so passionate about filmmaking that you would rather live out of your car than not do it… This industry is one of the hardest to break into and be successful. It takes a lot of passion and dedication for it to get anywhere…”

But don’t stop learning, for the art of filmmaking is not learned in a day! Edward Zwick posits: “I think one of the privileges of being a filmmaker is the opportunity to remain a kind of perpetual student.” Being a teacher to young students, Fernandez does have the advantage to Not stop learning as he does more films.

And despite having to endure negative criticisms for being in this field of art, Fernandez and company should remember these words of Lars Von Trier (Breaking the Waves, Melancholia) if they ever get trashed in both mass and social media: “ I think it’s a very strange question that I have to defend myself. I don’t feel that. You are all my guests, it’s not the other way around, that’s how I feel.” Thanks EJ and company, for allowing us to be guests at your film showings!

(N.B. Only because their quotes are not available online, there are no quotes from distinguished Filipino filmmakers. I wish these were as readily available as those of the Hollywood and European film capitals. All quotes used in this article are those from Quotable Quotes in the internet.)

[Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar is Academic Dean of the Redemptorists’ St. Alphonsus Theological and Mission Institute (SATMI) in Davao City and a professor of Anthropology at the Ateneo de Davao University. He is author of several books and writes two columns for  MindaNews, one in English (A Sojourner’s Views) and the other in Binisaya (Panaw-Lantaw).]