Bearded Captain, October 2, 2019.
Quezon City, Philippines.
TJ Collanto: What was the process like making Baguio Address No. 10?
Mervine Aquino: It was very vague actually when I first pitched it. What I was thinking was, let’s build a set, like a white room or something and try to fill it up. At that time, I guess my economic circumstances were a big part of that. Because I didn’t want to spend too much or borrow money for a short film, I asked myself what did I have? Well I had this experience. Because before what came to be the film, parang iniisip ko dati, (I thought before), let’s make it symbolic or metaphorical or whatever, but it would still be about moving houses. And then I remembered a few years back, like around 2016 or 2015, I recorded this voice clip of my mother. This was years before the film came to be.
TC: So you had no idea at that point?
MA: Yeah, that was a project for anthropology.
TC: So it was for a class?
MA: Yeah, the anthropology professor was also very open. I thought this was really a pressing concern for the time. I’m from Baguio originally. While I was here in college, my family had moved three times. It was really displacing for me, since of course here, it’s just temporary in Manila. When you go back, you don’t know where to find your things. And then after many years, we moved to a really really small house. It was really filled. So what you kind of saw in the film, it was actually packed because we had so much stuff.
TC: That was the last house?
MA: Well, we also moved houses while I was making the film in Baguio. Parang, yun, what happened was me and my friend, we went to Baguio. “Pare, tulungan mo ako mag-shoot” so parang, kami comrades dito (“Dude, help me shoot” we were like comrades here). We were there for four days, just shooting around Baguio and then going back to some of our old houses. And then, when he left, what happened was, my mom said, the landlord asked us to move out soon, because they were going to renovate the whole building. They were going to put a commercial building in front of the old house.
MA: So in a way, we had to find something that was already rentable, I guess. We moved to the house almost across the street. What you saw in the film where we’re moving houses, that’s recent. It was just a month before I finished the film. So I guess, I was trying to make my lived experiences meaningful. I was supposed to graduate in 2017 and I was supposed to finish my thesis then. I wasn’t able to finish my thesis then because I had some academic deficiencies and everything. And then, apart from that, I really just wasn’t there yet. So the process went on for like one and a half years, like three semesters. Every time I was supposed to finish it, there was something happening. The first semester I was supposed to finish it, my grandfather died. And then in the second semester almost towards the end, another relative died. So I guess I just went on with life. In between, I also felt and realized a lot because I was in the dormitory in UP for all of my college life. And since I extended years, I had a hard time renewing my dormitory. So what happened was, I moved places for the first time. For me it was like, ok I’m not letting my parents pay for this. I went out and worked for production designers and that’s how the film got moved until last year when it finally got completed. And then it was right in time that we were moving houses. It was a fresh experience. Pretty much, that was life for me recently and how it lead to the film.
TC: When I watch your film and you tell me this, it makes so much sense. There’s something melancholic about the whole thing. The fact that you and your family were moving through all these things, it really feels like your film is also doing that itself, as if the film itself is searching for its own place. It seems like while you were making it, you were also searching for where you were. I’m thinking particularly of the part celebrating your birthday when the form starts to change, since most of the time you were interviewing your mom, it’s on this small screen.
MA: What’s interesting about that was that it wasn't actually my birthday. It was the first birthday of my cousin who has a similar name to me. His name is Marvin. And I’m Mervine. Because we had one aunt that named both of us. So it’s almost disguised as my birthday but it’s not. What happened was, I was reorganizing my process and the whole film from that first very expensive version. I said, ah what about this, what material do I have? I still remembered, we still had Hi-8 tapes so I asked my mother, “Ma, puwede mo bang hanapin itong mga Hi-8 tapes para gagamitin ko sa thesis” (Mom can you find these Hi-8 tapes so I can use them for the thesis?). And she said “Yes, I’ll find it, but it’s somewhere within these boxes”. Because we never unpacked. Before we moved to our house now, we never unpacked everything because the space was so small. I was planning on gathering all of these tapes and digitize them, putting them together, watching the videos and everything. But my mom couldn’t find the tapes since we kept moving. I remembered I last saw these two or three houses ago and the last time I saw it was in this basket, but the basket was empty. Fortunately, she found one, a single cassette, that was misplaced with audio cassettes. That was the only one recovered.
TC: So that was the one you used?
MA: Yeah that was the messed up part, the black and white part.
TC: So it was actually messed up?
MA: Yeah it was really messed up, and really moldy. But it was recoverable.
TC: So those effects were part of the actual.
MA: Yeah, there were no VFX. Everything is there. I then asked myself, how do I work with this one cassette. Those cassettes were supposed to supply the memories and I only found one. So those video memories were, in Tagalog, “Bungi” (rough translation: missing teeth). How do I adjust? I guess, I’ll shoot something to fill in those gaps. At first, I planned to shoot the things in between in HD. But I realized it wasn’t working because everything was too clean. If you shoot with a DSLR or mirrorless, it’s going to have this certain texture, which wasn’t the point. So I bought a second-hand Hi-8 camera, last year. But then I had to ask myself, is this new footage now an old cassette? Or a new memory? If I was going to make a memory film or use an old medium, I told myself I should start learning it myself. It was really a trial and error process for me. Because apart from securing the camera, I also tried to learn how to convert it and digitize it, the whole process. You can then see the flaws of the whole thing, of the whole medium. In doing so, you go through the medium’s own history. Imagine, we used to rely all these small moments on these magnetic cassettes. And then once those get moldy, it’s not like celluloid where you can just look through it and see what it is. You really have to find a player for these old tapes and you have to preserve it well. It’s a whole process. So it made me realize, it’s so fragile right? You really don’t know what it contains. I really thought a lot about it.
