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FIRECRACKER’S ‘Tiger Eye’ interviews Peque Gallaga

First Posted 11:31:00 08/31/2007

Filed Under: Humor and Satire, Global Expansion, Cinema, Awards and Prizes

Calling the film Pinoy/Blonde ?dazzlingly creative,? resident critic ?Tiger Eye? in the United Kingdom?s Film Council website recently featured director Peque Gallaga ?as the film becomes available on demand on Firecracker TV.? Here?s the interview, unexpurgated, on ? the ideas behind the movie, his views on film in the Philippines, and the answer to the debate over the greatest Filipino director of all time...?

Tiger Eye: How did Pinoy/Blonde come about?

PG: : I was very heavily involved in mainstream Filipino industry filmmaking when I came across Tarantino's films.

I'm not very impressed with Tarantino's sensibilities - the idea of making a cult following out of something not necessarily good to begin with mainly because it is/was highly inaccessible to movie aficionados, is a very American elitist ?thing?; it'?s a very computer geek preoccupation, to celebrate the extrinsic and the outlandish - very much like comparing muscles or penis sizes, the winners being those who exhibit knowledge of what is more arcane and outrageous. It goes without saying that Tarantino has reached the limits of audience acceptability with the flop of his latest, Grindhouse.

But in a world where the guiding forces of moviemaking were to shorten and get to the point as fast as possible, Tarantino'?s verbal excursions into the import of ?Like A Virgin? and the finer points of Parisienne McDonald?s burgers were like a burst of fresh air. It was a giddy feeling to be exposed to extremely articulate, but not necessarily intelligent, everyday personalities who were involved in commenting on the circumstances they were finding themselves in (as opposed to professors, sages, professors and highly educated characters who are normally used to explain the world or the ?situation? in a movie).

So I decided to try it for myself and started to write a script about two young men, basically losers, failed movie directors, who not only saw the world in cinematic terms but were actually enmeshed in the movie in their minds. I wanted the script to be aware that much of what was taking place was really their cinematic take on the reality around them, and at the same time, there were two interpretations going on.

I wrote it without any thought to structure or a general plot outline. I started it right in the middle of some action and then, like my characters, made my way through the information that kept popping up as the story progressed. There was no thought of the Moebius strip kind of conclusion it finally ended with, but in looking back, I don?'t know where else it could have gone.

When I finished, since I had worked on it in English, I passed it on to my partner in films [Lore Reyes] who does the Filipino translations of our scripts and we had a good time restructuring the work together because as much as there is a kind of ?tough? lingo in English that defines wiseass, hip and arch characters, there is another level you hit with Filipino tough talk, which we refer to as ?astig?, which further defines the characters even more sharply. Needless to say, we were quite satisfied with our work but we shelved it immediately because we knew that there was no way on earth that a producer would touch the material or even consider it for shooting.

It was many years after that I came across Tony Gloria and we were discussing another film project, when he asked me if I had a script that I thought was good but would be considered inaccessible, as he was looking into infiltrating the indie film market in a substantial way, so I brought up Pinoy/ Blonde. To my surprise, he enjoyed it and wanted to produce it.

It looks very fresh and different for a Filipino film - was the film a deliberate attempt to challenge the perceptions of a Filipino film (both in The Philippines and abroad)?

I am very frustrated and impatient by the way that my colleagues, my fellow directors, present the Philippines to ourselves and to the rest of the world. It?'s as if Gerry de Leon, in some way Lamberto Avellana and then Lino Brocka created the template that would determine what is Filipino in both imagery and sensibility, and most Pinoy movies emerge from that template. It?'s like we'?re all in some Ford factory and all the cars we?'re creating are different versions of Ford.

There are imagistic clichés that exist without anybody challenging them. For example, a poor peasant family will be portrayed eating kamote (sweet potatoes) to underscore their poverty, when in actuality the real peasants would be eating kamote tops with their rice. And this is never challenged. Most Pinoy children in the movies talk in the singsong pattern established in the 1940s and 50s with poor imitations of Shirley Temple movies, and the horror is that this has backfired into reality and you have kids talking in this movie singsong manner because their parents find it cute, being in the movies, and encourage it.

If you check out most of what is considered good acting by our most ?prestigious? award-giving bodies, you will see a direct line between the acting of Vivian Leigh and Leslie Howard in Gone With The Wind as filtered through [Filipino director] Lino Brocka and it continues to this very moment. All these serious, solemn scenes between two people both gazing at the horizon and staying firmly within the frame.

