Brillante Mendoza picks tough issues over entertainment

Carlos Santamaria

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The multi-awarded director chats with Rappler CEO Maria Ressa about 'Captive'

THROUGH 'CAPTIVE,' BRILLANTE MENDOZA hopes to push Filipinos out of their comfort zones. Photography by Cholo dela Vega. Grooming by Georginna Desuasido

MANILA, Philippines – Multi-awarded director Brillante Mendoza believes it is his “social responsibility” as a filmmaker to pick tough issues as subjects of his movies, rather than appeal to a broader audience that only wants to be entertained.

“Each filmmaker, they have their own objective, their own way of presenting the story,” Mendoza said in an interview with Rappler CEO Maria Ressa. “Some of them succeed at entertaining people, that’s their cup of tea. But for me, even if I wanted to, I would not be good at it.” 

Among the tough issues Mendoza chooses to make movies about are kidnapping and terrorism in the Philippines. He tackles them in his latest film, Captive.

He is currently promoting the Philippine release of the movie, whose story is based on the 2001 kidnapping of tourists from the Dos Palmas resort in Palawan by members of the Abu Sayyaf.

Mendoza deems Captive his most ambitious project. With it, he hopes to stir public debate about such a tragic episode in the history of the country.

It’s not about the Abu Sayyaf

According to Mendoza, Captive is not about the Abu Sayyaf but about the “trauma of being kidnapped,” as American Gracia Burnham — one of the hostages who survived — wrote in her book.

“I was inspired by the book when I first read it, but for me it had more questions than answers… She would describe uniformed men, and I wondered who those uniformed men were,” said Mendoza.

A passion to look into exactly what happened ignited in the director, and he strived to learn as much as possible about everyone involved in the kidnapping, not only the hostages. He discovered startling facts about the case, particularly regarding the relationship between the military and the kidnappers.

“When I was doing my research, I learned and found out a lot of things that were not (part of) my original intention,” he pointed out, referring to the alleged connivance between both sides.

Another side to kidnapping

While doing research for Captive, Mendoza interviewed most of the hostages but also the families of the Abu Sayyaf members who were part of the abduction.

“I found out (about) their human side, (something) that, normally, we don’t really care (about). We always sympathize with the hostages… But there is another side to kidnapping.”

Mendoza told Rappler that the most important thing he learned while making the film is that “at the end of the day, everybody is a victim.”

“We are all victims of our own cause, regardless of our religion, of our beliefs and our philosophies in life,” he said.

The same goes for the military, which he openly portrays in the movie as conspiring with the kidnappers.

Bothered by stereotypes

Like many other Filipinos, Mendoza had his own preconceived notions about the conflict in the Muslim south.

But now he is disturbed by the fact that the majority of the population views the situation with a certain bias.

“It really bothers me because a lot of us only see one dimension — what the media would want us to believe — but we don’t know what’s happening behind” the scenes, he said.

His perspective changed after he uncovered uncomfortable facts.

“At this point in time, I wish I didn’t know some facts and things that I have discovered” about the conflict in Mindanao, he explained.

Making people care 

Will Captive make more Filipinos become interested in what is happening in the south?

“I think they should. This film is not just for entertainment; it is for us to realize the things that (are) happening,” Mendoza said. “I think, as Filipinos, we should not be in our comfort zone. We are so blessed that we are not experiencing this (conflict) in our lives, but there are people experiencing it and it is happening right now.”

Mendoza hopes that his movie can provide “a glimpse of these stories, of these real life experiences about these people” (sic) who are suffering from abuse there.

The director noted that, for instance, kidnapping is still happening. When he was shooting his next film Thy Womb in Tawi-Tawi, two foreign birdwatchers were abducted close to the island.

“It’s unfortunate, we can’t help it. But we cannot keep on glossing over it,” he said.

More ‘audience-friendly’

For Mendoza, Captive is his first attempt at telling a story in a more “accessible” manner although it is still not like a commercial movie.

“My intention was to make it more audience-friendly,” he said.

That is why he picked French actress Isabelle Huppert as one of the leads, playing a French missionary who is actually the only fictional character in the whole film.

Mendoza said that he met Huppert by chance two years ago in Sao Paulo (Brazil), where he asked Huppert if she had ever been to the Philippines.

She said that she had, over twenty years ago; so Mendoza invited her to return and they can make a movie together.

Role of the filmmaker

Mendoza hopes that Captive will be a “gentle reminder” to the public that kidnapping is still happening in Mindanao.

He considers this to be the true role of the filmmaker: to tackle this issues “seriously” instead of just aspiring to entertain the audience.

The director — Mendoza added — must also be able to present all sides of the story.

“What I did was present all the facts and all the issues as precisely and as truthful as I can, regardless of which faction they are coming from,” he said.

Mendoza concluded: “That is as far as I can go as a filmmaker, and it will always depends on the audience” to build their own opinion. –

Captive’s Philippine premiere will be on Sept. 2, Sunday, at SM Pampanga; and Sept. 3, Monday, at Greenbelt 3 Cinema 2. It opens nationwide on Sept. 5.

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