TC: But that’s so beautiful. There is a value, especially in your films, to looking back on your history. It’s like we’re not only trying to reflect on your family or these experiences, but also imagining a future, using the same materials. I’m interested in why it’s so important for you to go through this process of making the materials and going through the moldiness? Why is the medium itself important for you?
MA: I guess, as an afterthought when I made the film, I thought I really had a comfortable middle-class life because other people wouldn’t have video memories or wouldn’t even have photographs of themselves when they were young, but we had that I guess and it was lost. That practice was lost because of going digital. No one is holding on to negatives. No one is holding on to cassettes anymore. Just memory cards and hard drives. So I really found that there was really this time or this gap in the documentation of our family, because since then everything became cell phones and digicams. So when that hard drive containing all those phone and digicam pictures went bonkers before I was even making this, it was a loss. Because we couldn’t go back to this if we wanted to or if we were looking for something. I guess it’s important for me to go back to the medium because, in a way, everybody else isn’t.
TC: Right, exactly.
MA: So that’s important for me. There are things that they take for granted that really irks me. For example in music videos, when they just put these effects for show. They even put a date stamp just for the aesthetic of it. But it’s not eh. They glorify that aesthetic, but it’s actually a very fragile and violent medium. Because you can just overwrite things and it’ll be gone. You can expose it to the sun or whatever, mess up the tape and then it’s gone, right? It’s not something, I guess, to be taken for granted or glorified as an aesthetic. It may always look nice, but it’s not always fitting. So I guess it started as a pet peeve. But on the other hand, if I was going to take that path and I was going to go back to this medium in particular to fill in the specific medium that I was, it was important that I was understanding it from my own hands. Even the house that you see at the end, that drawing of a house, I drew that when I was six years old or seven years old which I then found in one of my files. I remember when I was a kid, I wanted to be an architect because I wanted to draw houses. But I guess that didn’t pull through, haha.
TC: Pero it’s showing up in weird ways.
MA: Yeah, it’s haunting me haha.
TC: But you bring up some very important ideas, using words like fragility, of taking for granted, of glorifying. Because especially in your case, you’re using your family’s materials that someone took in your family. It’s like you said, a documentation of your family that’s now lost. This idea of something about ourselves being lost through the documentation that is also lost, makes a lot of sense and I can understand where you are coming and why when you see music videos or things that aren’t taking as seriously the origins of these mediums, it feels a bit wrong, it feels a bit offensive, almost.
MA: Yeah, it’s like a betrayal to the whole film. Because the medium is also part of the nostalgia. That’s also what I wanted and was obsessing over at that time. So might as well exploit that illusion of nostalgia, right? Maybe something is meant to evoke a memory. That’s what I wanted to do, I guess, parang, make people try to remember or try to blur what is now and then, what is shot before.
TC: I think it’s definitely working. If that’s what you’re trying to do, to blur the lines between. Even though your film starts with the words “flashback”.
MA: Yeah that was from these old wedding videos? They start with “Flashback” and they put in the baby pictures of your parents before the wedding ceremony. It was really something. I really wanted to push something. Film is the general term, but what about video? What about these things that we actually use, even the dslr. It’s already a video, but we don’t really try to question it. We don’t question its history. We don’t question how it came to be or how it works. So yeah, I guess that was that.
TC: Two questions. Because you brought up with a DSLR, or with these mediums, we don’t question their history. Why do you think it’s important for us to question history or a medium’s history?
MA: Because that’s how we know how to use it effectively, I guess. For this case study, I asked myself this since it’s being taken for granted. Studying the history or studying how it actually works, allows you to understand why or how people are actually deceived, and why it’s supposed to be a memory thing. You know, how it’s supposed to be nostalgic, right? But also because, we entrust our minds to these things. We extend our bodies in a way to these cameras, to whatever medium we are using, so…
TC: That’s so true.
MA: Yeah, and sometimes there’s this thought process: I’m going to do this, I’m going to use digital and then there won’t be any consequences for me, because of how the digital form clones itself. There’s no consequence, but actually everything we take still takes space. It’s still the same as cassettes. They still take space. And, in a way, moving houses, the footage has to move from drive to drive, from form to form for it to survive. Para sa amin (for us) since we also moved as a family, that’s also the way we survived because we can’t afford the rent or the workplaces were closer or our school was closer to this house. So, I guess it kind of ties itself up. It’s important to question it because nobody else is. I mean, unless you are a media historian or an archivist.
TC: That’s very niche.
MA: Yeah, but also filmmakers have to because we also have to archive our works on our own. Because if you’re a small filmmaker, you can’t rely on archives, really. That’s a big part of it. Because you also have to be mindful of where you’re placing your thoughts and memories or where you are storing them. How you are actually remembering things through that.
