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'Hele' from the other side: Cherie Gil's Berlin film fest chronicles

Five days was all I had to spend in Berlin as I happily joined team Hele, as we call ourselves, for the much-anticipated Berlin film festival. (READ: Lav Diaz wins Silver Bear at Berlin Film Festival

Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis, a film by Lav Diaz, was chosen to be one of the 19 films in competition – the only Southeast Asian film given the honor this year. Meryl Streep was the president of the jury. 

Proud to be part of the film – playing for the first time a tikbalang (a mythological character of half-horse, half-woman), I had the unique privilege of tagging along. How can one miss the opportunity to meet THE Meryl Streep? My (and everyone’s) goddess of acting! So I begged and implored my network, ABS-CBN, to allow me a few days off from taping Dolce Amore, and they willingly granted my wish.

Now a fave pic of mine with my co -"TIKBALANGS" of HELE SA HIWAGANG HAPIS. With the lovely and wonderful @imangelaquino and the amazing @bernardo_bernie #berlinale #lavdiaz photo credits : @bradliew and @biancabalbuena A photo posted by Ms Cherie Gil (@macherieamour) on Feb 12, 2016 at 5:54pm PST


These 5 days seemed short, but were filled with so much that it took me a while to truly land even days after our plane touched down. I, along with good friend and co-tikbalang Angel Aquino, was the last of the batch to arrive on February 17 – exactly my dad’s birthday so how can I forget? Soon, as we arrived at the Mövenpick hotel where our team was billeted, snow began to fall as predicted! It was a lovely sight and feeling.

The next day immediately brought us to the majestic red carpet set at the Berlinale Palast where the film was to have its world gala premiere starting at 9:30 am.

Hele was the only film obviously allowed to screen that early and take 8 hours of theater screening time. Mind you, it was winter in Berlin. Some days, the temperature reached below zero. And yet that day, the sun was shining bright. Even the Berlinale secretariat assigned to us who took exceptional care of all of us, namely, Matthias, Axel and Yena, were surprised by the sudden change of weather, affirming that the gods were on our side.

With perfect German precision and organization, 5 Audi limousines chauffeured the 13-member Philippine delegation, arriving at exactly 9:00 am as scheduled. I have to mention that the driver particularly assigned to the tikbalang team was a young cutie with a man bun.

After alighting from the car, things got even better. Though sadly, only a handful of Filipinos welcomed us, there was a huge number of international press. Traipsing that all-red aisle just took my breath away. A giant video wall display in front of us allowed us to watch ourselves on-screen.

Basking in the glory of the moment while the press clicked away on their super high-tech cameras, It felt like the Oscars fantasy fulfilled, only perhaps even better. It would be the first time for most of us involved in the film to witness history unfold together! It’s the world premiere, for heaven’s sake. And this was just the beginning.

Angel Aquino (L-R), Piolo Pascual, Cherie Gil, dircetor Lav Diaz, John Lloyd Cruz, Alessandra De Rossi, Paul Soriano and Susan Africa pose during a photocall for 'Hele Sa Hiwagang Hapis' (A Lullaby To The Sorrowful Mystery) at the 66th annual Berlin International Film Festival, in Berlin, Germany.

Photo by Britta Pedersen/EPA

A few minutes before the film, the cast was shown into the theater with the president of the Berlin Film festival Dieter Kosslick leading the way while holding my hand. Thanks to one of our producers and superwoman Bianca Balbuena, who incessantly introduced me as the Meryl Streep of the Philippines. (READ: Weary crowd cheers Lav Diaz's 8-hour epic at Berlin film fest

Of course, I blushed with embarrassment every time she did, as no one can really BE Meryl Streep. I know she meant well so I took claim as graciously as I could muster and gladly took his hand. It was all in good spirit and inasmuch as I had a short part in the film, no one protested.

As we walked into the theater single file, I looked back at the end of the line when the applause began to get even louder, and it was no surprise for whom they were cheering. It was Lav Diaz. He is a star! A true blue rock star in Germany, not to mention all of Europe, as most gathered in the theater that morning with practically every seat occupied to welcome him in such a manner. I was just so happy to witness our man and good friend being bestowed this honor and respect.

