overseas Filipinos

[Only IN Hollywood] 2 Fil-Ams head SOHO International Film Fest

Ruben V. Nepales

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[Only IN Hollywood] 2 Fil-Ams head SOHO International Film Fest

SOHO. Sibyl Reymundo-Santiago (3rd from left), Jorge Ballos (5th from left) and guests. Contributed photo

Champion Hamilton

Rappler columnist Ruben Nepales also catches up with filmmaker Brillante Mendoza at the first FilAm Creative Film Festival

LOS ANGELES, USA – From its simple start in a SoHo loft with pop-up screens, the SOHO International Film Festival (SIFFNYC) has grown into a big eight-day festival at New York’s historic landmark, Village East by Angelika.

Going strong on its 14th year, SIFFNYC is led by two Filipino Americans, Jorge Ballos and Sibyl Reymundo-Santiago. Running from September 14 through 21 this year, the festival boasts of a record number of premieres – 43 (World), 7 (US), 29 (Northeast and East Coast), and 25 (New York State/New York City).

The varied fare includes films starring Oscar and Golden Globe winners, from JK Simmons to Mercedes Ruehl, and submissions from over 38 countries, from Argentina to China.

As for the entries with the Philippine connection, SIFFNYC will premiere Asian Persuasion, Jhett Tolentino’s feature directing debut, a comedy-drama-romance starring Dante Basco, KC Concepcion, Paolo Montalban, Geneva Carr, Rachel Alejandro, Apl.de.Ap, Celia Au, Kevin Kreider, and Tony Labrusca.

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PERSUASIVE. ‘Asian Persuasion,’ Jhett Tolentino’s feature directing debut starring Dante Basco, Paolo Montalban, KC Concepcion, and Kevin Kreider, makes its world premiere at the 14th SOHO International Film Festival this September. Contributed photo

The World Features portion includes Ma-an L. Asuncion-Dagñalan’s Blue Room, which is also her feature filmmaking debut.

Ma-an described her entry, whose cast includes Elijah Canlas (very impressive in Jun Lana’s About Us But Not Us), as “a coming-of-age crime drama-comedy.” The film was produced by Will Fredo and Ferdy Lapuz.

BLUE. Entered in SIFFNYC’s World Features is Ma-an L. Asuncion-Dagñalan’s feature debut, ‘Blue Room,’ whose cast includes Elijah Canlas (impressive in Jun Lana’s ‘About Us But Not Us’). The film was produced by Will Fredo and Ferdy Lapuz. Contributed photo

In the US/World Shorts, two entries are by Filipino American filmmakers, Velvet Sky by Charles Jon Gray (grand-nephew of the late Dolphy) and Man of the Sea by Ken Anderson (actor Gerald Anderson’s brother).

Noted Filipino filmmaker Jeffrey Jeturian and Emmy Award-nominated FilAm television journalist Ernabel Castro Demillo are among the distinguished jurors this year.

JURORS. Filipino filmmaker Jeffrey Jeturian and Fil-Am television journalist Ernabel Castro Demillo are among the distinguished jurors this year. Contributed photo

The festival’s full program is at www.sohofilmfest.com.

Jorge, credited as the founder of SIFFNYC which is one of the festivals championing independent cinema from all over the world, recalled via email: “When I founded the SOHO International Film Festival 14 years ago, my vision was to create a platform for independent filmmakers to showcase their work, celebrate artistic expression, and bring together a diverse community of film enthusiasts.”

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JORGE. Jorge Ballos, who founded the SOHO International Film Festival 14 years ago: ‘Looking back now, I’m incredibly proud of how the festival has grown and the impact it has had on the filmmaking world.’ Contributed photo

Jorge created SIFFNYC in July 2009 and staged the fest for the first time in February 2010.

The Philippine-born actor and executive, who moved to the US in 1984, added, “Looking back now, I’m incredibly proud of how the festival has grown and the impact it has had on the filmmaking world. It’s been a journey filled with challenges and successes. I’m grateful for the opportunity to have been a part of it for over a decade.”

Among the stars who have attended the fest include Pierce Brosnan, Octavia Spencer, Adam Brody, Bobby Cannavale, Armand Assante, Luis Guzman, Sean Young, Kevin Jonas, Eric Roberts, Michael Imperioli, and Steve Schirripa.