TC: You’re saying, how we remember our memories is just as important as the memories themselves?
MA: Yeah, I guess, I guess. Because sometimes, if we have nothing to hold on to, there’s nothing to remind us that this actually happened. That’s why if there are attacks on freedom, there’s also attacks on archives.
TC: Ay, you went there!
MA: Yeah, or… I guess, for me, just as a person, I wouldn’t remember parts of my childhood if there weren’t photos and how I’ve remembered these things have already permutated, how they look in the photos. It’s really important, I mean apart from just really documenting things, also where you document the things.
TC: I think this notion of nostalgia is a hot topic. Do you think your film is nostalgic?
MA: Yes, I think it is.
TC: Why is the idea of nostalgia meaningful for you? And how do you define it?
MA: For me, nostalgia is, as a filmmaker, it’s going back I guess, or longing for the old days. Or trying to emulate things so that they are the old way. And that is a part of nostalgia, and the form is part of nostalgia. But...what were you asking, sorry?
TC: If you could define nostalgia.
MA: Ah ok, that’s also what they were asking me. Is this a nostalgic film? Is it not a nostalgic film, right?
TC: Who was asking you?
MA: There was a thesis panel. I said, I think it can be both. Because, okay, you can try to evoke the memories, you can try to emulate them. But you can only do so to a point until you just have to snap out of it. In the end, you might say, let’s just shoot this with a phone, in HD. Let’s snap out of this form, since you’re too attached to it. Or you might be too attached to finding the old things but, in truth, it’s like life goes forward right? You’re gonna make new memories. If your whole body obsesses over your life so far, it’s going to be kind of shallow. So, it was really supposed to be nostalgic, or memory making, or memory evoking. But I wanted to also snap out of it just so that you can dream forward. This film is of course a school project. It’s a final so you can get out of school, haha. But I guess it’s also for me, outside of that, this promise to my family, to my mother, right? In film school, it’s like, ah, experimental, experimental, experimental. It’s just a label, just because the form is that, but for me, I want to call it a documentary. And if not a documentary, it’s a document. It’s a video document that, after a few years, let’s see how far we’ve come. Or, this is how far we’ve come now! Nobody does that for our family, but since I studied this, maybe I can serve it in this way. So yeah, it’s kind of a document of a promise, of a future house or this future that is still together. My mother was there when it first screened. She came down from Baguio. And after the screening, because I was the second to the last one, she was teary-eyed.
TC: She was crying!
MA: She said, “Pangit, pangit naman ang film mo” (Your film is ugly)
MA: Sabe niya, “Paulit-ulit yung sinesabe ko, hindi mo naman lang inayos”. (She said, “You just kept repeating what I said, you didn’t even organize it)
TC: But she cried, that was her reaction.
MA: Yeah because that’s really the purpose I guess. Sometimes, we try to translate our personal experiences too far from us. Like ah, this film is really personal, this character in this film is me, but this is what I have: I’m me and this is my mother and this is supposed to serve the purpose that she is supposed to see it, so that she knows my education was worth the bucks, haha. So yeah, I guess it worked for her. Because regardless of everything, she has to see this, she has to hold on to this, at least. And so that’s all part of it. I have the opportunity to show her on the big screen and she can see herself on the big screen. She can see her house on the big screen, the family actually. That last bit was a family picture, so okay, if times are rare to take family pictures this time, let’s make it something.
TC: That’s so beautiful though. So it seems like it’s very important that your family is a big part of your filmmaking process.
MA: Yeah, yeah definitely.
TC: Even the audience and who you’re shooting. It’s very interesting.
MA: If I may add, a film I did before this was also for a class. My family is really a part of it. The film I did before this was called “Interlude (Are you Having Fun?)”
TC: What’s it about?
MA: It’s on Youtube actually. What I did there was, we went home to my mother’s province in Nueva Ecija. The plan was, okay let’s just have a feast, let’s just have a celebration and shoot in between. And then I was really touched because everyone was there and then everyone from the neighboring barangays went there. And they were like okay we need people to eat, haha. So I guess ever since then, I really wanted to involve them, because sometimes it’s a danger for me as a filmmaker, or in general in the industry, if you’re so separated from the realities, at least from your own family. Parang (it’s like), what I wanted to do since I’m going to make a film naman, why not involve my family? Ma, pwede ka bang mag-luto, ganyan. (Mom can you help with cooking?) We were all there, my family was there, so we were like okay let’s shoot you drinking or something!
TC: For that film?
MA: Yeah, then I guess I was happy with the involvement of everyone. Not only collaborating with other filmmakers but also collaborating with my family so that they understand what you’re doing. It’s really humbling because when you go out of your circles, nobody is a filmmaker you know, and it’s not an important or pressing job. It’s a famous thing, like showbiz you know. But apart from that nobody understands, and then some people, they don’t really share it with their families. I guess I wanted to do that.
TC: That’s so interesting you bring this up because a lot of this resonates with me as well. I want to ask and dip in more about Filipino films and Philippine industry in general and these kinds of ideas that nobody is a filmmaker, nobody is in the arts, even in my family.
MA: So your whole family is in the States?
