Tuesday, June 04, 2013

YBCA: NEW FILIPINO CINEMA 2013—The Evening Class Interview With Joel Shepard

Last year about this time, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) launched New Filipino Cinema to introduce American audiences to the startlingly creative yet relatively unknown work coming out of the Philippines. Here at The Evening Class, we reviewed several films in the 2012 line-up—Niño, Kano: An American and His Harem, Remington and the Curse of the Zombadings, Amok, and Boundary—replicated Philbert Ortiz Dy's essay, and interviewed Raya Martin and Carlo Obispo.

New Filipino Cinema was so successful that YBCA programmer Joel Shepard has returned with a second edition, co-sponsored by FACINE (Filipino Arts & Cinema, International) and Filipino American Arts Exposition. "Even if the rest of the world is still catching on," YBCA's website boasts, "the Philippines remains one of the most creative and exciting countries for independent cinema. 5 days, 16 films, 7,107 islands!"

In his follow-up essay for this year's edition, Philippine critic and New Filipino Cinema co-programmer Philbert Ortiz Dy qualifies the difficulty of trying to pinpoint a unifying theme in this year's selection of films. "Once again," Dy writes, "we are faced with a uniquely diverse set of movies that defy classification. Like the country itself, which is made up of thousands of little islands, each with its own culture, dialect, and people, our cinema often refuses to homogenize." New Filipino Cinema's quest "to document the soul of a country" reveals a character of violence negotiated through art. "Many of our films ... seem to meditate on living within a culture of conflict, telling the stories of people who are forced to adapt to the violence that is so present in their lives."

During my recent stint in San Francisco, I made a point of inviting Joel Shepard out for coffee so that we could profile this year's edition of New Filipino Cinema, opening tonight at YBCA.

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Michael Guillén: Joel, I was so pleased to receive notice that YBCA has followed through with a second edition of New Filipino Cinema. Before launching into that, let's recap a bit of what happened with last year's edition. Did it achieve the reach you imagined? From my perspective, the 2012 series was one of the best uses of diasporic channels to distribute a national product internationally that I'd witnessed in some time.

Joel Shepard: It's been quite a journey. I've made 7-8 trips to the Philippines now, researching Filipino Cinema, and pulling these programs together.

Guillén: What motivated your interest?

Shepard: I knew a little bit about Filipino Cinema, but mainly older films; I didn't know much about contemporary films. Then, six or seven years ago the Rotterdam Film Festival had a focus on the Philippines with a sidebar that had a particular view of contemporary Filipino Cinema. They focused on the avant-garde underground scene, very much based out of Manila, and a group of people who were all friends—Khavn De La Cruz, John Torres, Raya Martin—members of a younger, underground scene working with tiny budgets, who were making experimental and raw, immediate street filmmaking, and I had no idea all of this was going on. The Rotterdam sidebar was eye-opening. I decided I needed to know more and get deeper into Filipino Cinema, especially since the Bay Area has such a huge Filipino American community. It seemed a natural contribution for YBCA.

My first visit to the Philippines was to serve on a jury at a film festival called Cinemanila, which is actually the only international film festival in the Philippines. I learned there was way more going on with independent Filipino Cinema than the selection Rotterdam had shown—which were all great, important films—but, just one part of the whole scene. It was incredibly eye-opening to discover there was this independent film scene in the Philippines that is not hardly known at all outside of the Philippines. It's starting to get out there a little more but there's still a long ways to go.

The term "independent cinema" doesn't mean much anymore in America. It's been drained of meaning. "Indie film" has been largely co-opted by the studios. But it still means something in the Philippines where there are three major studios that put out all the commercial product and where everything else is independent.

Guillén: The financing is independent? None is government-subsidized?

Shepard: The Philippines have a unique system for how independent films get made. There are several film festivals in the Philippines who basically commission films through a grant-application process. The festivals fund a certain number of these films, which then end up being shown at the festival. Cinemaya and the Cinema One Originals Film Festival are both festivals composed of such commissioned films. We don't have anything quite like that in the States.

Guillén: Is that influence from Rotterdam, who I understand groom filmmakers to harvest premieres? Is the independent Filipino Cinema scene trying to make movies they think will interest festivals like Rotterdam?

Shepard: Their system pre-dates Rotterdam because it was basically the only way they could get movies made. The Cinema One Originals Film Festival is actually an offshoot of Cinema One, a television channel that's kind of like their HBO. They're producing these films because it provides content for their TV channel.

Guillén: It intrigues me that your research has discovered much more than what has been consensually understood as the national cinema of the Philippines. This confirms for me the slippery nature of using a term like "national cinema", which necessarily requires constant maintenance.

Shepard: I continue to be amazed at the quality of work being produced there and how little it is being seen outside of their own country. Again, a few films are spreading out into the international film festival circuit. I don't know if you noticed but at Cannes this year there are three Filipino films, one in main competition, and two in Un Certain Regard. That's the first time there's every been three Filipino films at Cannes at the same time. All three have come out of the indie world. So, though it's taken them a while, even Cannes is catching on.

