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Cinemalaya 2023: A year of firsts—and very personal narratives

By Susan Claire Agbayani Published Aug 13, 2023 7:28 pm

In the 2022 edition of the Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival, Ma-an Asuncion Dagnalan’s film The Blue Room was given a Special Jury Award, as well as a host of other awards (direction, supporting actor, production design, and cinematography). The film is about “privileged teeners from indie rock band Rebel Rebel who get arrested for drug possession.” But what is it really about? It is about corruption in the police force, police brutality, power, and the class divide.

Interestingly, in this year’s Cinemalaya, two films delve into drugs anew. Kevin Mayuga’s When This is All Over takes us on a “trip” via the life of a charming peddler (Juan Karlos, who is also in Blue Room) of party “poppers,” as the country is on the verge of the long pandemic and lockdown. It also tackles how members of the privileged class get away with everything, and how the members of the working class bear the brunt of punishment, when push comes to shove. 

Aside from strong and personal narratives, Cinemalaya 2023 was also filled with firsts. Here are the standout films from the latest edition of the local movie fest.

Cinemalaya’s first docu in the full-length category: She Andes’ Maria 

Cinemalaya has been around for 19 years, and yet, it's the first time that a documentary film is competing in the full-length section of the festival. 

“I only have the highest respect for She Andes and how she managed to pull off making the documentary film Maria,” documentary director Ditsi Carolino (Bunso and Lupang Hinarang) wrote in a post on social media.

Andes’ Maria introduces us to three Marias: Maria and Mary Ann, who both lost sons through the previous administration’s relentless and cruel war on drugs; and Maria Leonor—former Vice President Leni Robredo. It updates us on what has happened to them and their cases in the last three years or so when then President Rodrigo Duterte’s term was about to end, literally leaving carcasses in its wake.

“How do you make a feature-length film about a dark story, on extrajudicial killings—and say something new—after so many current affairs docus have been made on EJKs? To let the audience enter that hellish underworld of blood and gore, skeletons and weeping women, and still come out of the cinema with great empathy and hope? Para akong lumubog sa madilim na mundo ng kamatayan pero umahon na umaasa at lumalaban pa rin,” Carolino said. 

“Lalo akong namangha dahil 'di naman sila kathang-isip, hindi scripted, hindi blocked. As real as it gets. ‘Yan ang lakas ng dokyu,” Carolino remarked. 

Justin Celestino’s Ang Duyan ng Magiting

In Dustin Celestino’s Ang Duyan ng Magiting, two young boys who are barely out of their teens are unjustly detained (just like the kids in Blue Room), and are accused of planting a bomb in a Catholic Church. In a scene at the jail cell, a rich boy (Miggy Jimenez) and a poor boy (Dylan Ray Talon) argue as to their next steps: admit that they were in the church to meet the coordinator who was bringing them to their place of “immersion,” or keep mum about their initial plans. 

Cinemalaya said that Duyan…. “is a collection of scenes among the protagonists, antagonists, and victims of war, terrorism, and politics in the Philippines.” 

In his director’s statement, Celestino wrote: “Ang Duyan ng Magiting is a film about grief. It is a contemplation and a meditation on the agony of an entire nation. The film grieves for the courageous men and women who have suffered in the name of nation and nationalism.”

He added, “Our film is a cautionary tale. It is a reminder that all this pain and anger we feel comes from a sincere, wounded place.” 

Celestino said that it is his hope that acknowledging this pain can help all of us “heal from the shared trauma we suffered because of the cruelty and bloodshed we collectively witnessed and endured—in the last few years of our nation’s recent history.” 

In a post on social media, acclaimed director Carlos Siguion-Reyna said that “The film refreshingly provides no simple motherhood answers, always asks the big questions, and is acutely aware of the blurred line between the personal and the sociopolitical.” He furthered that characterizations “give a clear-eyed view of how we got here as a country, and scenes develop glacially yet unpredictably, interestingly, without resorting to easy cliches.” 

The film has a formidable cast that includes Dolly de Leon, Agot Isidro, Paolo O’Hara, Frances Makil-Ignacio, Bituin Escalante, Jojit Lorenzo, and Joel Saracho. 

Cinemalaya’s first animated film, Carl Joseph Papa’s Iti Mapukpukaw (The Missing) 

Another first in this year’s Cinemalaya is an animated full-length film titled Iti Mapukpukaw, Ilocano for The Missing, which tackles the sensitive subject of incest and sexual abuse in a very creative way. 

“Eric’s (Carlo Aquino) story is my story. [It] came to me in 2019 when I found out that a relative passed on. I [hadn’t] heard his name for a very long time but seeing his pictures and hearing his name in conversations made me remember one summer when I was around 10. He made sexual advances on me and kept on telling me: This is what grownups do,” revealed the film’s screenwriter and director Carl Joseph Papa in a statement.

“At first, I was fueled by anger because I thought there was nothing else I could do. But I can encourage people to speak up,” Papa thought. 

As to the use of animation to bring his masterpiece to life, he said, “The true meaning of animation is to 'bring life.' When I was writing the story and conceptualizing my approach for the film, it was clear to me that this [was] going to be another animated film. It’s quite rare to see animated feature films in the Philippines, much so an animated film that deals with adult topics,” he said. 

“I hope that in creating Eric, I would have made a refuge for people who suffered the same fate as he did. I hope that the film would shed more light on the topic, foster understanding, and initiate a conversation,” he continued. 

Iti Mapukpukaw is this year’s highest-grossing Cinemalaya film. 


Myths, folklore, and language in Bulawan Nga Usa and Huling Palabas

"Bulawan nga Usa by Kenneth de la Cruz is visually stunning!" wrote Kinaray-a writer and De La Salle University professor Genevieve Asenjo in a social media post. "Tender & slow, mythical & mystical in conveying its emotional truth: folklore & storytelling as intergenerational link; myth as modern medicine that soothes & heals one man’s sorrow, and mountains that endure," she added. 

The film’s logline indicates that “After the passing of his grandfather (who is also his guardian), Makoy (Ron Matthews Espinosa) embarks on an expedition to a mystical mountain in search of the golden deer that possesses the power to grant wishes. He befriends a spirited young boy who joins him in the quest for the mythical creature and self-discovery.” 

The film closely parallels De La Cruz’s personal journey.

“The folklore from my hometown serves as a fitting backdrop to the story. There is something profoundly heartfelt, magical, and humble about the tales passed down from one generation to another. And there is no better way to tell this story but to make this film with an all-Ilonggo production team and cast…” said De La Cruz in his director’s statement. The film was also shot in Iloilo.

Shot entirely in the province of Romblon, and using Onhan—one of its native languages—Huling Palabas brings us back to the summer of 2001 when 16-year-old Andoy “searches for his long-lost father in VHS tapes.” The film “tells the story of Andoy (Shun Mark Gomez) who lives and breathes movies, scouring video rental stores with his best friend Pido (Bon Andrew Lentejas), [and] dreaming of films he can’t afford to watch.” 

“My debut feature Huling Palabas is set in 2001, Romblon, Philippines, at the time when VHS were being phased out and VCDs were burgeoning,” film director Ryan Espinosa Machado revealed in a statement. “I tried to navigate the difficult path to self-discovery. I turned to the most reliable source of information—the cinema in the form of VHS where I found larger-than-life characters and stories that connected with mine,” he added.

The 2023 Cinemalaya was concluded on Aug. 13. There were screenings at PICC, and Ayala Malls such as Ayala Malls Manila Bay, TriNoma, Glorietta, and UP Town Center. Details about screenings in other venues after the festival are yet to be announced.