TC: Some, yeah. But it’s just this idea that there is this separation of films and art and then everything else. But at the same time, in the way you’ve been talking about films and how your family is so important to you, and how documenting your family is so important to you, there’s something very intimate and kind of essential about the way you’re thinking about it and yet at the same time, these are realities about working as a filmmaker, that it’s still kind of new and sometimes hard for people to understand. I guess, I’m curious, what are your thoughts on what this means for filmmaking in general? As a Filipino person, or here in the Philippines?
MA: Actually, it’s very stereotypical. Or it’s real, but it’s also stereotypical that you know, a Filipino is very family-centric. But it runs in the culture. And I guess, while of course there are family films, films that depict family, it’s still not part of the whole process. That’s just on the audience side. The whole process of making something is different. If your mother can cook then why not make her cater or something? Because when you look at the history of Philippine cinema, the first studios, or the first film groups, they’re families, even until now. The Del Rosarios and everyone. These big production houses, they’re still a family, and it’s still being passed on. Even before the film troupes or zarzuela troupes, when they were transitioning into films, they were still family. Sampaguita Pictures was also started by a family. But of course, they were more business minded. But they still involved everyone in their families. So why not, even though you are a small process right, why not?
MA: But my mother said never do documentary ever again, haha.
TC: That’s so funny.
MA: Not really, haha. But she’s always wary if I hold a phone or a camera. “Vide-video na naman ako!” (You are videotaping me again!) But it’s fun actually, involving your family.
TC: That makes so much sense especially cause you talked about even before you were seriously into films in college, DIY was already part of your protocol in a way. I think there’s something very powerful about this because your process is also defining your films. So it’s very unique. And in a way, it’s this own kind of production that’s family-centric that isn’t so much relying on other ways of making films. I think that’s really cool.
MA: Plus, we don’t really have that much money as small filmmakers, but we have this abundance of…
MA: Kapwa, yeah! Actually people want to be involved or are willing to work with you, right? Which also extends to your friends, but of course that’s another issue. Of course eventually, you need to pay everyone, but still you have these resources of not only materials, stories, or hearsays. And it’s important because you know, that makes you think of the stories that people value. So I guess it’s important because if you are really a family person then your process will also reflect family, of course. Until that film, I was really just trying to tie it together and I really wanted to come home. And I’ve been here [in Manila] since 2013, only going home for holidays and weekends or something, only every so often. So in a way, I just wanted to make an excuse to go home.
TC: I want to pivot a little bit. I think as someone who was born in Chicago and whose parents are immigrants, my experience is very different. But when watching your film, a lot still resonates with me especially with this idea of moving and that there’s this home away from here. I wanted to ask. So you’re from Baguio? Born and raised?
MA: Yes, born and raised.
TC: So it’s only for college that you came here [to Manila]?
TC: So we’ve talked about nostalgia and going back, but how do these ideas of home and going back home change for you? Do you see yourself going back to Baguio? Do you feel settled here in Manila? How do you identify in terms of your relationship to home? Especially as someone from Baguio who is not from here, these senses of nostalgia and distance that I feel so strongly in your films. Can you talk a little about you being from Baguio and having your film career start in Manila?
MA: Well yeah, I was born and raised in Baguio. And like the Baguio attitude, if I may put it that way, it’s really laid back. Or at least how we lived. You don’t really care for celebrities, you don’t really care for showbiz or something, but it’s there. The arts are there, sometimes. But I guess I moved here because there were really no avenues there for filmmaking. Because there were only communication courses, general or journalism, speech communication…
TC: Sa Baguio?
MA: Yeah sa Baguio. There were really no [film courses]. There were maybe production classes. So at first, I wasn’t too sure about moving here. But of course I thought, if it’s there, why don’t I grab it? And it’s a state university, so it’s a lot cheaper. But going home to Baguio, what really tied me to the place...when I entered college, I had a girlfriend in Baguio…ok that’s personal, haha… but it was a big part because it was a long distance relationship and…
TC: Of course.
MA: And aw shucks, you really get to question moving away, going back home for a purpose, trying to do things here and then trying to tie the future plans to Baguio. And then after we broke up, it was like aw shucks, what is this? What now? Actually, about the same time we broke up, we were also moving into that cramped house you see in the film.
TC: Oh my god, so poetic!
MA: Life is. Parang, ano ba naman iyan (What is this?) That is life, diba? Why wouldn’t you question going home? That was also the oddest house we were in, because if it was like [this restaurant], it would almost be just twice wider, but the same length. There was so much stuff. So what happened was, there were two rooms, but one room was for storing stuff, because nothing could fit elsewhere. And then my parents would sleep in the sala na imbes na sa sarili nilang bed (…living room instead of their own bed). So everyone was displaced, even me.
TC: In so many ways!
MA: In so many ways! I didn’t have a bed, I didn’t have a room I was used to. Before I left home I had something, it was really different of course. So I felt like a stranger to my own home..
MA: So yeah it’s really a strange feeling, cause you go home but where do I place myself? So sometimes I went home and I’d go out or I just sleep or something, or stay out with my friends. The size of the house was really only good for two people. We even had many dogs. Also my dad couldn’t sleep there, because he works in La Union, so sometimes he goes back and forth. It was also kind of transient, yung feeling. But yeah I guess that was really a low point. I didn’t have the space, I was so angry at the situation. The space is essential for you to dream or to think of a way out, or an alternative or brighter something, and sometimes if you just keep on moving, you’re not granted that. So in Baguio, apart from the love life before, of course it’s my family. I gotta come back home. It’s always what ties you. Like I said earlier, it’s an excuse to go home.
