On its seventh year, Cinemalaya has proven once and for all that it is indeed the only true Filipino film festival.
Although the screenings are still limited to the premises of the Cultural Center of the Philippines and two theaters in Greenbelt, the audiences who fill the venues in each showing manifest astounding growth in numbers. Perhaps more than the honors reaped by independent films in the annual award derbies, Cinemalaya gives chance for the public to actually screen these gems and see the directions being taken by the emergent Filipino cinema.
And this year's crop of entries in the Short Features, New Breed and Directors' Showcase has not only provided variety but revealed the complex mind of the Filipino filmmaker as he shapes as well as reacts to the world around him.
A satirical comedy like Chris Martinez and Marlon Rivera's "Ang Babae sa Septic Tank" or an upbeat, slick and scathing commentary on contemporary mores like Erick Salud's "Ligo na U, Lapit na Me" are proof that indie films can be box office hits ---- minus all that drumbeating and over the top marketing. All you really need is a damn good movie --- and it automatically finds its commercial worth. Nothing beats good word-of-mouth but more so --- just a good movie to mouth about.
But two films stand out among all the others in the festival: these, I feel, truly represent what Cinemalaya this year was all about. Loy Arcenas' "Nino" and Lawrence Fajardo's "Amok" are outstanding works of first-time directors --- revealing not only mastery of the craftsmanship of making films but creating a distinct identity, a thumbprint all so important in distinguishing one's style above the rest. More so, Arcenas and Fajardo made sophisticated and intelligent works ----- never pandering to sensationalism or exploiting the bane and perversion of poverty in order to gain attention from international film festivals. Instead, these two works are so distinctly and uniquely Filipino because they are intelligently drawn out, literate --- and more so, a study of contrasts.
Loy Arcenas' "Nino" is a tribute to so many classics of Philippine literature of culture. It resonates of Nick Joaquin's "Portrait of the Artist As Filipino." But the film was set in contemporary times where not a threat of world war but a worst form of Apocalypse casts a shadow to a dying house. Arcenas uses arias of operas to underline this theme --- and an aging, forgotten opera diva wonderfully portrayed by Fides Cuyugan-Asencio as the focus of his story.
Like the theme of his work, the opera diva has outlived her use. "Nino" is a study on the death of gentility, the brutality in the death of traditions when Filipinos have lost regard for a sense of roots and family, succumbing to the demands of economics and practicality. It is a tribute to an age lost, innocence forfeited --- and even the genteel manners that once characterized the elegance of our grandparents in years gone by. It is also a showcase for the brilliant performances of Art Acuna, Sharmaine Centenera-Buencamino and Racquel Villavicencio.
But it is Lawrence Fajardo's "Amok" that is a marvel of filmmaking. Completely shot at the corner of EDSA and Taft Avenue where the LRT and the MRT intersect, "Amok" captures the last few minutes in the lives of an orchestra of characters amidst the hellhole of the city. It is the excellence in the pacing, the ingenuity of camera work and the collective brilliance in the direction and scripting of this material that bring out all its grit and fierceness.
If "Nino" is a study of lost gentility, "Amok" is an unforgiving glimpse into urban barbarism. Reminiscent of films like Crash and other multi-layered ensemble pieces, the success of "Amok" is its ability to capture the insanity and cacophony of the metro without the usual concessions to highlight Third World filmmaking. Tightly edited, brilliant directed and with superb acting especially from Dido de la Paz and Mark Gil, this movie is what Cinemalaya is all about.
So there: two brilliant films from first time directors. Then there is Eugene Domingo in "Babae sa Septic Tank." Include Edgar Alan Guzman and Mercedes Cabral in "Ligo na U." Oh, yes …even if you already expect a competent performance from Jean Garcia, be completely surprised by the mettle of Roco Nacino and Paolo Avelino in "Sayaw ng Dalawang Kaliwang Paa." And there is Cherry Pie Picache and Bembol Roco in Isda … the brilliant poetry of images of Aureus Solito's Busong. One can go on and on and on.
If only for these, Cinemalaya is indeed, I repeat, the only Filipino film festival that celebrates the emergence of a truly Filipino cinema today.