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The Process of Documenting Movement

An Interview with Joanne Cesario on the Role of Cinema in Activism Work

Anna Luy Tan

Alex Wen

Anna Luy Tan: Could you talk more about [Uwian Na] and what it meant for you?

Joanne Cesario: So that short film, it's actually my first short film, it was for my undergraduate thesis film at the University of the Philippines (UP). The initial idea of it comes from a very personal place. When I was in fourth grade, my father left home, and I was the only one who saw him leave, because everyone else was away during that morning. So I was sleeping, and then I heard some noise. And then I woke up, and I saw him packing his bags. I actually think I tried to help him pack his bags, even though I was, I was really...I think I was understanding what was happening, but then I really couldn't communicate. And I really couldn't ask him what he was doing. So it stuck with me for a long time. I don't think I was really able to process it. So when I was in the university when I was studying, I think that was a time in my life when I was just starting to process some of my issues from when I was younger.

ALT: I was wondering about the missing character in the film. Is that element drawing from your personal story?

JC: In the film, the young girl was missing her father. The father went to do field work because the father was a botanist. So the father went to do field work, and he never returned. So that's the main gist. My father is a landscape designer, so he mostly works with plants. That's my personal connection with it. But then the reference for the character of the father is a Filipino botanist named Leonard Co. And Leonard Co was one of the very few ethnobotanists in the Philippines who really worked with communities. One of his main projects was to name and to look for and to really discover medicinal plants in the mountains. So he wanted to help poor or marginalized communities to be able to have access to medicinal plants, and for them to be able to understand what plants they could use and what plants they were dealing with just so they were safe and that it wouldn't cause any harm to their health. He was one of the ethnobotanists who were very much immersed in marginalized communities. 

And in 2010, he was shot dead. He was killed by the military, because he was accused of being a member of the New People's Army. At the time of his research, I think he was in Mindanao. He had two companions with him who were both farmers, and the three of them were in a protected area. So they had a permit that they were going to research about the flora in the area. But then the military accused them of being members of the New People's Army. So they were shot dead, the three of them.

ALT: What year did that take place?

JC: This was in 2010. And the reason why I started being familiar with Leonard Co was because in 2015, I joined a mountaineering organization in our university and Leonard Co was a member of that organization. I never had the chance to meet him because he died in 2010, but the members have kept this legacy alive. So yeah, I was familiar with him through that. 

ALT: Was the film meant to carry a political statement? What was your intention behind the film?

JC: I definitely intended for it to be a softer approach. It's not overtly political. The reason behind it was because I was melding the person part with the political context. I just don't want to do it half-ass if it were going to be purely political. I wanted my intentions to be pure as well. If I wanted to do something overtly political, I would have wanted to spend really so much time doing it and being immersed in it and not doing it for my own benefit. That's what I believe in.

ALT: What do you see as filmmaking’s role in the things that you believe in, and what drew you to filmmaking specifically as a medium?

JC: I'm very happy to be talking about this now, because so much has changed for me in the past year. I think I'm starting to understand this better, because—to be honest—when I entered the University of the Philippines, I was actually taking up another course, I was studying research, but then I just really didn't know what I wanted to do. I kind of just knew that I wanted to enter UP and just figure things out along the way. But then what happened for me was that I ended up in my first month joining Anakbayan. What came first for me was the political awakening, and just really trying to understand what I could contribute to make things better, and contribute to the entire movement. I didn't really know what to pursue. But then a year into my studies, I kind of felt like I wanted to go in a different direction. Initially, I wanted to study creative writing, or anthropology, but then I had the chance to talk to some older friends through my sister—my sister is a photographer, and she was also an activist at UP in the past. They told me that film is a lot more comprehensive, and I could utilize my love for writing and also try to understand and also put it in a bigger framework and all of that. I also wanted to take photos, so I figured maybe I could try shifting to film. 

So I changed course and I shifted to film, and to be completely honest, while I was studying film in my first few years, I wasn't really sure that I wanted to do it because I was a lot more engrossed with my political involvement. So I was a lot more active in Anakbayan and in organizing because I was primarily, like a youth organizer in my first few years in the university, so I was a lot more engrossed with that. But then I think during my last year in UP, I took a break from my political involvement and that's when I started going into film. And I think really for the past few years, I felt I really wasn't able to fully integrate activism and with the entire political intent. But now I'm starting to understand how big of a role filmmaking can play in shifting perspectives, and in exposing stories and issues, and I think I'm only starting to really learn and to see my mistakes and to see my loopholes, and to see my shortcomings right now, because I am now involved in a labor organization here in the Philippines (KMU).