Guillén: When you decided you wanted to create a program of New Filipino Cinema, what was involved in negotiating with YBCA? Did you seek a grant to finance your initial research trips? Did you have to have the whole program in place before you pitched it to them?

Shepard: Luckily, I'm pretty independent at YBCA in terms of where I place my focus. I'm allowed to be self-directed. I'm lucky that I can get obsessed about something and have the freedom to just go for it, as long as it fits into the institutional mission. I was able to adjust my budget to accommodate the additional travel required. I couldn't just have people send me DVDs to get a sense of the scene. I had to immerse myself in the culture and meet the filmmakers and go to the events. It would never have worked to just research on the internet and pull together a program that way.

Guillén: By comparison to your programming colleagues in the Bay Area, I consider yours to be one of the most curatorial sensibilities out there. Do you consider there to be a difference between programming and curating?

Shepard: That's a tricky question. I've always been a little bit uncomfortable with the term "curator", which seems to me to be a term that comes more from the visual arts of the museum and gallery worlds. I've never been sure exactly how it fits in to film. To be honest, it's always struck me as a little pretentious.

Guillén: I admire your modesty, but surely you're aware that your programs are singularly unique? Most notably, they have an edge to them. You often approach mature and erotic domains. You'd think in San Francisco that would be par for the course, but it actually seems to me that most programming in the Bay Area has become increasingly safe. There's not as much edgy content available.

Shepard: Less and less, yeah. It's changed over time. San Francisco's just not as edgy a place anymore, though that edginess is something I often revisit. As for the Filipino project, I should be clear that I co-programmed this series with Philbert Ortiz Dy. Right off the bat, I knew we needed to do this with somebody from the country. I'm not Filipino. I don't speak any of the Filipino languages. To make the series something deep, I felt it was important to partner with someone in the Philippines.

Guillén: Which lends credence. Philbert Ortiz Dy is one of Manila's main film critics as well?

Shepard: He is, yeah, and he's really sharp. He's somebody who can write about Iron Man all the way to some weird avant garde film with equal interest, intelligence, and passion. There aren't a lot of critics like that.

Guillén: He wrote the essay for last year's edition of New Filipino Cinema. Has he written a new one this year?

Shepard: Yeah, and it's very good. I wrote a short essay laying out the broad picture, then in his essay Philbert went deeper into the themes of this year's films.

Guillén: How did you two negotiate shaping the rhythm of the festival?

Shepard: We figured it out as we went along. We didn't draw up a contract or anything like that. We agreed on all the films. We both had to buy in to each film. I can't go to every major film festival that goes on there—not like I did in my first year when I made four visits to the Philippines—so I depend on him to preview films in advance for me and pass on what he thinks the most valuable.

Guillén: How is the Philippine film community reacting to the New Filipino Cinema series that you've introduced to the United States?

Shepard: They're supportive, happy and proud that it's happening. I was just there for a few days a couple of weeks ago on my way to a film festival in Korea and I was sitting at the breakfast buffet one morning reading The Enquirer—which is their daily newspaper—and opened it up to find an article covering the film series and the 16 Filipino films coming to San Francisco.

Guillén: Have you had any anecdotal response from the filmmakers featured in last year's edition to the extent of sensing any increased visibility for their participation?

Shepard: Having only had a year, I think it's going to take some time before the series is fully noticed. There certainly was an increased interest in the series nationally from other film programmers. I received a lot of inquiries: "Can we show these films here?" I imagine the next step for New Filipino Cinema is to organize some kind of national tour; but, it's complicated. Dealing with the Philippines presents unique problems and challenges that don't happen with other countries.

Guillén: [Laughs.] How ambassadorial!

Shepard: It's not simple.

Guillén: Is the entire series digital?

Shepard: Yes. It's pretty much all DCP. There's no film. But that's because no one is making film in the Philippines anymore. The only projects coming out on film are some of the broad, commercial films where prints are being struck because not all of the theaters have converted to digital yet; but, otherwise, in the independent world, no one is shooting on film.

Guillén: It's possible that—if the classification of a "national cinema" is to apply at all in the future—it won't be through commercial channels and might just have to be through digital independents.

Shepard: It's interesting. As much as I bemoan the loss of 35mm, I also have to acknowledge the democratization enabled by digital technology that allows people all over the world to make films that would have been impossible to make in years past. So there's good and bad.

Guillén: I imagine another advantage of a DCP series is the potential for organizing a national tour? In that respect, it's not such a bad thing?

Shepard: Yeah.

Guillén: I don't intend for you to cover the entire upcoming series for me, but I was wondering if you could give me three or four titles that you're especially excited about for one reason or another? Titles that you really want your San Franciscan audiences to see?

Shepard: The whole program, including shorts, is 16 films and—just so you'll have a sense of the series as a whole—we've really tried to make the program a comprehensive picture of the entire independent film scene. We cover the experimental, avant-garde world, as well as documentaries, more traditional dramatic narratives and shorts. I was very conscious of making sure we had a number of films directed by women, as well as films in different languages. Most people assume Tagalog is the language spoken in the Philippines, but that's just one of many languages. Tagalog is the language of the capitol region, but outside that region are dozens of other languages.

