Filipino films

INTERVIEW: In ‘Radikals,’ Arvin Belarmino maps the Caviteño experience

Lé Baltar

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INTERVIEW: In ‘Radikals,’ Arvin Belarmino maps the Caviteño experience

RADIKALS. A still from Arvin Belarmino's film 'Radikals.'

Semaine de la Critique - Cannes's Facebook page

‘Bakte just happened to be a dance of the Caviteño, is not so much about one culture, it is a discussion about Filipino life and the way I see it and experience it.’

MANILA, Philippines – “It was surreal,” Arvin Belarmino told Rappler when asked about his reaction upon the acceptance of his film Radikals at this year’s Cannes Critics Week.

It was a few hours before Radikals, the lone Southeast Asian film in a slate of 13 shorts, had its world premiere at the Miramar Theater, which the Filipino director and the rest of his team attended. 

“I have never felt that much happiness before, but not for myself anymore but for everyone that dreamt with me. I was not only happy for myself but for the Filipino dream. Wow, coming back to that moment, I still could not believe we were here!” he said.  

The reaction was only fitting, considering that it took Belarmino, whose cinema has been largely shaped by works of Michael Haneke and Harmony Korine, seven years to make the cut. “At times, [it feels] like your dream is too big for you and your hope lessens and the dream now becomes overwhelming.”

Radikals, as its logline says, tracks the life of “a young rookie from a bizarre chicken-dance group [who] faces a heckler after being the worst dancer at a performance, leading him to a series of strange events that reveal what the group does to their weakest link.”

What made the milestone way more special was that it was marked by the premiere of Belarmino’s other short Silig, which he co-directed with Cambodian filmmaker Lomorpich Rithy, at Cannes Directors’ Fortnight. Both Radikals and Silig, according to Belarmino, excavate the “human desire to be reborn.” 

In this interview, Belarmino details how his Caviteño experience has long been propelling his cinema forward.

Your previous films, particularly Kadena, Nakaw, Tarang, and The Gathering, largely observe Manila as a sociopolitical landscape, as an experience. What made you decide to trace your roots back to Cavite and put the life you’ve had there to the screen?

I think subconsciously I have always been in my roots. Within me is the Caviteño experience, and that is something I have and will have with me until I die. Having said that, for all the films I have made, I truly believe it is my Caviteño experience that led me to tell those stories. It may not be set in Cavite, but all those concepts were coming from how I have seen life, anywhere, especially Cavite. 

Can you talk more about bakte and how it helped you shape your vision for Radikals?

Bakte is no different. It just happened to be a dance of the Caviteño, but it roots from me wanting to tell a story about humanity. It is not so much about one culture, it is a discussion about Filipino life and the way I see it and experience it. 

Bakte is a representation of the question I had for myself during my Cannes residency – “As an artist, am I good enough?” And Radikals is my attempt at answering that question. There are times that I want to be reborn, start anew as an artist as an attempt to be better. Through the process I realized that an artist indeed writes his own rebirth, every single time, in many different ways. As for me, I create stories and film them. 

And the most challenging aspect of creating Radikals is being vulnerable and keeping the truth of my experience and translating it to cinema. It is never easy, always scary…a rebirth.

Is there an advantage when you’re working with non-actors in your films? What do you learn most from them?

Acting is acting. Just like filmmaking, it is a continuous process of discovering and rediscovering yourself and your art. And whether you are a professional or non-actor, you go through this process over and again – the process of rebirth and new beginnings in every film you do. I love my actors, they bring life to my imaginations.

Apart from Radikals, the other short you’ve co-directed with Lomorpich Rithy called Silig is included in the Cannes Directors’ Fortnight. Are there any parallels between the two films?

Working with Yokie was just but an amazing experience! The process of discovering the story together is an experience I will never trade for anything. I think the parallel theme between Silig and Radikals is that, aside from both talk about death, both discuss the human desire to be reborn, to start anew, maybe to correct mistakes, but mostly as an attempt to experience life.

Recently, you had a retrospective at Sine Pop, Cubao. Since creating your Cinemalaya debut short Kyel, what has changed in your sensibilities and aesthetics as director and storyteller?

It is like growing up as a human being, your experiences are deeper as you grow, and so you become more profound as a human. I think my cinema is the same. Not to say that Kyel is not profound as Radikals, [because] there are times when I see it again and I get amazed at how the film came to be, my skill sets sure have improved, but mostly, it was your experience as human and your understanding that the experiences, whether they are good or bad, are necessary to become the human you are today. I think when I look back at my cinema, I see the different versions of me and how life has brought me to this day.

What do you think would be necessary for more Filipino films to get more spotlight internationally?

The journey is always different and often painful, to be completely honest. I think financial support for the filmmakers and filmmaking industry is what we need to have more films internationally. Filipino artists are amazing and we have amazing stories. It hurts me to see an artist giving up on his/her dream just because of the lack of financial support. Let’s support our artists, because they tell our stories as Filipino people.


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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.