Brillante and Raymund: Keeping it Real
Video sources linked here: Kinatay footage, Ma’ Rosa footage, Alpha, the Right to Kill footage, Imago
“ –– There is a problem, there is a situation”, he said, brows furrowed, hands gesturing in the air. He leans in close, gravely addressing the issue at hand. He continues, “ –– and as a person and as a filmmaker we are acknowledging that”. Eagerly, his mentee later adds, “we turn the problems in an acceptable way so that the audience can see it in a proper manner”. Sitting across them, I scribbled away frantically, trying to get at every word.
It was there, in the confines of the Objectifs Centre for Photography and Film, that I found myself opposite these two extraordinary individuals, whose films have been marked as some of the most unique and significant works coming out of the Philippines today. Before me, was none other than Filipino director Brillante Mendoza, and Raymund Ribay Gutierrez, his protege.
Over the last decade, Mendoza has proven himself to be one of the most prolific and exhilarating Directors working today. To describe his career as “illustrious” would be an understatement. In 2005, he debuted with The Masseur, which won a Golden Leopard at the Locarno International Film Festival. Mendoza has since gone on to bag top honours at some of the most prestigious film festivals across the world –– including the likes of Cannes, Berlin and Venice. In 2009, he received the Best Director Award at Cannes for his film Kinatay, becoming the only Southeast Asian filmmaker to do so till date.
With his latest entry, Alpha, the Right to Kill, Mendoza takes a brutal examination of the drug war in the Philippines and the corrupt police officers who perpetrate the chaos.
Gutierrez is steadily following in Mendoza’s wake. His two short films Imago (2016) and Judgement (2018) were nominated for the short film Palme d’Or at Cannes on two separate occasions. On top of that, his films have travelled all across the globe, winning top awards from Toronto to Stockholm. Quite the resume for someone who’s only 25 years old.
In the same vein as Mendoza’s crime thriller, Gutierrez’s newest short film, Judgement, examines the bureaucratic process of filing a domestic violence case in the Philippines.
Both of them have a long standing history of investigating social issues in the Philippines in the quest for social justice, and the brutal realism in which their subject matters are depicted have made their voices heard the world over.
With both their films being screened at the 29th edition of the Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF), I decided to sit down with the duo to better understand their long standing partnership, and their appreciation for the medium.
The interview with Brillante Mendoza and Raymund Gutierrez is appended below:
Charlie: What are your newest films about?
Brillante: “Alpha” is actually taken from the TV series that I did that was acquired by Netflix called “Amo”. It’s the movie version of that series. The film is about a corrupt police officer who had a dealing with a young man about illegal drugs.
Raymund: “Judgement” is about domestic violence in the Philippines and is inspired by true events and actual incidents.
C: Brillante, in a lot of your works, there is an emphasis on capturing realism, why is that?
Brillante: It’s not only about realism. I think more than the realism, are the social issues and the social relevance of the kind of stories we are choosing and the kind of stories we are interested in turning into a film or a narrative. I think that’s where everything comes from. We are interested in social issues and we would like to portray them in a very realistic way, almost like a documentary, so that it becomes not only realistic but truthful. Being truthful not only in the portrayal of the characters but also the story. It becomes authentic and at the same time it becomes very believable to the audience. The reason being so that the audience can relate it to reality, and what is actually happening. They can associate with the stories, and they can associate with the characters, and the film becomes more effective.
C: You mention documentaries – what do you think is the difference between capturing reality through a documentary, and portraying reality through a fictional narrative?
Brillante: Well, basically, when doing a fictional film, but presenting it in a documentary-like manner, it makes the film very realistic and truthful. Making a documentary doesn’t have any structured narrative. In a documentary, you are just capturing an actual situation happening right in front of you. You are only dependent on what the subject matter is going to give you. You don’t have a structured script or a structured narrative unlike when you’re doing fiction, where everything is very structured. You know where the story will end. You know the exact direction where the story is going.
Raymund: There’s a very thin line between those two. In narrative storytelling, we are in control of the situation. But in a documentary, the character is most likely in control of the situation, that’s how I differentiate the two.
