film directors

For emerging director JT Trinidad, student filmmaking is part of alternative cinema

Lé Baltar

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For emerging director JT Trinidad, student filmmaking is part of alternative cinema

Wence Trajano

Trinidad talks their film's inclusion on the Criterion Channel, their recent exhibit at Tarzeer Pictures, and how they locate student cinema in the tradition of alternative film practice

MANILA, Philippines – Two years ago, JT Trinidad’s the river that never ends premiered at QCinema and went on to compete and rack up awards at numerous film festivals, locally and internationally, among them: Best Southeast Asian Short Film at the 34th Singapore International Film Festival and the Students Award at the 18th Jogja-NETPAC Asian Film Festival.

Earlier this month, the film entered the Criterion Channel’s library, alongside other contemporary Filipino films like Glenn Barit’s Cleaners and Jet Leyco’s For My Alien Friend, as part of the film program curated by film critic Aaron Hunt. The title has also been selected to participate in this year’s XPOSED Queer Film Festival Berlin under its “Glitchy Romance” program.

But while the river that never ends has had many successes since its QCinema debut, Trinidad said the route is not without hurdles. “I received more rejections than selections. I applied three times to QCinema. I was rejected by both Kaohsiung and Singapore,” they told me.

“I had the script with me since I was 19, just waiting for someone to blindly trust me. We would send emails to random producers, but they would reject us because we didn’t have a body of work. That’s why I’m so thankful to Archipelago for putting their full support behind this material,” they added

In the river that never ends, Trinidad follows a middle-aged trans woman (the affecting Emerald Romero), whose life is shaped, if not eroded, by the contours of Pasig river, rendered as both actual place and tenant of a disintegrating world. Much like the director’s previous works, flawed as they may be, the film attests to their relentless probing of spaces, in its many forms, as traumascapes but also as an genuine interval to heal and begin anew.

And it seems that Trinidad’s emerging career keeps on picking up momentum. This November, they are set to return to QCinema, this time as the co-producer, alongside Kim Vivar, of Kukay Zinampan’s sci-fi drama Rampage! O Ang Parada, an entry to the festival’s QCShorts program.

Days ago, I caught up with the filmmaker to talk about their film’s inclusion on the Criterion Channel, their recent exhibit at Tarzeer Pictures, and how they locate student cinema in the tradition of alternative film practice.

The film stars first-time actress Emerald Romero, who received a Special Mention at the 34th Singapore International Film Festival. Photo by Wence Trajano
To start, can we talk about your first introduction to cinema?

I studied at Manila Science High School. I wouldn’t call myself a cinephile; I rarely go to the cinema. I just watch films on my mom’s QWERTY phone. She would ask her workmates to put pirated copies of films on it. She would let me borrow her phone and earphones. That’s how I watched Ang Babae sa Septic Tank and other animated films. I didn’t like watching American films because I thought they were boring and too noisy. I gravitated towards Filipino or Asian films that were screened on television. I vividly remember watching Crazy Little Thing Called Love on ABS-CBN and becoming obsessed with it.

Every Sunday, my dad would bring home pirated DVDs. We would watch them together. I love horror films. When I was in grade school, my friends and I planned to make a short film titled Detainee. It is still a running joke among us. After that, I would make small films with my cousins – putting makeup on them and filming them with a random story.

The river that never ends was among the slate of contemporary Filipino films that entered the Criterion Channel earlier this month as part of the film program curated by film critic Aaron Hunt. How does it feel to be included in the selection? How do you think that bodes for emerging voices in local cinema?

I still can’t believe it even now. I used to downplay myself, so when I received the news, it felt like nothing until my friends told me that I should celebrate it. I used to read Criterion for my film criticism class and even wrote essays about it. I couldn’t even afford to buy a subscription, so this experience is surreal.

I’m always grateful to Aaron and friends. I didn’t expect that someone would find something in my work. This is such a great opportunity for Philippine cinema. A program of shorts and features would be a great introduction of our national cinema to the world. This is great exposure for a small/student filmmaker like me.

While this is helpful in promoting emerging voices, I still believe that it is most important that we receive the same level of support from our local institutions. We can’t expect filmmakers to produce good work without supporting the actual mode of production. We should make funding for filmmakers accessible from development to distribution. We can only wish for a film industry that manufactures its own tools and is sustainable, wherein we can call the mode of production ours.

I’ve also learned that weeks ago you met Hunt and the other filmmakers. What can you share about that get-together?

It’s fun meeting new and old friends in one room. I love karaoke! I love singing! My childhood dream was to be a singer. Every time I get to be with these people, I can’t help but fangirl over them. I can’t believe that I’m sharing the same space with my idols. But I had to attend a two-hour online meeting for my thesis.

JT Trinidad currently works on their thesis film Honey, My Love, So Sweet. Photo by Clarisse Cabinta.

