Now in its 18th year, the Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival is far from its humble beginnings. Initially created as an alternative space for non-commercial fare, Cinemalaya is now part of the status quo — with hundreds annually vying for a spot in its lineup and thousands of patrons nationwide trusting the festival to offer something new. But with the rising cost of living and the impaired transportation machinery in the country, the festival can no longer deny that it is an increasingly elite space.
With this comes the added responsibility of criticality towards the narratives and creatives that the festival supports. The cultural work created for Cinemalaya — both by those involved in the filmmaking process and those screening through the films to be produced — has a profound impact on the collective imagination of what stories are told, how they’re told, and who is telling them. But when one knows what lengths filmmakers have to go through to finish their projects, how does one even begin to critique a Cinemalaya film?
Despite the million-peso grant and the additional recovery funds, filmmakers have had to rely on benevolence of the film “industry” to circumvent logistical, financial, and technical limitations. But such networks can no longer be the sole reason to keep things afloat, especially when a global pandemic has forced filmmaking to its limits. Much like the film festivals that hold space for them, films cannot be defended purely on intention. If Cinemalaya is to continue to nurture the future voices of independent cinema in the Philippines, it must also create an environment wherein those same voices aren’t thrown into debt or squalor.
Given these social dimensions, snap judgements on whether a film is “good” or “bad” are insufficient and reduce the act of watching to a soulless and clinical experience. This batch of Cinemalaya films provide ample material for fervent discussion, especially if one is able to go beyond such easy categorizations and instead ask: Is the film saying something — whether through its subject, quality, or positioning — that is best said through the motion picture? If it is, what is it saying? Is it daring to express something different, something valuable? If it isn’t, what then?
Kaluskos (directed by Roman S. Perez, written by Enrique Villasis)
Despite the efforts of Colleen Garcia-Crawford, Kaluskos is terrible in ways that are genuinely shocking. It takes an already overused concept — a mother who struggles with obtaining custody of her daughter begins seeing her daughter’s doppelganger — and milks it until only blood comes out.
It is not as if it’s impossible to reimagine the doppelganger for the modern age (see this year’s Sundance breakout Hatching). But Kaluskos is neither a gripping horror nor a moving domestic drama. It never gets to the meat of its psychology, relying instead on cheap jump scares and a deeply misogynistic screenplay — one which frames every woman in the film as incompetent and emotionally volatile, while leveraging the film’s only male character as a voice of reason and stability.
It ends in a way that shows how men who lack imagination write women: with a knife in her hand and blood on her body. And while its decision to remain ambiguous in its final moments may read to others as insight, it screams of laziness and aphantasia.
Kaluskos is a film whose monstrosity masquerades as feminism and its inclusion in the program of Cinemalaya is questionable at best, if not downright disrespectful to the festival’s legacy.
Bakit ‘Di Mo Sabihin (directed by Real S. Florido, written Flo Reyes)
Unlike recent fare such as Isa Pa, With Feelings, Bakit ‘Di Mo Sabihin isn’t created to educate hearing audiences about deaf-mute culture. Instead, director Real Florido and writer Flo Reyes create a world where deafness and muteness are not considered anomalies or even disabilities. Rather, they are just another part of everyday life — with many of the supporting characters freely communicating with the leads through Filipino Sign language (FSL).
Instead, Bakit ‘Di Mo Sabihin focuses on the dissolving marriage of Miguel (JC De Vera, frustratingly effective as an emotionally unavailable teacher) and Nathalie (Janine Gutierrez, indelible in nearly every scene she’s in). Beholden to outdated expectations of marital bliss and gender roles, Miguel struggles with his insecurities and regularly takes it out on the much more independent and successful Natalie, resulting in their early separation. Miguel preoccupies himself with “fixing” those around him — first Nathalie, then a deaf-mute child whose mother refuses to send him to school because of financial disadvantage — as a way to distract himself from his own self-improvement. The challenge isn’t whether or not the couple will reconcile, but rather if Miguel can recognize and acknowledge his dysfunctions and move towards change.