C: Brillante, you’re no stranger to documentary filmmaking, so do you think there is anything a documentary can capture that a fictional narrative can’t?
Brillante: Of course. Documentaries are a totally different medium and a different form of art as compared to fictional narratives. I think fiction done in a very documentary-like way has its own merits, whereas a documentary is just a plain documentary. But both are, for me, very interesting. Like what he [Raymund] said a while ago, there’s a thin line, and it’s very close to a documentary, and I think that’s the strength somehow, of the filmmaking style we are doing.
C: You mentioned how both of you seek to explore social issues, especially those prominent in the Philippines, so as filmmakers, is there a greater responsibility for self-discovery and exploration, or is there a greater responsibility to the people?
Brillante: I think personally, you cannot really separate the two. I think the reason why we are doing these types of stories and these types of films is because we want to make a difference, not only in our filmmaking style, but also through the choice of stories we are doing, because there is a problem, there is a situation, and as a person and as a filmmaker we are acknowledging that. It has an affect on us as well, and as much as we want to have an effect on our audience and on the people, it has to come from us first, from the filmmaker, before we can make changes or have an affect on the audience.
Raymund: In a way, the social problems in the Philippines, we turn the problems in an acceptable way so that the audience can see it in a proper manner. Because here, in the Philippines, a lot of films are about escapism, about fantasy, they’re about escaping from the problems. In our way of telling stories, it’s about showing the problems and making it into an art form, so that the audience can see them from a perspective without bias, where there is a plain equality between the problem and the solution.
C: In your previous films and interviews, you have both emphasised the importance of being honest to oneself and one’s films, but do you think that there is such a thing as dishonest filmmaking?
Brillante: I think so. Because this is where pretentiousness comes in. There are films that would pretend to be about a certain subject matter but in fact, the intention is actually hidden. Say for instance, there are certain films that are being promoted, like an independent film talking about social issues, when in fact, they are just [being made] for the money or for commercial reasons. And sometimes it’s very tricky because the audience doesn’t know the difference, but unfortunately, there are situations where films are still presented in this manner.
Raymund: It’s about the objective before you make a film. Are you going to make a film that’s going to make money, or are you going to make a film that’s going to tell a story? It’s also about honesty coming from good research. If your story is not well researched, then most probably there will be a lack of ideas, and a lack of information to tell, and that will lead to dishonest filmmaking.
C: Why do you think there are still filmmakers who choose to be dishonest or tell dishonest stories, and what do you think keeps you apart from them?
Brillante: I think it’s a matter of realising it from your own perspective, it’s a matter of being true to yourself. I think it has to be clear from the very start, like what he [Raymund] said a while ago, your objective: why you are making a film? For some, the objective is not clear, because they want to tell a story but at the same time, they want to explore some other things other than telling truthful stories. You cannot have your cake and eat it too. You cannot have two agendas at the same time. It has to be very clear to the filmmaker from the very start. So if it is not clear in your heart, why you want to do such stories, or why you’re making such films, you’re already starting off on the wrong foot.
Raymund: Yeah, and also, I think first and foremost before you make films, you must know what kind of films you’re going to make. Are you going to make a realistic film on social issues, or are you just making social issue films from your own perspective? That’s how we differentiate from other storytelling aesthetics and filmmakers.
C: Authenticity is a huge part of both of your films, but do you think there is a limit to how authentic a fictional narrative can be?
Brillante: Yes, of course. At the end of the day, we are still making films, we are still doing a film, so there should be a limitation on what percent the film is authentic. I don’t think there should be 100% authenticity, as it doesn’t exist, because at the end of the day, you have your camera, and you have your actors. You have a responsibility as well, you know, as a filmmaker. It’s not just about yourself, it’s not just about your art. There’s a responsibility to a certain sector of society.
Raymund: And also, you should tell your story in a simple language. To go beyond that, you could misinterpret lots of things. Since you are talking about social issues, I think you have to address your voice in a simple manner, in a way many people would understand. In a way–
Brillante: –that would not be offensive–
Raymund: –yes, that would not be offensive.