Sibyl, the executive director and head of programming, shared, also via email, about the 2023 edition of the festival which she has been with since 2011: “I am really excited about the event as a whole!”

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SIBYL. Sibyl Reymundo-Santiago, SOHO International Film Fest executive director and head of programming: ‘I am really thrilled that we have a great number of AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) representation at this year’s program. It is personally exciting to see that.’ Contributed photo

“We have a record year for submissions and there are some really great ones, we feel. The performances and production values as a whole have been really good.”

Since the festival features indie films that are not attached to the AMPTP (Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers), it is not impacted by the ongoing Hollywood double strike.

Sibyl explained, “I am also a very proud union member, as are most of our team working with the festival. So, hearing finally from our unions officially that we can and should support independent productions that are not attached to the AMPTP and have adhered to the interim agreement during the festival season was a huge sigh of relief as none of our films accepted, nor is the festival itself, attached to them (AMPTP).”

Sibyl, the daughter of veteran actress Lorli Villanueva, pointed out, “To me, the highlights are the diversity of our program this year, so much wonderful representation and the events we have with NYWIFT (New York Women in Film & Television, of which she is a board member) and Juilliard Drama films.”

The latter event includes the world premiere of short films featuring Juilliard Drama Division actors from the famed school’s classes of 2022 and 2023, made as part of a new initiative to offer students practical experience working on camera.

Born in San Francisco and raised in New York, but a resident of the Philippines for a few years, the former child actor pointed out, “I’m also an active advocate helping build the AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) Working Group of the Producers Guild of America so I am really thrilled that we have a great number of AAPI representation at this year’s program. It is personally exciting to see that.”

“Challenging is an understatement!” Sybil exclaimed when I asked her about the challenge of watching countless potential entries. “As I said, too many really great films this year that I wish I had 10 theaters so I could get them all in!”

“I’ve only had to chase a few films and it is all more because of mundane email server situations but no issues otherwise. The pain is more on not being able to take all the films we want, especially on a year where we have record premieres.”

“And of course, part of the goal of the festival is to give a stage for New York filmmakers so we always leave a few slots to get them in the program.”

The busy Fil-Am, who is also the president of Sitting Cat Productions, cited the time it takes to sift through the submissions: “It takes pretty much almost a year since we open submissions as soon as the festival ends and we almost get submissions coming in as soon as we do.”

“It doesn’t get as intense until about five months before the event starts. That is when films start rolling in heavily so we would double or triple our screening duties. Being filmmakers ourselves as well, we really do watch all the submissions.”

Sybil’s reward is in discovering new filmmakers. “It feels really amazing!” she enthused. “This year, for example, we have a film (Scrap) that was accepted as a short film a few years ago and this year, they’ll be premiering the same film as a feature!”

“We also get a lot of alums who come back as they flourish and grow in the industry and they remember that we gave them their first opportunity. I pride myself on finding the ones who have the spark that just needs to be ignited.”

“We have great and talented alums. We also have a lot of filmmakers who meet their collaborators and partners in the festival itself so it is very rewarding, indeed.”

On how much of an influence her mom Lorli had in her passion for cinema, Sibyl, herself an actress, answered, “She is absolutely the reason why I fell in love with cinema! Mom is not just an inspiration as an artist but also in her professionalism. She doesn’t do things halfway and she has the best work ethic of any human I know.”

“Watching her work, whether she is in front of the camera, on the stage, behind a mic or the camera, I’ve learned so much. She is well respected for a reason. And deservingly so. I am lucky to have had someone to guide me through.”

Back to Jorge, he described his next vision for SIFFNYC: “In the next 14 years, I envision the SOHO International Film Festival continuing to evolve as a dynamic platform for filmmakers worldwide. Embracing the advancements in technology, we’ll expand into virtual and immersive experiences, allowing filmmakers and audiences to connect from across the globe.”

“Our focus will remain on promoting diverse voices and perspectives, nurturing emerging talent and fostering a strong sense of community within the film industry. As we move forward, I’m excited to see the festival grow and adapt while staying true to its core mission of celebrating the art of independent filmmaking.”

“In the next fourteen years, I hope and pray that the festival will still be around.”