ALT: I have experienced very similar tensions between being an activist and making films in general. Could you talk more about what the film industry is like in the Philippines? 

JC: It's a big thing because a lot of studios are investing so much money, and there are plenty of mainstream studios here in the Philippines who are constantly churning out works and content. But there's also the independent landscape where people mostly get grants from film festivals, both local and from festivals abroad. Even the independent scene is a big scene, because a lot of local filmmakers are able to get grants and all of that. 

But then in general, I would have to make a very blunt statement and say that it is an exploitative industry, it really is, because working conditions are unjust basically, because sometimes [you] have to shoot for 30 hours, and you’re only paid for one day. In the Philippines, unions aren't really practiced. Some companies disallow unions, even if it's a constitutional right, so we have no practice of unionizing. So filmmakers here basically represent themselves and there's no union to protect them. I don't think we're capable of it; because even though so much money is going into the film industry, it's still not established, because the Philippines has no industry basically—it’s not an industrialized country. There aren't any labor laws that protect media workers and filmmakers. There's no set standard on how much you should receive for a day of work or specifically for your specialization or your field. So it's not systematized or organized. The ironic thing is that so much money is being invested.

ALT: What was the labor organization that you were saying that you just joined?

JC:  It's the May 1 Movement or Kilusang Mayo Uno. It's a labor center that campaigns for workers rights, in labor issues, labor campaigns, all of that. And through KMU, we have local unions in different companies. So what we push for is genuine and militant unionism, because other unions here in the country are company enforced. The company puts the union in place. And then basically, the union doesn't really represent the workers because it's the company who put it there in the first place. So what they're trying to push for is genuine and militant unionism. And I only say militant because we're willing to fight for what's right and fight for what's just.

I think also, what changed in me is that since I already have experience in filmmaking and creating my own films, I am starting to understand how film can really be utilized to promote people's struggles. And I think in the past, I didn't have the benefit of understanding that because I wasn't practicing filmmaking in the past. So maybe right now I'm in a place where I could integrate those things because I've gained enough experience—although very little experience then since we're still young. But then there's, there's more experienced relatively and more knowledge with these things.

ALT: You describe this transformation happening—where you feel like you were learning from the shortcomings in your film practice when trying to make political films. What kind of things do you want to apply to your next film when trying to tackle these issues?

JC: I think for my past two short films, I don't regret anything. And I'm really proud of them, because it's part of me, and it's part of my process. But I think now I want to focus more on peoples’ stories and really just being able to somehow contribute to capturing the struggles here in the Philippines. In my past two films, a lot of them were also heavily injected with my personal history, which I don't really see as wrong, but then I think it's a chapter in my life that I have closed. I could move forward with focusing more on other people, and I think also not just in content, but also in forms. In the content of my films, and in the form of my films, I'm starting to see now that my works are a bit harder to understand for, say, the majority of the masses. I don't think it caters to them specifically.

ALT: Who do you think your intended audience is?

JC: The problem in the past was, in my first two films, I don't think I was really thinking about that. Maybe I was too preoccupied with one thing, to just create the work, and wasn't really thinking about where it would end, and how it would be received. I was just very deep into the creative process. Because I really wanted to learn more about production and everything. So I think I was super focused with that, with my first two films, I wanted to learn as much as I can and to try to build confidence in myself that I could create films because maybe I also came from like, somewhat an insecure place, because I wasn't practicing in my first few years in film school.

ALT: You are really an inspiration to me, I really want to say that right off the bat. For people interested in filmmaking, who might not yet have the confidence, do you have any advice?

JC: Well, first of all, I think what has helped me was being involved in my friend's works. I had a community of filmmaker friends who were also just starting out and just figuring out what they wanted to do, because we were all in film school together. So it really helped me, especially because we were all financially strapped, so we had to share cameras, and we had to help each other out for free and all of that. Anything done collectively, is's worthwhile and it helps everyone out. So it really helps to have a community and to have a collective.

ALT: How does the practice of filmmaking work into your life right now?

JC: Right now, I'm not a full-time filmmaker. I have a part-time job assisting an artist who lives in New York. So part-time work and then part-time with MKU. I think my days are really split in half. In the Philippines, we all have to take on different jobs to be able to make films. I think you have to be really privileged here to be a full-time filmmaker, or a full-time artist. All of my friends work either freelance or they have part-time jobs, or they have full-time jobs. So nobody's really working full-time on their own films. I think it's only possible if you get to maybe a certain stage.