Brillante: You don’t have to be too explicit about your intent. A complex situation can be told in a simple way, in a simple manner.
C: With your newest short film Judgment, what was the creative process like, developing the story with Brillante?
Raymund: First and foremost, I suggest a topic idea for what film should be made about. It’s about violence, first of all. What kind of violence? Is it domestic violence? Violence on the streets? So we identify the topic idea, and then we research about the topic event. After identifying the topic, we structure the research. We interview lots of people pertaining to that topic event. We are gathering facts that we are going to make it into a script. That’s our basis. The basis of writing a script is from our facts, also from the characters – how we develop the characters is from the gathered information from the real people. So we are not actually telling a story from one person only. And after the script, we talked about it, we structured it the way it’s going to be shot. We have another member, Armando Lao. He’s also a part of our collaborative filmmaking. We consult in a creative manner on how to structure the film, especially my films, because I’m a newcomer. He’s also a part of the filmmaking process up until the post-production. There’s not really a difference between the way we make films and other people. It’s just that we are hands on in different stages. We maintain, first and foremost, the voice. We should never forget that.
C: I’m hearing a lot about collecting facts and information, so Brillante, for “Alpha”, how did you go about collecting these facts pertaining to the War on Drugs?
Brillante: Well, of course, you gather it from the resource person, and for me, gathering information from different people is not that hard anymore because this is how I started making films, even way, way back. I must say that, up to the point of looking for people from the underground, meaning that people who are not usually exposed to the public, but people who can tell us information. Not information on the drugs per se, but what is actually happening inside, underground. It’s more about the information, so that we can be more truthful in our storytelling.
C: Raymund, you are currently working on your first feature film. How is the process different from the short films you’ve done in the past? Are there any new challenges?
Raymund: The process continues when making a feature. The voice from your short is different from the voice in the feature one. My short [“Judgement”] showcases the bureaucratic process only, but in the feature one, we are more focused on the character experiencing that kind of situation, that’s why it is long. We are establishing character here, while in the short film, we have just established the process.
Brillante: It is a matter of being clear with a voice. A short has a different voice because you focus on a certain character or a certain issue. When you do a feature, because it’s much longer, you cannot just focus on one issue alone. It has to be lengthy, and at the same time, because there is a lot of information regarding the characters, regarding the issues you want to tell, somehow the voice differs from the short. It becomes different because you are not just focusing on the character, but more on the bigger issue like the institution. Say for instance, in the short [“Judgement”], it’s about domestic violence, but for the feature length film, it’s not just about domestic violence, it’s about the justice system, and dealing with this kind of situation.
Raymund: Sometimes after watching a feature length film, you may think that, “this film should’ve been done as a short film”, and sometimes when you’re watching a short film, you think “this film should’ve been done as a feature film”. We tend to avoid that by focusing on the issue itself.
C: Do you still think there is something a short film can capture that a feature length film cannot, in spite of the shorter runtime?
Raymund: As you mentioned earlier, I cannot really compare both of the platforms, it’s like comparing a fictional narrative to a documentary. Short films are a different world. I really cannot compare my short films to my feature one because my voice in the short film is about the process. In that kind of process, as much as possible, I want to capture the process part only, so in my feature I want to capture the equality of both characters. In that sense, I’m really focused on what I want to see in a short film, and what I want to see in my feature ones, that’s why I don’t really regret anything that I’ve shot in my shorts. Unlike other films – you have this long film, you have these bits and bits of issues, and in return, it’s like spaghetti (laughs). Lots of sauce, lots of ingredients, but you really don’t know what’s the point. What’s the inner core of the film? It’s just a lot of issues but no point.
C: When it comes to engaging and entertaining an audience, and sending a message about social issues, is there one that you prioritise over the other?
