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MANILA, Philippines – Violence, in its many forms, whether depicted on screen or outside its confines, has always occupied a place in Filipino lives, forever unearthing our country’s tragic past and inevitably eroding our present and future.
Writer-director Sheron Dayoc knows this firsthand. Born and raised in the southern Philippines, Dayoc grew up bearing witness to the long-standing crossfire between the government and secessionist rebels, a struggle that dates back to Spanish-era Philippines. In 2013, his hometown, Zamboanga, also endured a bloody siege, which not only paralyzed the city but also reaped generations of trauma and irreparable losses.
“People in my hometown were born and raised under the shadow of war,” the director said.
So it is no surprise that this violence would be the very subject threading Dayoc’s body of work as a filmmaker – from his debut feature Halaw (Ways of the Sea), which took home top prizes at the 2010 Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival and went on to tour the film festival circuit abroad; to The Crescent Rising, which won best documentary at the 2016 Busan International Film Festival, 2016 Gawad Urian, and 2015 QCinema International Film Festival; down to Women of the Weeping River, another Gawad Urian winner.
Seven years after his hiatus from film directing, Dayoc uproots this familiar theme of violence in The Gospel of the Beast, his latest coming-of-age tale, co-written with Jericho Aguado. The film is set to premiere in the main competition section at this year’s Tokyo International Film Festival, where Halaw also screened in 2010 under the Asian Future category.
And the director is elated to be back in the festival. “TIFFJP serves as both a film festival and a film market, attracting visitors from around the world to partake in its various events. Attending such festivals presents an opportunity to connect and explore potential business partnerships within the film industry. This is why a series of meetings and events are organized to facilitate international collaboration,” Dayoc told Rappler.
“Of course, Tokyo, being a renowned tourist destination, offers us the chance to savor local cuisine, immerse ourselves in the culture, visit landmarks, and enjoy some shopping – all while basking in the vibrant atmosphere of TIFFJP,” he added.
Starred by Jansen Magpusao – who burst into the big screen through Arden Rod Condez’s devastating masterpiece John Denver Trending – The Gospel of the Beast tracks the life of teenage boy Mateo, who, after accidentally killing his schoolmate, crosses paths with a man he barely knows, initiating his “journey into beasthood.”
Prior to its world premiere at Tokyo, the film has already been picked up by Thailand-based sales agent Diversion. Dayoc’s team also hopes to screen the film in the Philippines, particularly in Western Visayas, given the story’s roots and the group’s dedication to championing regional cinema.
“With the majority of the crew and a 100% cast from Western Visayas, using the local language is a remarkable feat and an exciting validation that a regional film like ours can secure a spot on such a reputable platform,” Dayoc noted.
A few days after the Tokyo film fest’s opening night, I had the opportunity to talk to Dayoc, Magpusao, and producers Condez and Sonny Calvento. Here, they share their experience working with each other, keeping the core team behind the camera intact, how Ronnie Lazaro becomes “a goofy tito” for Magpusao, and why discussing violence in cinema remains urgent.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: In 2010, your debut film “Halaw (Ways of the Sea)” premiered in the Asian Future category of the Tokyo International Film Festival. How does it feel to be back in the festival with ‘The Gospel of the Beast’ and now be part of the main competition section?
Sheron Dayoc: My debut film, Halaw/Ways of the Sea, was screened at the 2010 Tokyo International Film Festival right after its world premiere at the 2010 Busan International Film Festival under the New Currents section. Certainly, it is such a meaningful experience to be back at TIFFJP, this time in its main competition section, especially after a hiatus of seven years from film directing following my last film, Women of the Weeping River, in 2016.
Being given a platform in the main competition is indeed a great honor and a rewarding experience, considering the competitive and high-quality titles included in the stringently selected 15 films. I hope this film serves as an inspiration to regional filmmakers, encouraging them to continue telling stories from the region.
Q: “The Gospel of the Beast” is essentially based on a story of a hired killer for a vigilante group in your hometown in the southern Philippines. Why choose this specific narrative, and how long did you work on the script?
Sheron Dayoc: I believe that it is important to continue discussing violence in cinema because it mirrors the current social environment in many countries, such as the Philippines. Violence is the prevailing reality in my country. However, some may not be very receptive to the idea of engaging in a discourse about the despair manifested through violence. By suppressing the current social reality, we inadvertently normalize acts of violence. Instead of denying it, it would be best to acknowledge and recognize that this is what is happening now. By doing so, we may even shed light on why such a culture of violence persists and why it is embraced.
Regrettably, the source of these violent acts is none other than the Machiavellian, corrupt, and powerful individuals in our society. Innocent lives become expendable to them, all for the sole purpose of maintaining their power. Due to their positions, they can define what is “just” and what is “wrong.” They exploit the vulnerability of the poor and the weak, using them as pawns in this orchestrated Game of the Generals.