ALT:  I often talk about this idea with my other filmmaking friends: Do you see the process of filmmaking, and the crew that you assemble, as potentially a model of community-building or collective creation in a political sense? That the film set, the way that the film crew relates to one another, can be a site for revolutionary practices?

JC: That's actually a really, really nice concept. And I just remembered, if you're familiar with Third Cinema, Third Cinema filmmakers from Latin America were talking about how a film crew should be assembled like a military unit, and how it should be a very political act. In my case, I think I wasn't very much aware. 

But then for both of my films, I think what's interesting is that it's manifested differently for the first film and for the second film. For the first film, I felt like everyone was really contributing to the entire idea and everyone was just helping each other out. We were all brainstorming and we were just all there for each other for my first film in the sense that it was a very collaborative work. But then I think what suffered in the first work was the process because it was self-funded. So I had to get funding from my parents and from myself, so we didn't really have too much money. So we ended up shooting for just two to three days. And because of that, we had to shoot for longer hours. I really felt bad that we had to shoot for long hours, because I didn't want to advocate for that. I wanted to have conducive working hours. I really wanted to try to work shorter and be mindful of that. But then I wasn't able to afford it. So after the shoot, I was just crying and crying because I felt really bad that we had to shoot longer than expected. So I think that's what I wanted to improve on. 

And then, with my second film, we had a grant from a local film festival. So I think we had a little more room, but then it also wasn't very big, it wasn't enough to shoulder the cost of the entire production, but then we were able to keep the hours to like, maximum of 16 hours, because that's what filmmakers are pushing for here, that same shoots shouldn't exceed 16 hours. So we were able to do that. Some days were a lot shorter, like half-day or ten hours so I'm very happy that we were able to do it. In terms of the vision, I think I had a clear-cut vision for the second film. So I'm not sure if I was very collaborative with that one. Or if I were a bit hard-headed in the second film. So I think that's what's happened. I wasn't really very conscious about creating the team and the entire atmosphere in the conditions, but then I think I know it by heart because of everything that I believe in. But there's just some economic factors that keep us from really being able to do it to the fullest.

ALT: You were mentioning Third Cinema as being a good example of cinema that tries to incorporate the political. Do you have any other film influences or movies that you were drawing from when you were making your films or films that still inspire your work today? 

JC: Well I'm a huge fan of Asian cinema particularly: Taiwanese cinema and Thai cinema. So some of the filmmakers I like are Tsai Ming Liang and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. I was able to watch a film by Tsai Ming Liang when I was in my first year in university. So there was a free screening of Taiwanese films in our film theater, and I just went without really knowing who he was, but then I ended up crying throughout the film.

ALT: Which film was it?

JC: The title of the film is Vive L'amour. So I saw that in the university, and yeah, ever since I started following his work. I really love the sensitivity in both of their works, and also maybe because we're queer filmmakers, so I really connect to that as well and appreciate what they are doing. When I was in university, I was a very big follower of Soviet cinema and Soviet art in general and how the USSR was transforming their culture during the time of socialist Russia.

ALT: What in particular, did you admire about that cultural transformation? Or I guess, artistic movement?

JC: First of all, I really admired how Vladimir Lenin was talking about how film is the most advanced, out of all of the arts. That's when they were starting to realize how crucial filmmaking is, but I think I was just understanding it in theory, because I wasn't really shooting yet at that time, but it stuck with influential film has been even during the time of socialist Russia, that was almost 100 years ago. So for film to be considered advanced at that time. It definitely contributed a lot to them for Lenin to be able to say that film is the most advanced, aside from it being—of course—the most technologically advanced. Its capacity to integrate other art forms is what makes it advanced. That's when I learned that there's so much to utilize in filmmaking and there's so much to incorporate and to learn. And well, of course, I appreciate the Soviet montage and how they came up with it with the thesis plus antithesis equals synthesis, I tried to do it with my films as well, and just basically their entire notion of film and film form.

ALT: Is there anything else that's important to you that you wish to share with our readers?

JC: Since I'm also learning so much right now, I also just want, I guess, to encourage everybody to be a lot more involved. I think we all could really help each other out if we think collectively and if we start to try to learn as much as we can, and try to understand things, from different points of view. I think I'm just learning so much right. Since political repression least in the Philippines, the Duterte regime isn't even really trying to hide it anymore. It's in plain sight. Everybody's vulnerable to attacks. So there's really no other time to be organized, and to be part of different organizations, because we're really stronger if there's more of us?

