Adolf Alix, Jr: On loneliness and the cinematic experience

Niña Terol
One of today's most promising filmmakers talks sadness, film and why 'mainstream' and 'independent' go hand in hand

DIREK ADOLF ALIX, JR. Photography by Cholo dela Vega. Grooming by Georginna Desuasido.

Photography by Cholo dela Vega. Grooming by Georginna Desuasido.

MANILA, Philippines – Everyone goes through periods of loneliness.

It is a universal feeling — one that does not require a common language or culture to be understood.

In the case of Adolfo Alix, Jr., loneliness has become a subject of exploration and discovery, a theme that has allowed him to stretch the boundaries of filmmaking to see just how much he (and his audience) can discover.

“I read somewhere that one (feeling) that lingers the most is loneliness — sadness,” Alix shares. “I’m not a lonely person, I’m not a sad person; but I’ve realized that many of my films have an introspective quality about them.”

“I like to do films on themes that I’m not exactly familiar with,” he points out. “I like to experiment and try different milieus, different approaches.”

Inspiration from isolation

In the case of Alix’s latest film, Kalayaan (“Wildfire”), the milieu is the disputed Spratly Islands, a small archipelago in the South China (or West Philippine) Sea claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. 

The film tackles the subject of isolation, madness and the psychological struggles experienced by soldiers manning Kalayaan Island, a municipality under the province of Palawan.

A film whose idea was conceived 6 years ago and which took a total of 5 years to complete, Kalayaan shows the daily life of soldiers “who were trained to kill but are now confronted with silence, with boredom, with isolation, with nothing.” It destroys the myth of the soldier as warrior and instead shows the soldier — the Filipino soldier, in particular — as a victim of circumstance, of politics and of his own personal ghosts.

A review in the Yahoo! Southeast Asia blog says this about the film:

“Set against the backdrop of a failing administration and consequently, our history’s second EDSA Revolution, ‘Kalayaan’ underlines how isolation removes a person from reality and takes him to the most basic, most primal realms of perception and how null one’s duty becomes next to the dreadful yet irresistible expanse of the unknown.”

“In the case of the soldiers in the Spratly Islands, what is political has become very personal,” Alix muses.

“These men were trained to be in battle, to be in the middle of action, but here the soldiers are conflicted when faced with isolation in an island. They are confused. They don’t know what they are doing there, or what they’re doing it for.” 

To bring authenticity into the filmmaking process, Alix cast into the role of the Filipino soldier (Julian) the popular Thai-born Laosian-Australian actor Ananda Everingham. They met at the Bangkok International Film Festival in 2006. 

“Ananda was the perfect choice because he himself was experiencing loneliness in the process of doing the film,” Alix bares. “As a foreigner, he has had to cope with the language barrier, with filming in a different country, with being unfamiliar with his surroundings — in many ways, he really was like the soldier in the role. I told him to channel all of that into the making of the film. In the end, it worked.”

Kalayaan won for Alix and his team the awards Best Sound (Ditoy Aguila), Best Production Design (Adolfo Alix, Jr.) and Best Cinematography (Albert Banzon) at the 8th Cinemalaya Film Festival, held in July 2012.

Cultivating a community

In many ways, the film festival circuit has been home to Alix, a filmmaker with over 20 critically acclaimed films under his belt (aside from the ones that he had written and produced).

Having started his career as a scriptwriter, Alix leaped into filmmaking with the critically-acclaimed film Donsol in 2006. He then quickly became one of the independent film industry’s most prolific and most bankable names. Alix’s films went around international film festivals or went on to win awards, and he gained the industry’s respect.

Thespian and critic Irma Adlawan wrote this about Alix in a 2008 blog post reviewing Tambolista: “Alix is a welcome new voice in an exciting new field — the most vital in the country, arguably.”

In 2010, he was included in The Hollywood Reporter’s “Next Generation Asia 2010” list, which shows “the best and the brightest among their peers” in “the world’s biggest entertainment market.”

Through the applause and the accolades, Alix maintains that it is the duty of the independent film industry to “co-exist (with mainstream cinema)… to advance the industry.”

“Of all the art forms, film is the youngest, most accessible (genre). If you want something to disseminate to an audience, you use film. Therefore, you have to cultivate it,” Alix points out.

He continues, “The burden on the independent filmmakers is to have (their) films released and shown to an audience… We really hope that once in a while, (the audience can patronize independent films) so they can see the alternative — because there are other ways of telling stories.”

To Alix, there is — or there shouldn’t be — any competition between “mainstream” and “independent” cinema because both categories serve to nurture an industry and perpetuate the magic of ideas, images and voices unfolding together on a movie screen.

Photography by Cholo dela Vega. Grooming by Georginna Desuasido.

At the end of the day, cinema is cinema.

Iba pa rin ang experience of the cinema — it’s larger than life… The child in you is fascinated when you watch a movie, because there are certain spectacles that you won’t experience even when watching from a large TV. It’s all about the cinematic experience.”

And it is in that experience that strangers become kindred spirits, sharing — even for just a brief moment — an antidote to loneliness that is as universal as it is personal. –

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