Eight hours passed with a lunch break in between – and the film got a standing ovation. Later, we found out that the members of the jury were up in the balcony breathing the same air and experience. Yes, we were in the midst of the great Meryl Streep, along with Clive Owen, and 5 other members from different parts of the world, equally with great minds and accomplishments. These were Lars Eidinger, film critic Nick James, photographer Brigitte Lacombe, actress Alba Rohrwacher, and film director Małgorzata Szumowska.

At the press conference, which followed soon after, a long table was set up just for our delegation. Being in the longest-running film, we too were the biggest group. You could feel the positive energy in the room, instinctively knowing that they were all impressed.


And so it went with the rest of the evening with a wonderful intimate dinner shared with other films in competition.

Tired as we all were, and despite the pain I felt walking in 5-inch heels, we were all smiles. I decided to walk to our cabs barefoot on the cold pavement with my Michael Cinco aqua train tugging behind me. Now what could be more cinematic than that? SOLVED!

Awards night – February 20

Woke up with a hangover. What can one expect being in the winter cold at 4 degrees and having the best fun group ever? I will not mention who drank the most, but yeah, I wasn't spared. Or rather, I didn't spare myself. But here, we faced the big event ahead of us and I just couldn't get enough sleep from the anticipation.

All ready and dolled up at exactly 6:30 pm as told (this time I wore an Oliver Tolentino red and beige number), we all walked the same red carpet along with all the other filmmakers.

With the heroes of HELE SA HIWAGANG HAPIS. @LAVDIAZ AND @paulsoriano1017 bravo!! At maraming salamat A photo posted by Ms Cherie Gil (@macherieamour) on Feb 22, 2016 at 4:16pm PST


Adele's song “Hello,” became my soundtrack even from the night before. We would hum or sing the chorus together changing the lyrics instead from “Hello” to “Hele” from the other side – ergo the title of my piece.

Oh, did I mention we met John Cusack too at a lovely restaurant by the river the night before? Erwin Romulo (sound designer of the film) introduced us. John was there for the documentary film Chi-Raq, directed by Spike Lee. I so wanted to see this film, with its loud statement against gun laws in the US but alas, the few days I had just didn’t coincide with its screening schedule. Yes, I shook his hand while he was on the phone, thanking him for his work in cinema. He paused his phone conversation to reciprocate the gesture.

News spread that we were a strong contender for a win, but no one in our group said a word about it. We just wanted to really enjoy the evening and drink in every minute of it.

I’m lying. The silence amongst us was of nervous anticipation thus my heart would beat a tad faster every time a category was called out. 

We silently all hoped against hope we could come home victorious, making our country proud, as I personally believed the film deserved it. Even though I was sure that no float would welcome us to flaunt us through Roxas Boulevard or EDSA, it would still be a momentous occasion. 

Especially for Lav – for after 17 long years of hard work, dedication and passion for this material, it has all finally come to fruition. That was all that mattered. (READ: Filipino maestro of slow burn films, Lav Diaz, heads to Berlin

Winner of the Silver Bear Alfred Bauer Prize for a feature film that opens new perspectives on cinematic art, director Lav Diaz for 'Hele Sa Hiwagang Hapis' (A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery) poses at the Berlin International Film Festival, February 20.

Photo by Michael Kappeler/EPA

And so it did happen. The Silver Bear: Alfred Bauer prize for new perspective in film was announced and I just had a strong feeling that Lav would be called to receive it. 

I loved everything he said as he encouraged filmmakers to use cinema to change the world for the better. I loved how calm and collected he was and I love that Lav was just Lav, with his long, salt-and-pepper ponytail and “bohemian artist” vibe, on that vast stage, backdropped by a huge video screen. The stage was all his and I was mighty proud.

Returning back to his seat, he generously passed the Bear for each of us to hold and I of course shamelessly took a selfie.

Did I deserve to hold it? No. I felt small compared to what it actually represented. But I was a part of the bigger picture, and I humbly thank the heavens above and Lav for making me a part of it.

This film should be out there, in our own country, and watched by all. It’s time to receive and accept the message it brings. As Paul Soriano, our producer said it best, our country has been like a “hamster on a wheel” in dire need of change!