ALT: Under the Duterte regime, do you find that it presents obstacles for filmmaking?

JC: Definitely, especially if you want to make sense and expose the struggles of the people. Being part of this struggle, it poses a great danger. You can't really make films about the people's struggle if you're not immersed in it, or if you're not practicing it. It would entail a lot of time and it does entail physical presence in the different communities that you're part of, and that in itself, poses a great deal of danger because you're a lot more exposed to different things. Basically just because you have to be physically present and you have to offer a big chunk of your time.

ALT: Are there restrictions on the types of films that you can make?

JC: Not really, but then I think when it comes to distribution, that's when you might have a hard time because not everyone is willing to provide a platform for films that are a lot more radical, and overtly political. I'm not sure if you would even be able to get funding for films that are overtly political. 

ALT: Is the rest of the indie filmmaking scene in the Philippines inclined towards making radical films? Or does it tend to shy away from those types of things?

JC: I think people who are going to make radical films are people who are involved in the movement in the first place. Radical films will be made by filmmakers who are also activists. Of course, they're a lot more immersed in the struggle and they are part of the struggle. Other filmmakers will make political films also. But then it would differ from films by those who are directly involved in the movement. Because, of course, if you're a filmmaker, I think the mindset is to get the film done. So you will allot a certain amount of time to do something, but then the goal is to finish the film. But then activists have a larger goal, it extends beyond being able to make the film but it extends to? How do you make the film, who tells the story? Where do you show the film? Who is the target audience? Who should understand the film? Who should benefit from the film? So there's so much to consider. So I think there's really a big difference with that. All films are political. No? Everything is political, but then it differs with what politics you are trying to bring.

ALT: What kind of messages do you hope your films share with your audience? 

JC: For my past two films I want people to be able to surrender to the experience and not really try to make sense of it. A lot has changed for me now. For the next films that I will be doing, I wanted it to shift to a more radical and a more overtly political cinema. But then for my past two films, I really wanted people to be able to surrender to the experience, and to not always get pleasure from trying to understand and trying to dissect, and just wanted it to be visceral. And I guess to shake things up, and to give people a different perspective in how we look at things and how we approach things. And yeah, I guess maybe just the ability to also surrender to that experience. I was trying to go for that, because I also, I think I was coming from a place where all of the films that I was seeing here in the Philippines were narrative films with clear stories. I really just wanted to explore something else and to try to make films that were also process-based and not very rigid with the output. Go for that in the past two films, but also, yeah, really just wanting to make people feel and to rethink and to question, things that they believe in.

ALT: I also wanted to ask if you had any upcoming projects you are working on.

JC: Last year I was really bent and doing a short film about the concept of debt. I just wanted to explore it historically, what's our country's relationship with debt? There's a Filipino concept. It's called Utang na Loob. So it's basically like owing someone something. It's something that's in our collective consciousness. If someone does something for you, you automatically owe something to them. And it extends way beyond practical things. Sometimes even if you don't want to do something, you have to do it because you owe them something. So I just wanted to explore all of those ideas and connect it to our family's experience with debt also, because for two decades, my mom had to pay so much loans, and it was really a heavy burden for her but then for all of us, and last year, we were able to resolve it. I guess I was also processing our personal relationship with that. So it's something I wanted to do last year. But right now, I don't know, I think I changed my mind.

ALT: This is just kind of almost a side note, but I wanted to ask you about the water theme in your first film Uwian Na. I watched it twice but was still wondering about the wet socks. 

JC: It's not a myth that exists, but here in the Philippines, you have plenty of myths about, “Oh, you do this and this will happen or you don't do this or this will happen.” I wanted to make up my own myth, but then with the elements that I thought were important. I am actually very interested in your film because both of those short films of mine are also heavily influenced by environmental issues: this relationship of the body with the environment and how damage is done to each other by each other...just the impact on how the natural world resembles the human body and how the human body resembles the natural world. For the first film, I was thinking of what elements were required to make a plant grow so you needed water and sunlight. I wanted to incorporate a made up myth that had something to do with the feet and with the ground. So I thought of wet socks as like watering your roots, watering your feet. Just something symbolic for just letting yourself grow and grow up because of everything that happened to the young girl at the very early age, just having to nurture herself when nobody else, no adult was around to look after her. 

ALT:  I feel very honored that we got to have this conversation, because this is exactly the kind of thing that I love to just talk forever about. I'm glad TJ [Collanto] set this up.

JC: Thank you also for holding space. It really means a lot to me.