We also wanted the program to cover the whole geography of the islands. The Philippines are much more than just Manila. Of course, as the capitol, most film production takes place there; but, there are pockets of regional filmmaking going on as well, particularly in the South, which is historically known as a troubled region of the Philippines because of an ongoing Muslim war against the Philippine government. It's considered a dangerous area and Americans are warned not to travel there. That's mostly misleading information—it's safe to go there—and it was important for us to secure films from there. There's incredible independent work coming out of that region, which very few people are aware of.

We're starting the series with an older film Himala ("Miracle" in Tagalog) made in 1982. This was a choice we debated a lot because the program is called New Filipino Cinema. Himala is directed by Ishmael Bernal, who—though now deceased—remains one of the Philippines' greatest filmmakers. Himala is probably his greatest film; it's a masterpiece. It could be considered the Philippine equivalent to The Godfather or even Gone With the Wind, but it's completely unknown in the West. The rights to it are owned by ABS-CBN, a major television network in the Philippines, and they've restored the film. It was re-released at Christmas in the Philippines and it stars Nora Aunor, who's probably their biggest movie star. So we're opening the series with the U.S. premiere of this new digital restoration. This is exactly the kind of film that should be showing on the circuit at the Castro Theatre, along with Kubrick and Hitchcock and the standard repertory fare. So it's new not only in that it's a new digital restoration, but it's new in the fact that film restoration itself is a relatively new concept in the Philippines. In general, they haven't done a good job of taking good care of their film history; but, there are a lot of efforts now to change that.

Another highlight would be our closing film The Journey of Stars into the Dark Night (Ang Paglalakbay ng mga Bituin sa Gabing Madilim) by Arnel Mardoquio. He's one of the filmmakers from the South, Mindanao, that I was mentioning earlier. We showed his film Crossfire last year. His new film is also set during the uprising in the South but he takes a completely strange and unexpected point of view on this conflict. It's a truly surprising film and he's going to be at YBCA in person.

Guillén: Ah, I was going to ask if YBCA was hosting any talent.

Shepard: We have four people coming from Manila: three of the filmmakers, and an academic. So both the opening and closing films are pretty special to me. It's hard to choose because all of these films are like my babies. We've chosen them so carefully. We didn't have enough slots to show everything we wanted to show, there were that many good films, so everything's good in the series. You have to come and see everything!

Guillén: I'd still like you to single out at least one more.

Shepard: Okay. I'm a big fan of one of the documentaries we're showing, Tondo, Beloved: To What Are the Poor Born? (Tundong Magiliw: Pasaan isinisilang siyang mahirap?). Tondo is a neighborhood in Manila that has a bad reputation. It's one of metro Manila's poorest neighborhoods and is one of the most densely populated areas in the entire Earth, actually. This young woman Jewel Maranan made this documentary about the neighborhood. She lived with a family there for a number of years and has crafted an extremely intimate documentary about their daily existence. There isn't really a plot or anything like that. There's no editorializing. No directorial flourishes. I'm not sure if Jewel has ever seen this director's work, but her documentary reminds me a bit of Pedro Costa. It has a similar narcotic intimacy that fully immerses you in this place.

Guillén: Is there anyone in the United States who you would consider a Filipino cinema expert? Someone who's writing on the subject?

Shepard: There's very little. I had a meeting with Susan Oxtoby the other day and going over the program with her and she had never heard of any of these films and, as you know, she's one of the most knowledgable people in the world on film. Filipino Cinema is a blind spot for most people.

Guillén: Which your series clearly remedies; but, it makes me wonder why there's been such a blind spot? Are there historical contingencies between the Philippines and the U.S. that would have contributed to that?

Shepard: I'm not sure why this is; but, I feel like it's my duty to do something about it. Also, I think we owe the Philippines a little more than we're willing to acknowledge. They were our colony for 50 years and they're still very much dealing with the aftermath of that, and not always in an entirely positive way. Americans have a responsibility to understand more about the Philippines. That's my main reason for pulling together this film series.

Guillén: Let's return to the idea of distributing a national cinema through diasporic channels. How do you coordinate community outreach to your Filipino American constituency?

Shepard: There's a whole number of cultural leaders in the local community that I've gotten to know and who are giving their support. There's active Filipino American media in the Bay Area, including four newspapers, and a TV channel, a whole slew that—if you're not a member of the community—you wouldn't necessarily know about; but, it's big.

Guillén: Again, I know it's still too early to fully gauge reception for the series, but has there been any preliminary sense of how older Filipinos are relating to the new work you're showcasing in the Bay Area?

Shepard: It's complicated because there's a complicated relationship between Filipinos and Filipino Americans. They're not the same people. They're different communities. I don't necessarily think of Filipino Americans as being the main audience for New Filipino Cinema. They're an important audience, of course, and we want to do everything possible to reach them and get them interested but I want to reach beyond them too.