This film is about our history, the period that transpired during the revolution up to Rizal’s death, up to the time Bonifacio was slain, his body never found. After which Aguinaldo sold the revolution to the Spaniards for some measly 800,000 Mexican dollars. It also depicts the fight and struggle of the Filipino people for independence, identity and freedom at the same time interweaving folklore, mythological legends, and dogmatic religious beliefs deeply ingrained in our traditions and culture then and even now.


Hopefully, it awakens and provokes not just thoughts, but also actions – especially among our youth, that we so need up to this day. I have hope for as long as films like these are made. Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis is definitely one that will and should remain through many generations to come.  

Meeting Meryl

With the victorious euphoria, everything was a blur after that. All winners were summoned back to the stage for a photo op and Lav called the entire group to the stage! All 13 of us!

Piolo, John Lloyd, and myself were reluctant to do so but it finally dawned on me that here was our chance to get up close and personal with the jury members! I didn’t hesitate to tug on JLC’s hand and escort them up the stage, which should have been the other way around.  

And finally, there we were, face to face with THE STREEP!  This was a moment I still can’t describe. As she turned towards me, all I could say was "I ADORE YOU."

So star-struck was I, that I didn’t flinch nor move from where I was standing. Believe me, I didn't even recognize myself. 

I gave her a hug and kiss and she so sweetly responded with so much warmth. I had overheard the night before that she disdains selfies so I didn't dare ask. Although the rest of the cast had now their moments with her, I bravely asked and she graciously accepted, leaning her head against mine, while I uttered, “my kids won’t believe this is happening!” And that was that.

I was a fan girl all the way through the dinner party where she and Clive Owen spent a substantial amount of time standing by our table as they shared their thoughts on the film. I watched from the distance. I didn’t even attempt nor think of eavesdropping on their conversation. 

My one and only picture on stage with Ms Streep was more than enough for me and I was fulfilled. I felt that to rub on along and request for another decent non-selfie picture would just be overkill. And though I was around friends, I didn’t want to flaunt my weight around more than they did. Each of us had our short, sweet special moment to share about the encounter. (READ: Piolo Pascual talks about making 8-hour film with Lav Diaz, John Lloyd Cruz

It was Lav she meant to speak with, as the celebrated filmmaker of the moment. He later on shared with me that she explained how “the film rearranged the molecules in her brain.” I hope she reserved an iota of it in memory of the tikbalang team.

As for Mr Owen, I somehow found him more accessible and being a fan of his mind-blowing work and a woman at that, I blatantly grabbed his cheek and gave him a long kiss and a hug.

He said he too was blown away to find out that it only took 24 days for us to shoot the film. The same amount of time I presumed they spent on shooting an episode of his highly acclaimed TV series The Knick, directed by Steven Soderbergh.

He seemed quite surprised that I knew of the show and volunteered to announce that it actually takes them only 7 days to shoot one episode. I almost rebutted with the fact that it takes us one day back home to shoot one TV episode, but then again I thought this would really push the envelope of impressing him too much.

I wonder how he would have reacted had he found out the reason was because, as opposed to their 15 hour-a-day work limit, our one day for TV work meant 24 hours and beyond.

He walked by our table twice openly chatting with Bernardo Bernardo, Angel Aquino and myself (again, known as the team tikbalang) nudging us to join the after party as he was already done with jury duty. 

Now I don’t mean to ruin all the excitement for everyone, because none of us went to the party nor did any of us plop down the offer of even asking him to join our table. 

Yes, I began to wonder after all that was said and done, who and where was I? What happened to my usual jovial self and social manners?

As we took the plane home with Etihad and their wonderful welcome of special cars to get us from the tarmac at our stop in Abu Dhabi, I looked back and wondered if I would have, should have, could have done anything else differently.

Lo and behold, I had no regrets. Everything just happened the way they were meant to be and was all good for team Hele. Though I missed the small party that Etihad once again threw for the group at 30,000 feet up in the air, having slept throughout the flight, we all arrived safely home with happy and grateful hearts and a bond that will last a lifetime. –