I grew up in the provinces, and when I decided to do my movie ?Unfaithful Wife? depicting lower middle class provincial types, I depicted the world I grew up in: young, progressive, politically aware entrepreneurs who were probably three years behind Manila in terms of fashion or stylistic sense ?and many times, not really behind the times, but dressing down as a rejection of Manila standards that try too hard to be global. It was set in a roadside inn that featured grilled barbecue and a folk-singer that would sing American folk songs of the 60s. The people went around in fieras and listened to folk songs that movie-scored their lives: the effect was the same, the choice of songs were different.

The reaction to the movie was, although the dramatic elements were very well received, there was a sense of ?disconnect? as the audience were looking for the usual cinematic signposts typical of movies taking place in the provinces: the camisa-chino [a type of Filipino casual shirt] (de rigeur in portrayal of the lumpen), the planting and other agricultural activities, the kamote eating and the expected gauche and comedic behavior of countryside bumpkins.

So yes. I do challenge these portrayals. I also deplore the fact that most Europeans (because most Americans don?'t even watch our movies except when they are involved in the Tarantinian pursuit of the rare and the pop-recherche) expect that all Filipino stories take place in the highly exotic and photogenic squatter colonies that we share with Brazil. It'?s like the perception of American movies in the 50s that if you had to do a movie in Africa, it always happened in the jungles.

For the benefit of international viewers, could you give a little more background to the ongoing argument between Pinoy/Blonde's two main characters over the greatest ever Filipino director?

After the genius of Gerry de Leon who stopped making movies in the 60s, the two great Filipino movie directors were Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal. Lino traces his theatrical pedigree all the way back to radio and theater, Bernal studied film in India and, if I am not mistaken, studied under Satyajit Ray.

There is an American broadway musical by Stephen Sondheim, which is a take-off on The Frogs by Aristophanes, where the central argument is who is the greatest playwright, William Shakespeare or George Bernard Shaw? The heart or the mind? Brocka definitely represented the heart, although he was no slouch in the intellectual department; and to put that in the negative is a disservice to him. Bernal represented the mind. And again, he was no slouch in the heart department, as he was as passionate and mercurial as the best of them.

They were both concerned with the social conditions of our times, especially the effect of Ferdinand Marcos'? dictatorship on our country throughout the 70s until he was deposed in the mid 80s. Their movies portrayed the effects of a totalitarian regime that was riding piggy-back on an even more repressive situation that existed throughout the 400 years of Spanish and then 50 years of American rule. For all practical purposes, these rules were just as totalitarian and we still haven?'t come to terms with them. Or have come to any kind of closure in this regard.

Which of the two directors would you side with?

I have had the pleasure and honour to have worked with both directors (both as an actor and as Production Designer in their films) and counted them as close friends. One can see the intelligence at work and shining through Bernie'?s work. In terms of the language and behavior, his films work almost on a documentary level. ?It'?s when he tries for out and out poetic effects that his work becomes less interesting.

Lino?'s work is a lot more complex. The greatness in Lino Brocka is that he opened cinema to all of us Pinoys [Filipinos], many of which the more educated and ?refined? elements who came from a university or college background would not have dared even consider going into. Before Brocka, the movies was almost limited to a kind of Bulacan ?mafia? [Bulacan being a province north of Manila] which I write only in figurative terms in order to get the picture clearly across, but most of these Bulaqueños were pioneers in the film industry: from cinematographers, through sound and editing.

At the same time, Lino?'s movies encapsulated the political argument against dictatorship, so whether the movie was badly made or not, a Lino Brocka movie was, the medium being the message, an articulate salvo against the existing repression.

That being said, Brocka became a political figure and, being intelligent, he manipulated this profile in order to be able to get his message across.

So in personal and artistic terms, Lino became no fun to work with after a while. The persona took over the artist and his work definitely suffered. I am always arguing against people who can'?t differentiate between the work and what he stood for. Lino has, definitely, a hefty share of cheesy movies. When we waited for an hour on a Bernie set, it was because he was trying to solve an artistic problem. On the other hand, when we waited for hours on a Lino set, it was because he was out there somewhere fighting with the producers on some social inequality problem or marketing. I think it?'s obvious in Pinoy/ Blonde, that I?'m squarely in Bernie'?s camp.