TC: No it makes sense. You miss home, I can feel it!
MA: And then stay there for a while, even though you’re just an observer. I guess I’m also torn because, ok I want to go there, but what would I do there? I can’t freelance film there because there isn’t an industry tied there. It’s all here, in Manila. Whatever ads or films, everything is here. So that’s what I’m wondering now. But of course, I’ll just figure that out and then I’ll go home. It’s what I see myself doing, because at least if I go there, you can also share things that you’ve learned here. That’s going to be a wonderful experience. I always went through the city, but as for your roots, you can’t just displace yourself and not pay anything to where you grew up and where you were shaped. It’s still a part of the life process. So of course, maybe it’s never going to happen that there’s going to be a big film industry there or something. Or it’s going to be a center of cinema, but at least there are these small processes. There are these individual filmmakers that could gather. It’s really a hopeful thing, because Baguio is like a center. You have to ask, is it really a city? Because it’s also kind of like the province, you know? So I guess, that’s just part of life, how it goes. Since it’s that hybrid of metropolitan and suburbs and province, you feel that there are a lot of opportunities that you could participate in, unlike here where it is supersaturated. But of course, it has its own problems but at least you get to think of those things.
TC: So for your next projects, is Baguio still going to be a very important part of your next films? For your family? What are you working on next?
MA: Actually, I don’t know because that was kind of a bookend already. At least for the foreseeable future of filmmaking, I’m not going to go family and childhood and Baguio. Maybe Baguio, but I’m trying to veer away from that in a way. I only had that rich of an experience, because that was my life so far. But if I do that again, it would get kind of annoying. I’m just exploiting what I did successfully or what people know me for. Well, right now we’re making a film for QCinema.
TC: Ah, the festival!
TC: Who’s we? Are you directing?
MA: Co-directing, actually. It’s a different process altogether and it’s kind of sci-fi. It’s different, it’s really different from what I do or did in the past in film school. But while doing it, I still kind of miss that personal touch or that free flowing touch. Because if you’re with a grant giving body, of course there are expectations or people you work with who will also help shape it, unlike this where there were only me and maybe one to two others that were working on it so it was really controlled. But this time and with an even bigger budget, things work differently. So that’s my first big project after Baguio Address.
TC: What’s it called?
MA: Spid, you can catch it later.
TC: I’m definitely going to come watch it.
MA: But it’s really weird.
TC: What’s it about?
MA: Oh, it's about a world where sight and sound are not synced, so people hear things first before they see it. But that’s just like the premise. It’s an agent film and an action film, but still the spirit of play is still there. While others are shooting with mirrorless, we still shot on a handycam with a small sensor.
TC: So you’re using a handycam for this film?
MA: Yeah for this film. Yeah so it’s still kind of there, haha.
TC: Yeah it’s definitely still there, nice transition!
MA: I guess I didn’t want to let go of that. Even though, at first I was apprehensive. I said let’s make it super HD, but so many things were sacrificed in the process or at least the process that the co-director and I wanted. We also shot his thesis film with a mini-DV, a low-res camera so in that way we really jived. We really wanted to spend little and shoot small. It’s a weird film. It’s a really weird film.
TC: That sounds exactly like, I mean I’m not surprised, haha.
TC: I mean it’s a world where sight and sound are not synced, your film was kind of doing that! MA: Yeah, yeah, haha. It’s really weird how it ties itself up.
MA: Pero, yun, parang. I’m still actually trying to come to grips with the process and myself also. Of course, collaborating is different, but at least I found good friends. But for myself, what is this thing that I want to deal with, that I want to develop, because of course, it’s not always going to be personal, it’s not always going to be about your family. But it’s the way you do things, or try to think about things I guess, yeah?
TC: ...is what makes it personal?
MA: Yeah, correct, tama. And also, that’s your touch.
TC: That makes sense and goes back to everything you were talking about before where your films are less about what you’re shooting. Or at least how we’re creating the film or the form itself is as much of the personal touch as it is about the content.
MA: Yeah, tama.
TC: At least if you can hold on to how we access these things, or how you shoot them, that’s still how we...how do you say...how ourselves shine through even if we’re not shooting the things that we would think, you know like if it’s not directly our family…
MA: Yeah, right.
TC: ...but how you shoot it still allows you to be personal with your films.
MA: And in a way, it’s like how do you also kind of challenge or break down auteurism. TC: Right.
MA: Because of course, this is your film, there’s that…
TC: ...and what does that mean?
MA: Maybe the format or the medium is tied to you, the thematics are tied to you, but parang, what if it doesn’t? What if I do something different? Of course, I’m young. There isn’t really much yet.
TC: I don’t even think it’s an age thing.
MA: Yeah but still right? That attitude of always trying not to repeat yourself, or not do things the same way. It also challenges you, because you’re not comfortable. Whenever you’re comfortable, it’s like you’re settling, I guess, or you’re letting go of some things. Especially if you really want to have a hold on your film, it’s still different. So you always have to challenge. Or at least that’s an important spirit for me.