FilAm Creative Film Festival

Speaking of film festivals, at the recent successful launch of the inaugural FilAm Creative Film Festival in Glendale, California, who suddenly appeared in front of me? Brillante Mendoza. It was a total surprise.

Brillante, the award-winning filmmaker, and the first and so far the only Filipino to win Cannes Film Festival’s best director award – for Butchered (Kinatay) in 2009 – is briefly in LA for a project that will remain under wraps for now.

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BRILLANTE. Brillante Mendoza was a special guest at the launching of the FilAm Creative Film Festival. Ruben V. Nepales/Rappler

It was good to catch up with Brillante. To this day, one of my most memorable anecdotes about the filmmaker was when we were in the Philippines and he invited us again to his home in Mandaluyong.

We arrived late at night at the wrap party of his film, Captive. There, in the middle of his home’s outdoor space was the most surreal yet endearing sight – actress Isabelle Huppert and several women dancing to a Filipino novelty hit at that time. And the acclaimed French thespian knew all the choreographed dance moves to this local hit.

It was fitting that Brillante was a special guest at the launching of the FilAm Creative Film Festival, which we are sure will be a showcase of indie cinema, of which the director is a leading exponent.

We introduced him to the many Fil-Am film and television talents who graced this occasion held in this stately private residence.

The film fest is a major step for FilAm Creative, described as a non-profit organization “promoting a more culturally integrated and diverse entertainment industry…dedicated to the advancement and empowerment of Filipino Americans in media and entertainment.”

Toward those goals, the organization’s film festival will be held from November 3 to 5 at Occidental College (notable alums include former US president Barack Obama, Ben Affleck, and Terry Gilliam) in nearby Eagle Rock.

At the launch, a perfect summer event held at sunset, Mark Labella, FilAm Creative’s executive director, announced that Birns & Sawyer, a film production equipment and camera rental company that opened shop in Hollywood in 1954 and has since been supporting filmmakers from all over the world, will give a major grant in the festival.

COMMUNITY. Mark Labella (right), FilAm Creative’s executive director, with (from left) Mari Acevedo and Jennielyn Abrot, at the launch of the organization’s inaugural film festival: ‘Here we have a community that celebrates one another, a generation and veneration of people who shuns that negativity, and welcomes everyone with open arms.’ Ruben V. Nepales/Rappler

Mari Acevedo, a Fil-Am who became Birns & Sawyer’s first woman and person of color to serve as its owner and CEO, and who graciously opened her beautiful home for the event, delivered remarks. Jennielyn Abrot, appointed as the new director of the festival, also addressed the crowd of Fil-Ams in entertainment.

In recent years, I have noticed and appreciated a whole new generation of Fil-Ams who sincerely want to uplift and support each other and do not subscribe to the old crab mentality, back-biting, and bickering that unfortunately characterized our community.

That’s why Mark’s words in his speech resonated with me and the guests:

“Our FilAm Creative’s motto is ‘A rising tide raises all ships.’ We work hard to foster a community that celebrates everyone and welcomes others with open arms, firmly believing that it is impossible to be inclusive while being exclusive.”

“We are not an exclusive group of people who just want to throw fancy Hollywood parties. We are a group of creatives, professionals, and humans of all races and ethnicities who intrinsically want to elevate and uplift each other’s talents. At FilAm Creative and Birns & Sawyer, we work hard to raise the tide.”

“…And if you have ever worked and helped out our community in any way, raise your hand. Look around you. All of these people – look to your left. Look to your right and say, hi. And tell them…‘I want to see you rise.’”

“Here we have a community that celebrates one another, a generation and veneration of people who shuns that negativity, and welcomes everyone with open arms.”

“You can’t be inclusive while being exclusive. We do not care how much money you have in your pocket, how famous you are, we just want to see you rise. I want you to know you are welcome here. You are safe here. Welcome home.”

Most encouraging words I have ever heard in a Fil-Am community event. As we say in Tagalog, “Harinawa” (“I hope so” or “I wish”). – Rappler.com

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Ruben V. Nepales

Based in Los Angeles, Ruben V. Nepales is an award-winning journalist whose honors include prizes from the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards, a US-wide competition, and the Southern California Journalism Awards, presented by the Los Angeles Press Club.