Q: From the trailer alone, the film already feels so visceral. Can you share more about the key aesthetic decisions that you had for the film?
Sheron Dayoc: Crucial to the film is poignant and clear visual storytelling to capture the multifaceted emotions of the characters and their relationships. Since the film primarily uses dialogue incidentally, the shots themselves become the language of the story, connecting the simple narrative of the film with the characters’ emotional complexities.
While pleasing to the eyes, the tone and mood of the film’s imagery provide the audience with a strong, emotional, and contemplative experience. Like poetry, the visuals also intend to highlight the film’s philosophical perspective on violence.
In contrast to standard social drama, The Gospel of the Beast focuses on the character’s psychological and emotional core through lingering poetic imagery as we follow Mateo’s journey toward beasthood.
Much like cinematography, the music and sound design serve as significant storytelling devices for the film. They not only enhance mood, tone, and ambiance but also add diegetic dimensions and layers to the characters’ emotional and psychological states. With minimal dialogue, the film relies on visual language, organic sound design, and narrative-driving music.
To emphasize crucial scenes, a fusion of various organic sounds from the film’s environment, such as the flowing river, room ambiance, animal and insect sounds, and other natural sounds, creates a unified auditory language. This style is selectively used in a few pivotal moments in the film.
Similar to sound design, the film’s score goes beyond establishing mood and tone. It also weaves a narrative that allows the audience to better understand and empathize with Mateo. This is the essence of the music in The Gospel of the Beast: capturing Mateo’s innermost thoughts and feelings, making the film an experiential journey for the audience through carefully composed melodies.
Q: Jansen Magpusao stars in the lead role. Did you already have him in mind while entertaining the idea for the film? How was it like bringing out the performance that you needed from him?
Sheron Dayoc: When Jeko (Aguado) and I were writing the script, we didn’t have Jansen or any other actor in mind because our main objective was to create the most sincere character we could without having an actor limit us. Indeed, the character requires a strong talent to portray Mateo’s character with its profound emotional storytelling.
However, after rigorous auditions, which included Jansen, we, as a team, came to the conclusion that Jansen was the perfect actor for the role. The character perfectly matches his physique, facial features, and, above all, his genuine performance. We believe this stems from his humility, eagerness to learn, and sincerity in bringing the character of Mateo to life. Jansen is a young actor with no desire for fame or celebrity status but rather a deep passion for providing an emotional outlet.
Q: Jansen, you recently attended the opening night of the festival. How did it feel to be there?
Jansen Magpusao: I was scared, honestly. I am not used to this kind of attention with all the cameras and the people who would ask for my autograph. But it was a different experience, something that I don’t usually get to do when I am in our province in Pandan, Antique. Even if for a few minutes, I felt how it is to become a celebrity.
Q: Can you still recall your initial reaction when you learned that you got the lead role for ‘The Gospel of the Beast’?
Jansen Magpusao: I was so happy of course. This is my second full-length film after John Denver Trending. This came four years after my first film. I was so excited. While I am still studying and my focus is to finish my architecture course, I really love acting. It is something that I want to do most of the time. I just don’t want to be interviewed by the press face-to-face.
Q: How was it like working with Sheron as your director? How about with Ronnie Lazaro as Berto?
Jansen Magpusao: Working with Direk Sheron was fulfilling and challenging at the same time. He is a perfectionist. He does not stop until he gets the best take. He also challenges us to improvise some lines for some scenes. We also did scenes that were not originally from the script. I got scared but it was exciting.
Working with Tito Ronnie was unforgettable. I only knew him from the teleseryes but after researching his body of work, I got scared. But when I met him, my fear went away. He is a goofy tito for me. He would often open interesting conversations. Plus, it was easy for us to talk to each other because we speak similar languages. He is Hiligaynon and I am Karay-a.
Q: Sonny, you’ve been working with Sheron Dayoc and Arden Rod Condez for a while now. How has the collaboration been for ‘The Gospel of the Beast,’ and what keeps this core team intact?
Sonny Calvento: We’ve always been clear about our roles as directors, writers, and producerson each project. For this film, I focused on my role as a producer, allowing Sheron to take the lead as the director and the writer. Though I admit that sometimes it is hard to take off the directing and writing hat, this separation of duties helps maintain a healthy working dynamic for the three of us.
Moreover, our team shares similar sensibilities and trusts each other’s opinions. While we usually agree, we’re also comfortable disagreeing and know when to advocate for our decisions. This mutual understanding and respect keep us working cohesively, even when critiquing each other’s work.