TC: No for sure, I totally vibe with that. Filmmaking is just a lifelong identity crisis MA: Yeah, yeah, mismo, totoo, haha.
TC: So your next project sounds really cool and it’s really cool that even though it sounds like something totally different and you’re working now with an institution which is QCinema, you’re still holding on to some of the key values in your filmmaking which we already talked about, like with lo-fi cameras, shooting small. I want to ask you, what is it that you want audiences to get out of your film, especially those in Chicago?
MA: I don’t know if it is a Filipino thing, or Asian thing, but for me, the experience of moving is always what people tell me. Moving or being displaced, it’s really a common experience, like you said. I didn’t expect that in Chicago, you would also feel kind of attached to it.
MA: I’m wondering if it is a common experience or a cultural experience. Cause definitely there are people and cultures and groups that are displaced more violently than others. It’s just that we’re more privileged and we can reflect on it more. What do I want other people to get out of this film? I don’t know.
TC: Sorry, that’s a weird question. If there’s something you want audiences to feel or something in your intentions in making this film that you’d want audiences to share with your experience?
MA: Maybe I want them to hug their moms or something.
TC: That’s fair yeah! Perfect answer.
MA: And their dads and their family or their immediate family, I guess. Cause if sometimes, some films are really banking on formal play, people are kind of really abject to it. Pero, [my film] is really just about family. If there’s one thing, maybe it’s that we all have to move.
MA: And it’s that, dreaming of the future. Because if you don’t, why are you doing things now if you don’t dream of the future, right? Wherever you are, or how ever you are moving or whatever cause or movement you are doing, sometimes you forget to dream of the future. Or the future you imagine is not in sync with others. For example, as a family, I might want this, and my sister wants this and my mother wants this, so we’re not in sync in our dreaming. Sometimes it has to be a communal event or it has to be a communal thing. If it’s in the Asian community and in the films for sure, there are some things they will pick up. It really wasn’t in my intention to connect to others with the film, because it was really personal. I was also really just and still am apprehensive in like, joining it to competitions and festivals, unless of course it’s like a smaller scale thing, like this one. It’s community based, right? So that was what appealed to me. But otherwise, when it goes to film festivals, do I really want to use my family as my catapult to the industry? Because of course, when you’re in film school...sorry could I order one more beer?
TC: Yeah, of course. Do you want to take a break?
(they order two more pales)
TC: I didn’t realize you finished.
MA: No, it’s okay. It’s like that, eh. I’m still kind of apprehensive to not really show it to audiences, or show it to a bigger audience on a bigger stage. Because that wouldn’t serve the purpose and it already did, actually for me. My parents saw it, my family saw it. That’s good enough for me, at least for this one. Maybe for the next or whatever, that’s when you could openly just throw it out there. I guess this is a document right now.
TC: Yeah, it’s so fragile.
MA: You’re like, hey I signed this contract. But of course, if there are opportunities, go. Of course, we also wouldn’t want to just keep it, right? Because then it won’t be alive. It has to move, right? And then many more people will have copies of it. It’s still all part of moving.
TC: That’s such a bittersweet feeling because like you said, there’s an importance to how small scale and intimate it is, so that goes from the film production all the way to, from what I understand from what you’re saying to how it’s viewed as well. It’s like these smaller festivals are important to you, because it’s so personal. But at the same time, you have this hesitation kase you’re saying I have to move on too. It’s hard, you want to move on, but also how do you keep this balance of career and small-focused, but still be true to yourself?
MA: I think, hm...I’m actually really iffy about film as a career, even though that’s like a weird...it’s weird, cause if I am a very personal filmmaker and I don’t have lived experiences then there wouldn’t be anything to make films of, right? If you’re so obsessed about filmmaking, just making films about films, it’s kind of petty and repetitive. So, I’m thinking of how to move out of filmmaking in a way that I can still do it and do the things I want. Cause recently, it’s really weird but I started writing for a visa agency.
TC: Oh wow, interesting!
MA: We’re like writing application letters, we help others write application letters.
TC: ...to apply for visas?
MA: Yeah, yeah. Sometimes, people write, they just really want to get out of here, you know? It’s a reality. But sometimes, they don’t have the word skills to write letters that are convincing or something. So that’s something I do now and recently. It’s kind of a funny story. Parang, Filipinos applying for Australian visas. It’s funny because I really don’t want to. I see the people or my colleagues or my batch-mates in film, and they’re really media people. That’s really all they do. They’re all production designers, cinematographers,
or whatever, but I don’t think I’m that. Because I also tried my hand at production design and everything. It didn’t really work out for me because I was just tired. I’m trying to find ways to do work other than film. That would be great for me. Because I could also connect to other people outside of my circles, like the way I try to make films connecting to my family. It gets you out of your system, sometimes and just pulls you back to what’s real. Because you know you make films but you don’t really do much, or maybe I’m downplaying it…
TC: No, no, I understand.
MA: Maybe it’s not that word, but sometimes when people make films, they think they’re really very important.
MA: But they could be? But not entirely and sometimes they miss the point of connecting with other people.