But even then, Bakit ‘Di Mo Sabihin is at its most interesting when it focuses on the extended family and how these characters shift to accommodate the happiness of the couple when they’re apart. These details are much easier to recognize in hindsight. The story’s nonlinear structure — a confluence of Florido’s direction, Reyes’s script, and Tara Illenberger’s editing — obscures these observations and derails much of the emotional momentum the narrative builds up; scenes resequenced and juxtaposed to reveal little commonalities and contrasts.
But Florido and Reyes’ biggest misstep is in their decision to kill off Nathalie. Borrowing historian Paul Longhorn’s words, “it is easier to regret prejudice if its victims won’t be around” and by choosing verisimilitude, the two deny Miguel the opportunity to resolve his issues with his toxic masculinity, trapping him into a personal hell of his own creation. It’s an ending that thrusts the narrative into melodrama, crystallizing Miguel’s muteness as a metaphor for his inability to communicate, which is exactly the stereotype the film’s creation should condemn.
12 Weeks (written and directed by Anna Isabelle Matutina)
It’s been said before by Richard Bolisay, Emil Hofileña, and Philbert Dy that to describe 12 Weeks as an “abortion film” is to do the film a disservice. While its writer-director Anna Isabelle Matutina begins the narrative with an pre-interview for the abortion, 12 Weeks shapes up as a coming-of-age film about Alice (Max Eigenmann), a humanitarian worker in her 40s, who is forced to navigate several crises. By paralleling Alice’s internal struggles with the sociopolitical turmoil in 2017 Marawi, Matutina intertwines smaller and larger violences, showing how these require confrontation on a daily basis, even if they appear mundane only until questioned.
What makes 12 Weeks transfixing is how Matutina trains the audience to recognize the ways Alice’s boundaries and autonomy are repeatedly breached by those around her. Her on-and-off boyfriend Ben (Vance Larena) enters her home regularly without permission, only to fuck her or fuck with her, forcing her to clean up after him like a surrogate mother. Meanwhile, her mother (Bing Pimentel) pressures her into keeping the child, if only to be provided with a second chance at motherhood, later confessing to Alice that she wanted to have her aborted. When her friend, officemate, and only confidante Lorna (Claudia Enriquez, a revelation equally complex) struggles with her own crises, Alice is forced to understand that her agency and liberation is tied to others.
While 12 Weeks often struggles to translate the acuity of its text into a visual language, Matutina and cinematographer Jippy Pascua make the intelligent decision to keep the camera on its characters’ faces, such that when these faces are obscured, they create devastating effects. When Larena, seemingly kind, is engulfed by the shadows during his outbursts, Matutina shields the audience from his anger, while simultaneously turning him into an embodiment of the patriarchy.
But this decision to focus on the face is wielded best with Eigenmann who, as Alice, is tested by the world around her at every turn; the specter of gendered expectations of being a good mother, good daughter, good friend, and good boss hanging over her like a guillotine. Headstrong without being emotionally inaccessible, Eigenmann embodies Alice as always larger than whatever she is suffering. So in the end, when even Alice’s body violates her autonomy, we anticipate that the dam will break. But instead of turning her sadness into spectacle, Matutina extends Alice compassion — allowing her to hide from the camera, crumpling up in a near-fetal position, her estranged mother obscuring our view further by uncharacteristically embracing her.
In Matutina’s brilliant gala night speech, she concludes by quoting Ed Cabagnot: “This is the time to stand up and come up with braver films.” Through 12 Weeks, she demonstrates that she can lead by example. – Rappler.com
Cinemalaya 2022 is from August 5 to October 31, 2022. Screenings for films were held at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, followed by a brief week-long screening at Cinema 76 Anonas. Online screenings of the films will be held sometime in October.