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Cinemalaya 2020 short film finalists: A review (part 1)

By Kara Santos Published Aug 11, 2020 12:00 am Updated Aug 12, 2020 9:29 am

Cinemalaya, the country’s biggest indie film event, has gone fully digital this year. Film buffs no longer have to brave the traffic and rain to catch this year’s screenings of Pinoy indie flicks at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) or select theaters. Instead, anyone around the country (or the world for that matter) can easily watch the films from the comfort of their homes.

While watching films on the big screen in a packed theater with friends offers a completely different experience from watching films on your computer or phone at home, this online set-up potentially gives access to more viewers. With most people stuck at home due to the ongoing community quarantine restrictions, it’s great that the spirit of Filipino independent cinema has found a way to persevere.

Cinemalaya 2020 exposes viewers to different film styles, concepts and ideas that go beyond the usual blockbuster-type mainstream hits or sappy rom-coms that tell you the entire story in the trailer alone.

The focus of this year’s digital edition are the 10 main competition shorts. Ranging in length from 11 to 20 minutes each, these short films are easy enough to digest — long pauses, awkward silences and extreme close-ups notwithstanding. Here’s a quick spoiler-free review of the first five short film finalists.

Ang Gasgas na Plaka ni Lolo Bert dirs. Janina Gacosta and Cheska Marfori

The film opens up in an old house where an old man goes about his daily routine. He fixes his books and photos hanging on the wall, drinks coffee, watches the rain, washes dishes, and just waits for death. The feeling of monotony, melancholia and loneliness is established in the lack of dialogue, the coldness of the scenes, and the ambient sounds. The setting, cinematography, and treatment are very effective, and as a viewer, you can’t help but feel sad for the main character.

His life takes a sudden turn with the arrival of a box filled with mementos, including an old photograph of two men and a vinyl record that keeps skipping as he tries to play it. The character then takes the record it to a vinyl shop to get it repaired.

In contrast to scenes set in the house, the vinyl shop feels much warmer. The vintage cassette tapes and rows of old records are as quirky as the man tending the record shop. The banter and various encounters between the two main characters feels upbeat compared to Lolo Bert’s otherwise lonely existence.

The music feels like a third major character in this short film. The broken record, translated as “Endless Sorrows,” provides a bridge between a long-lost past and a somewhat hopeful future. While the resolution feels a bit rushed and forced (it is a short film after all), I admit this quietly sweet and touching story left me shedding a few tears.

Pabasa kan Pasyon dir. Hubert Tibi

When I saw the trailer for this, I was interested to watch it because it was set in Bicol, my home province. The rural scenes, dialect, and chanting of the pabasa felt very reminiscent of scenes during the Lenten season in the province, like “Hinulid” where devotees and pilgrims walk from neighboring places to visit a religious image housed in a shrine.

The stark black and white treatment of the whole film depicting faith and religious imagery is counterpointed with the impending closure of a local radio station, suffering from the effects of modernization including competition from Facebook and Spotify.

Interestingly, the short film was shot during actual Easter celebrations in a small town in Bicol. In an interview on CNN, director Hubert Tibi said that while he was on vacation he managed to document rites during a 5-day shoot and turn the footage into a short film. The fact that there was no plan in place led to a realistic and dramatic documentation of events, including accidental scenes that strengthened the story.

While some scenes felt a bit disjointed, the strong imagery from actual Lenten rites stood out. Watching this felt like browsing through an old album of black and white still photographs, with particularly strong moving images, like the son who plays the part of King Herod crossing a field with the iconic Mayon Volcano in the background and the children carrying a cross in the cemetery, making it memorable.

Fatigued dir. James Mayo

Fatigued takes the most experimental approach to the selection of short films in terms of style and storytelling. From the get go, it feels like a first-person horror or survival video game in the vein of Silent Hill or Resident Evil where you play a burnt out employee trying to wake up from a nightmare. Fatigued brands itself as an “interactive film” and encourages audience participation. Unlike other interactive films like Black Mirror’s Bandersnatch where viewers can control major decisions by using their remote control, you don’t really have full control of the main character here, but you still feel somewhat invested.

The film gives the audience instructions on what to do to “progress” in the film and I found myself complying, like closing the curtains to make sure the room was dark, chanting or clapping in certain scenes when it told me to just to add to the experience.

There’s a sense of dread in the atmosphere and visuals of Fatigued. The use of popular horror tropes like walking down creepy corridors and browsing through old photos feels very eerie. The grainy editing and inclusion of recording clips adds to the Blair Witch first-person perspective feel.

I think Fatigued would work as a mini-feature before a full-length horror film in the cinema. There’s something about being in a dark movie theatre that heightens the experience. Fear and reactions tend to be more infectious in a crowd. If someone screams, other people will scream, if someone claps, most likely, others will too.

I can imagine how much more fun it would have been as part of a collective audience “taking control” of the main character for the first time. While I watched it alone at home, it still left me with a feeling of dread. Watching Fatigued felt like a unique and engaging experience that I’d recommend to friends who scare easily.

Tokwifi dir. Carla Pulido Ocampo

Easily one of my favorites in terms of the cinematography and overall treatment, visually Tokwifi is spectacular. It takes the viewers to rice fields and mountain landscapes in the Cordilleras, with shots around the campfire and tribal chanting setting the scene and drawing in the viewer immediately. For an independent film, Tokwifi offers excellent production value.

The introduction, done in a nostalgic Pan-am documentary style establishes how Igorots do not kiss or have other forms of physical affection. The bizarre premise of the story, of a 1950s television with a showbiz star trapped inside falling from the sky into a rural rice field where she’s found by an Igorot man, borders on Twilight Zone. But as a viewer, you just accept this and watch the story delightfully unfold.

The film’s underlying themes surrounding culture and references to how indigenous people are typically viewed by the outside world are captured through snippets as satirical commercials on a television screen.

The surreal yet heartwarming fantasy story at its core between two characters whose love crosses the boundaries of space and time dimensions, will leave viewers with that sense of wonder and hope that magic still exists.

Quing Lalam Ning Aldo (Under the Sun) dir. Reeden Fajardo

Of the 10 short films in competition this year, Quing Lalam Ning Aldo felt the lightest and most straightforward, which was frankly refreshing compared to some of the heavier films.

The story revolves around a gay sampaguita farmer in a rural town in Pampanga, who decides to renovate a neglected kitchen and prepare a special native chicken meal in anticipation of a visit from her son.

There’s a warm glow and filtered aesthetic to how the simple life in a rural town is depicted. Instead of the typical gritty approach to poverty porn, this film shows the ordinary struggles and hard work that comes with living in the countryside in a light and airy manner. The two main gay characters of Budang and Georgia are very likable and their dialogue, peppered with Kapampangan humor and gay lingo, offers a breather to the viewers. While the story may be simple, it feels very heartfelt and sincere.

Despite its short running time, Quing Lalam Ning Aldo manages to offer a satisfying and feel-good conclusion – proof that an indie film doesn’t always have to be heartbreakingly depressing or plain weird.

Click here for part 2 of the short film finalists.

Cinemalaya 2020 runs from now until August 16. Click here to know how you can watch all these films online.

(All images are copyright to their respective owners)