MA: Relationships, yeah definitely. You can be a documentarist, but just invade others. So how do I also make films that are not invasive? That are good for everyone involved? That’s why I also have hesitations about going to Baguio, because then I’d have to really immerse myself again, since I’m already an outsider. And part of going back home is really re-integrating with other people, so it’s part of the plan in the future of course. You can’t just go there and start making films or start making workshops and do whatever. You have to go people first. That’s pretty much it.
TC: That makes sense especially when you describe your filmmaking process as a document. It’s not so much about the outcome for you, it’s about the relationships you build and the people you make it for, and you don’t want to take that out of the process because then it becomes exploitative.
MA: Right, yeah. It’s all part of life.
TC: So this kind of event is very special in Chicago as I think there are still not many opportunities in public settings for people to see Southeast Asian films. What does it mean for you to show your work at a Southeast Asian Short Film Festival?
MA: I guess I’m more comfortable doing that, if not for the Filipino audiences there, but also for Southeast Asians. That’s why we also really got together well at SeaShorts or wherever else we’re always together. It’s because we have these shared things. Not entirely, but it’s at least a communal thing for the region and for the cultures. So being screened in that kind of set up for our audiences who are also very open to see your work and lesser-known works, you know rough around the edges works, it shows there’s really value in this. Because, like you said, if there are not many platforms for Filipino films or Southeast Asian films there, then yeah I guess it makes a lot more impact because there are things we are missing. There are things that people want to see. It’s interesting. Platforms like this, not only in film but also print. Those efforts to nurture these kinds of films or propagate them I guess is really important. We’re all really being grounded by bigger machines and especially moving into Netflix and bigger cinemas…this is just a school project. It’s just a small documentary. It’s just a small experimental work. And especially considering that objection to your film if it’s not a narrative, if there are no characters you can relate to or if it’s a narrative but that narrative is weird, you know it’s not a film.
TC: But that’s so speculative.
MA: Yeah, maybe. But we have to call it into question and I guess that’s what we’re doing with our films, with your writing with this whole platform. This ain’t it, right? Madami pang iba na films (there’s still a lot of different kinds of films). Cause we can never know what people want to see if they don’t see it. Parang, okay lang, palabas natin (it’s like, that’s okay, let’s just show it).
TC: That’s exactly what we’re trying to do. We’re so grateful that you want to participate in this. You’re a new filmmaker and we’re trying to reach new voices and you’re from Baguio. You’re the first filmmaker I’ve ever met from Baguio. There’s something important to that, especially that you’re talking about your family and it’s very personal.
MA: I guess it’s also kind of rare to find people who are open to sharing their stories without disguising it through other characters or in a certain way. It’s also refreshing I guess, meeting other people. Other people sometimes tell me “oh wow, it’s amazing you could do that”. But I can’t ever come to terms with this, you know? Sana lahat, maka-share ng experience (If only everyone can share in the experience). After making this film, I really just wanted to show it to my parents but many people were also saying, “we’re also moved”. With all of these experiences these people were suddenly sharing similar things so I guess platforms are important, especially very specific platforms. This is where like-minded or similar experience people can see how they get along.
TC: It definitely resonates with me. There’s something so sad, but also because your mom is so charming in the movie, there’s something so sad about the idea that you move around and you don’t want to unpack because there’s no point. That we always want to move. There’s a lightness to your films, but it’s not a rosy picture either. I feel like the way you’re approaching it, there’s still this concern because of the way the film is still questioning all these things. And that’s what I loved about it, it hits home without piercing the wound.
MA: It’s not like super ‘coming home’. I’m trying to avoid that, haha
TC: Anyways, we’re very grateful to have your film. Have you seen any of the other films in the program and would you like to talk about any of them?
MA: There was this one film by Nguyen Trinh Thi. I was sent by John to Korea, that’s where I met Trinh Thi. And she showed some of her films, especially this one called “Fifth Cinema”
TC: Ah, I haven’t heard of that.
MA: She kind of plays with the form as well. Cause she gets downloaded clips like clips from real movies, you know? And then she puts her own subtitles to it. She puts a different audio track to it. So there’s a lot happening.
TC: What do you like about her films?
MA: It’s also really personal. With that one I saw, she was shooting her own daughter who was also I think Vietnamese-American. I really don’t remember the other titles of the other films, but it was also very community based, in her own way. Her films are also deeply personal but also related to the situation in Vietnam or her hometown.
TC: Was that Letters from Pandduranga?
MA: I’m not sure, I don’t think it’s the one you’re screening, but there are some excerpts she showed that really tackled mining in her place or her family, or the experience of decolonization…
TC: The big issues.
MA: The big issues, yeah. She really tackles it in a way that nobody does. She really plays with the form with the subtitles and pirated images, so it’s really punching a gut through all other films. Because nobody would dare to do that. But to address her concerns, she has to do that. I really appreciate filmmakers like those, like her, who are also very community based in Vietnam. Like in DocLabs, they also have a group that holds workshops, exchanges and whatnot. If you’re really a community person or you’re really grounded in grassroots, I guess it’s unavoidable to be very vulnerable and personal as well. So especially here in Southeast Asia, where it’s kind of separated or archipelagic, or just in the Philippines, it’s hard to reconcile the regional. But you know it happens and there are really different voices, different ways people do things. You’ll find in the provinces, 16, 17,18 years old kids, they’re really into it or they really want to make something so, oh shucks! You really have to delve into the grassroots I guess to really discover things you wouldn’t imagine are possible. Cause for me, there’s also this hesitation for my film because it’s a school film and it’s informed by the academy, that kind of thinking. Even though you say it’s personal, it’s still theoretical. It’s still going to be kept in the archives of the university and it happened because it was permitted by the university. So it’s still within that, but the real excitement happens after or outside of that school setting or Manila setting. It’s really interesting to see others.