Your body work, whether narrative or autobiographical documentary, has always been about interrogating spaces and the histories they carry. I wonder, what makes you gravitate towards such ideas?

We were renting a small house in Pandacan, Manila, beside the Pasig river. I was born in an old public housing complex in Sta. Ana. I’ve seen my friends watch their houses demolished to make way for a sugar factory. We were left with nothing after our lands were stolen by strange relatives.

I loved geography as a subject in preschool. I won national competitions and memorized the capitals of the world. Growing up, this fascination grew deeper. I learned more about political geography, and I think it best describes my experiences.

I didn’t think about this much at the time, but one of the biggest struggles we had growing up was not having our own home. It just so happened that a common ground among my friends and me is displacement.

Last April, you had your first exhibit at Tarzeer Pictures. I’m curious, how did Tarzeer enter the picture while you were still in the process of making the river that never ends?

[Eric] Bico is the director of photography for this film. He has been working with them and has had his photographs exhibited under Tarzeer. I used to visit Tarzeer’s website when I was a freshman, and I have wanted to be a part of them, but I didn’t know how such things worked. I was a photojournalist, so I knew some of their photographers and had looked up to them since then.

Bico connected us with Tarzeer, and we discussed the film with them. I was surprised when they said yes to the project. I used to daydream about having my name on the website, and now it’s there!

In a tweet, you spoke about the struggles of student filmmaking and how it hasn’t been a healthy environment for young creatives. What would be necessary to address such lapses?

I wouldn’t say it’s an absolutely unhealthy environment for young creatives – film school, yes, but not necessarily student film productions. I see student filmmaking as alternative filmmaking; hence, struggles are inevitable. We don’t have the industry, so we don’t have the top-notch materials to make our works. Yes, long working hours happen, and we’re aware that such things are wrong, but it’s part of guerilla filmmaking. As long as my friends and I wish for a future where care is the top priority, where fair working hours exist, where the labor force is considered, and where the world doesn’t judge you based on your productivity, I can work with the limitations of student filmmaking.

I’d rather blame these problems on the institutions that fail to enforce humane policies in production. Working for 24 hours used to be normal in professional productions, so should we expect better from students who don’t earn from what they do? 

Then we ask necessary questions: Why do film schools require individual films as final projects? Why is everyone expected to be a director? Why is it taught that festivals are the measure of success? Why can’t we make films together so we can share the burden? Why do we have to outsource professional equipment, and why are they not available in my institution? Why is our curriculum output-oriented rather than process-oriented? Why do we expect Western standards from our students? Why do big publications write reviews of student films? Why do we laugh at bad sound designs when there is only one recorder in the equipment room? Why do we pay to use facilities to make our films? Why is our curriculum repetitive of film canons that are mostly films by White men?

Even if I just eat a piece of hotdog and egg and barely sleep, as long as I know that a fellow student is trying their best and doesn’t shout at me, I don’t have any problem with that. And that’s always been my tension. Exploitation is a word that’s loosely used in our circle, but it is always important to ask: Should we expect the same conditions from a student filmmaker who saves up their allowance to make their thesis films as we do from big production companies that earn millions of pesos?

JT Trinidad behind the scenes of their graduation film. Photo by Clarisse Cabinta
Now you’re working on your thesis film Honey, My Love, So Sweet, another work about the trans experience. Has it always been your idea for a thesis? And how has the filming been?

I wrote a different proposal for my Film 199 class. I wanted to tap into my genre core, since I loved horror and comedy films growing up. Julie and Jenny’s Journey to Getting Their Free Vagina was my initial thesis proposal, but I decided to change it at the last minute because making it was expensive. I drafted a budget and realized it wasn’t something I wanted to rush. It would cost much money to make that film.

I had to write a justification letter for my adviser to allow me to change my topic. Thanks, Sir Campos, for allowing me to make the change. We just finished our fourth day on May 26, and I felt fulfilled after shooting the film. I worked with amazing people and received overwhelming support from my family and friends. At first, I was pressured by the scale it had become, but this support motivated me to do better, make things work, and believe more in myself.

I also worked with people outside my usual circle, and it’s one of the best decisions I’ve made. I got to know them and reignited the passion I had when I was younger.

We’re in post-production now, and I can’t believe that I’m defending my thesis [from] June 10 to 11. I remember watching Gilb Baldoza’s thesis film when I was in high school and instantly becoming a fan. –

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Lé Baltar

Lé Baltar is a Manila-based freelance journalist and film critic for Rappler. Currently serving as secretary of the Society of Filipino Film Reviewers (SFFR), Lé has also written for CNN Philippines Life, PhilSTAR Life, VICE Asia, Young STAR Philippines, among other publications. She is a fellow of the first QCinema International Film Festival Critics Lab.