Brillante: Yes, of course, and I think that’s the whole idea of being clear with your objective of what you want to say in your film. I personally do not have anything against doing films about entertainment or entertaining people. As a filmmaker, your objective should be clear. If you want to entertain people, there’s a way of entertaining people, but I don’t think you can mix the two. In as much as film is first and foremost for entertainment, but what we are doing is not to just entertain, but to prioritise the information, prioritise the storytelling, prioritise the critical thinking for our audience. That’s what we want, and that’s what I want when our audience is watching our films. I cannot expect the mainstream audience to easily embrace or like my films. Not everyone would like to share whatever I want to share, and I’m ready for that. I think it’s a matter of defining which side you’re on, and there is no bad or good side.
Raymund: Also, here’s the situation now –– you cannot really have the best of both worlds. You must accept that if you want to entertain, there’s also a percentage of your film that will be lacking, and you must accept that. You cannot entertain 100%, you cannot give information 100%. It will always be 30% or 5%. If you’re a mainstream filmmaker, if you’re going to make a mainstream film, most probably, it will be for entertainment. Maybe 80% of the film will be entertainment, but the other 20% will also have irrelevant information. In our films, we don’t really use the word “entertain”. We want to inform cinematically. That’s how we engage the viewers. Because when you say “entertain”, it’s like you’re selling the film to the audience. It’s like giving benefits to the audience. Especially in the Philippines now, lots of people are fond of mainstream films. There’s no problem with that, but you should focus on what you want to do.
C: What do you hope to achieve with your newest films? What is the message you want to send?
Brillante: Basically, for “Alpha”, it is about corruption in the police institution, and corruption is happening not just in the Philippines, but also all across the world. It is a matter of degrees, because now the Filipino government is very controversial in terms of how they manage illegal drugs. What I want my audience to know about the situation in the Philippines, is that this is actually happening. I want them to think critically. There are people in the Police institution – there are policemen doing their job well, but there are also policemen not doing their job the way they should be doing it, just like any other profession. It’s not just among institutions. As long as there are people who are doing something that shouldn’t be done, and it reflects in the institution they represent, then no matter what the government, or even the president would like to do, it cannot be achieved.
Raymund: There is a problem, not just in the Philippines, but in the whole world, concerning domestic violence. This is a problem that should be addressed by the audience. My contribution is just to tell the story, I really don’t know what would they will feel about it. What I did was just to capture the reality, and let them interpret what they see.
C: Do you think filmmakers are born, or are they made?
Brillante: That’s a very difficult question to answer. I never wanted to become a filmmaker, because I worked in productions, and I could see and I could feel from just looking at the Director that it’s hard work. When I did my first feature [“The Masseur”], a lot of things changed, that’s when I decided to make more films. I really don’t know if filmmakers are born or if they are made, but Raymund is living proof that he’s not a born filmmaker (laughs)! He was not even into film, he didn’t even know me when he enrolled in my workshop!
Raymund: I think it’s a bit of both, because you see, there’s really nothing perfect in our lives. If say for instance you are born a filmmaker, maybe 70% you are born as a filmmaker. 70% is not enough to pursue that line of work. You should combine it with hard work so that you can achieve your goal. It’s a combination of the two. You should also be born and be trained as a filmmaker.
C: Brillante, as someone who started his pursuit of filmmaking later into his career, what would you say to young aspiring filmmakers, and Raymund, as a newcomer and young filmmaker yourself, what would you say to fellow young aspiring filmmakers?
Brillante: Well, I think filmmaking is 70% hard work and 30% creativity, so for young filmmakers, you really have to work your dreams, follow your dreams to become good, and if you’re good it will show, but you have to work hard. Really, working hard isn’t about finding the right producers, but telling the right stories.
Raymund: About working the dream, if some day you’ve got this opportunity –– you should grasp all your opportunities –– and give your best in doing so. If you got this opportunity, you should think about it, and think about it a hundred times, of what you should be doing, of what’s the next step. After that, you should keep in mind that filmmaking is very uncertain. That’s why I realised that filmmaking is a commitment. It’s a commitment that you should make from the start to finish and for the rest of your life. You should accept all the flaws in your filmmaking, you should accept all the bad, and the good things. Because the way we make films is how we see life, we just interpret it [life] in the footage.