TC: So for you, again cause you were talking about that even when it was personal, it’s still working within this kind of institution. How can you imagine what a kind of…what is your ideal kind of filmmaking process?
MA: Ideal? That’s hard, I’m trying to figure that out right now. Cause for me, it would be amazing if I could do something that was actually helpful or useful for other people. Like working to serve others or maybe teach, but at the same time still have that opportunity to make films in between so it wouldn’t be a regrettable process or experience. If it came to that, I will keep on making smaller films because that’s what time and money and experience would grant me. That’s going to be nice.
TC: I could totally see you as a teacher.
MA: Haha, maybe, maybe. But it’s good because if you go filmmaking, you’re expected to go up, up, up and then just develop after you make the big films.
TC: “Big films” in quotes.
MA: Make it big, or you’re going to make a studio film you know, if it’s outside festivals. There’s that hierarchy or ladder for your career already set out for you. And I know that for me my body is not meant for that. Cause for me, I can’t bear how many hours of work, standing up or without sleep, it’s really not my thing. Apart from my health, why would I stay up? If I don’t agree with it, would I work so that I would agree with it someday? But of course that’s counterintuitive. You know, I’m just trying to feel my way into it. Cause for example, I really admire filmmakers like Rox Lee.
TC: The animator?
MA: Yeah animator and short filmmaker. He’s already old, you know, but he still manages to resist those kinds of films. He’s still able to do these small films until now and however the medium changes, he’s still able to animate or make small films that don’t really care about the bigger or the ladderized system of filmmaking or what is a ‘legit’ film, you know. No care for that. That’s really unbearable. Because especially since I studied film, the expectation is that you do film for the rest of your life, or you develop a career out of that, but how do I not? So that’s a question for me.
TC: It’s like a dichotomy because it’s like you want to do something personal which in itself shouldn’t be defined by these kinds of things but of course, what does it mean then to be a filmmaker? Cause you almost have to mediate this kind of definition…
MA: I think filmmaking or art in the general sense is supposed to be a part of your life process. Cause you don’t just say, “I’m just an artist, I’m just an artist”… you gotta do other things to enrich that, right? So maybe that’s where I’m standing right now, let’s see where it takes me.
TC: I hope I can interview you in the future.
MA: Maybe, maybe. It’s really changing for me right now, so it’s an interesting time to ask me questions. I’m not going to be like this soon. It’s going to be interesting.
TC: I’m going to ask you two more questions: After having gone through this, what’s something you would tell yourself before you went to UP? You as a filmmaker, if it’s advice or if it’s something you want to tell your younger self. Imagine yourself, you’re in Baguio, the day you leave.
MA: Oh no…I don’t know. The reflex response would be don’t study film. Walk out of that, study something else. I really think film or arts in general, you know, could be studied formally, but something of that spirit is lost when you go totally into the academy or when you submit yourself to that. But you know it’s fine now.
TC: Haha, that doesn’t sound so convincing!
MA: Yeah, that’s not me. Haha. Cause I’m also really torn, cause I was imagining if I studied something else, well maybe I’d have a more comfortable life right now or a better job or something.
TC: Very real.
MA: Yeah, very real, but if I didn’t study this, I wouldn’t realize that so you know, it’s a time machine. I mean, so just keep that spirit of play, I mean if I were to say that to myself. Because before we’d just shoot and upload to youtube. That’s really fun and you also really enjoy it.
TC: Not to lose that.
MA: Of course when you go back to this now, it’s kind of cringy. But it’s an important spirit not to lose and it’s admirable if you grow up and you still have that spirit of play and trying out things you’re not familiar with, the processes you’re not familiar with. It’s really rare, cause when people, or at least friends when they get their footing, those styles everyone wants, maybe it’s going to be refreshed later, maybe we have
to keep learning or keep trying. Even to know success, you might know “success”, whatever that means, but it’s not always in the trajectory that the market wants.
MA: Yes, well…cause by then, everyone would have been big filmmakers. These small filmmakers who really touch your lives or your process, they’re the ones that really kept that spirit. So, yeah, it’s admirable.
TC: Last formal question, one thing we’re asking everybody is what’s your favorite snack?
MA: My favorite snack? Anything?
TC: Yes it can be anything.
MA: I really like potato chips. Well like…what’s the trashiest thing in the world…potato chips.
TC: Haha, do you have a favorite kind of potato chips?
MA: The unflavored ones. The salted ones, you know? Like Lays or something else that’s not salted. What else…with Filipino foods, mga street food, mga turon isaw, mga ganon (street foods, sweet fried banana, things like that). But yeah mostly junk food.
TC: I love that, so just plain Lays and turon. It says a lot about you.
MA: Yeah, I just had one yesterday and was like, oh I like this.