Arden Rod Condez: What keeps this core team intact is the constant bickering. Almost every day I deal with two filmmakers with so much attitude and dealing with them makes me a stronger and even better human being. They help me improve my patience. Except for their attitude, they are the best people to work with. We click when it comes to creative brainstorming. I don’t know if this is what you really call friendship but I am happy I am always with these two people.
Q: You’ve also collaborated with Weijie Lai and the Singapore-based film development and production company E&W Films for this project. Is the process any different with international players?
Sonny Calvento: Collaborating with international partners like Weijie Lai from Singapore has been enriching. It allows us to gain insights into their filmmaking processes and to share common values beyond just professional collaboration. It’s a big plus that we know Weijie on a personal level. He’s someone that we can wholeheartedly trust. Working with him has emphasized the significance of time management and meticulous project planning, enhancing our overall approach to filmmaking.
Arden Rod Condez: Working most especially with Weijie made us more aware about how the international scene works most especially in getting sales agents and distributors. Because of him, we became more learned on how we can package our projects if we are really aiming for the world market.
Q: How did the team react when you learned that the Thailand-based sales agent Diversion acquired ‘The Gospel of the Beast’ in the lead up to the Tokyo International Film Festival?
Sonny Calvento: I am significantly happy because a fellow Asian company saw the potential of our film and how it could reach a wider audience. This acknowledgment was not just about the commercial aspects of the deal but also about the resonance of the film’s themes. It instilled in us a sense of being seen and understood, not just as filmmakers but as advocates for important social issues, connecting us with a broader, international audience that shared our vision and values.
Arden Rod Condez: This is such good news for us. Now another group is helping us and fighting for the film’s space in the world market. I really hope our collaboration would open opportunities and forge a more lasting bond.
Q: This film was also developed through the Full Circle Lab Philippines. How did that experience help you complete your vision for the film?
Sheron Dayoc: The advantage of attending film labs is that they enable your script to be dissected from various perspectives, encompassing different social, political, and cultural backgrounds, thus fleshing out a more universal narrative. A writer or director must have a strong creative compass in order to avoid becoming confused or overburdened by the variety of feedback, which frequently includes contradictory inputs. This is the process we went through for The Gospel of the Beast, which, I believe, helped shape the film into what it is today.
Q: You were on a hiatus from film directing since 2017. Were there any major adjustments when you began working on this film?
Sheron Dayoc: For the past seven years, I’ve primarily focused on directing TV commercials, but I’ve also had the opportunity to work on storytelling boards in various genres, such as drama, comedy, and horror. I believe this experience has significantly expanded my directing skills.
Furthermore, I also took time to wear a producer’s hat while collaborating with Arden Condez’s film, John Denver Trending, Sonny Calvento’s Excuse Me, Miss, Miss, Miss, and recently, Primetime Mother. Functioning as a producer helps me to always get immersed in the world of cinematic storytelling and to never lose the language.
As a film lover myself, I continuously watch a wide range of films from the world of cinema. This is crucial for gaining insight and inspiration as I develop scripts, including The Gospel of the Beast.
Finally, in the months leading up to the shoot, I deliberately delved into the script, understanding, feeling, and envisioning every scene as if it were unfolding before my eyes, immersing myself through visual inspection and during casting and creative meetings with various departments of the film production.
Q: What takeaways do you hope Filipino audiences would get from this film?
Sheron Dayoc: The Gospel of the Beast is a cinematic journey into the heart of my country’s turbulent narrative, the Philippines. The film is a visceral allegory that confronts the profound social and political inequalities and injustices that have defined its history, exploring the depths of human nature and its capacity for both darkness and light.
While The Gospel of the Beast is set in the context of the Philippines, its themes are universal. In a world that continues to grapple with various forms of violence, including war, domestic abuse, modern-day slavery, and other affronts to human dignity, the story speaks to the broader human experience – the struggle for justice and enduring hope – through the character of Mateo. Using allegory and storytelling, my aspiration is to inspire empathy, provoke thought, and ignite conversations that transcend borders and boundaries.
The film may not have your typical happily-ever-after ending, but I hope that through it, the audience will gain a deeper understanding of the growing culture of hate and violence in society today. Through the emotional impact of the story, I hope this film will help the audience transcend to a greater consciousness of the terrible consequences of tolerating or remaining silent about the increasing acts of violence around us. It is my hope that this film will resonate with audiences far and wide, fostering a shared commitment to change and healing in the face of adversity.
Jansen Magpusao: I really hope the Filipinos, especially young people like me, will see how violence can affect our characters. This film tells the story of people who were forced to make questionable actions. Most of us will see them as bad people, but I see them as victims also. They are victims of an even greater evil. Unless we kill the bigger beast, this violence will not stop. – Rappler.com