There seem to be a lot of cameos in Pinoy/Blonde which may go unnoticed by non-Filipino viewers - could you tell us a little more about who these actors are?

This is a hard question to answer because practically all the supporting actors, the bits, the cameos and the walk-ons are all in one way or another solid and leading members of the film industry. Even the gang members are top stunt men and special effects people.

Eddie Garcia, who is the black leather jacketed gangster who sings and ends up dead on a toilet seat, is one of our premiere directors and actors and I have had the pleasure to work with him in a bit part in a comedy gangster picture. When I asked him if he would join us, he brought in a full set of gold teeth and his whole wardrobe that he had worked out. Even if in the script this was a cameo, he had really worked it out as if it was a major project. This is when I realized that many of the actors that worked (all of them for free) on this project, accepted because it gave them a chance to fool around and do something they weren'?t normally associated with in their professional lives. Either that, or a chance to spoof themselves.

We read somewhere that the budget was 1 M Philippines pesos which seems very low given the quality of the film - is that true?

Yes it?'s true. One million pesos, which is 20,000 US dollars. We approached it as an indie film and most of the people that came on board knew what we were going for. So I had to choose a location that would serve as a location for pretty much all of the movie. We only had one day in another part of town, a stone?'s throw away from the original set, where we shot another five or six sequences. I don?'t remember now, but we shot for about fourteen days (which is long for an indie film) and had one day of pick ups in a studio for necessary close ups that I failed to shoot because we were rushing so much.

How does being a film lecturer as well as film director change your approach to both activities?

Obviously my lectures are tempered by actual practice (which can be brutal to artistic intentions and conceits) and my directing is informed by my lectures. But understanding can be quite a curse and a heavy burden.

Do you feel that your approach to film is strongly influenced by your roots in Bacolod, or that this has meant your films are quite different from a filmmaker from Manila?

I think I may have answered most of this in the second question. I don'?t just come from the province, I actually live in it on a day to day basis. Many people in Manila have roots in the provinces and they migrate to the big city and become metropolitans complete with metropolitan concerns and metropolitan world views.

Manila is such a narcissistic entity. Egocentric is more like it. They think the Philippines begins and ends with them. Which is why they are always totally confounded when political results show that the rest of the country don'?t agree with their political choices or view of things. The same goes with the movie-making. There is such a Manila centeredness to all things done there which may be a good thing if they had a strong intrinsic identity to begin with, but unfortunately that town is such a poor relation to everything they strive to be (poor ersatz Hollywood, ersatz Paris, ersatz New York, ersatz Bollywood, ersatz Singapore, Korea, Taiwan - the whole global Asian phenomenon; most Filipino actors and creative types in advertising all now look like Korean pop stars and Hong Kong pedestrians) that it gets to be quite embarrassing.

I realize I might be coming off as a wannabe who never made it in the big time. But it'?s not so. Been there, done that. I?'ve collected my medals and my retrospectives and moved on. There is good reason for us non-Manilans to refer to it as The City That Does Not Work.

What are your thoughts on the current film scene in The Philippines?

Bleak. Cinema is a marriage of technology and art. As in the rest of the world (mostly Hollywood) everybody here is fascinated by the new technology. Few have anything interesting or perspicacious to say. The young filmmakers concentrate so much on the technology. There is a new priesthood with its arcane and its own Latin: mostly the serial numbers of the latest digital cameras. It?s a little ridiculous. They ignore the fact that film is using the technology in service of ideas. I?'ve come to reject the technobabble and start using gibberish when confronted with it.

The directors of the 80s and 90s used to discuss their stories and how they were going to present them. The directors of today discuss their shots. It?s like being in a convention of journeymen. So masturbatory. So boring.

We used to make all these interesting films and we were our biggest audience (more Filipinos saw Pinoy movies than they saw ET or the first Star Wars) because we were saying really incisive things about ourselves, and movies are such a narcissistic enterprise? so of course we were fascinated about the things we were finding out about ourselves. Now, we don?'t have anything to say, much less anything new or penetrating about ourselves. I suspect we don'?t like what we see about ourselves.

How do you see the Filipino film scene in the broader context of contemporary Asian, and contemporary international, cinema?

A total waste. We taught many of these Asian countries what they know about cinema back in the 40s and 50s. Now they only show Pinoy movies as objects of curiosity. In a Tarantino/geek kind of way.

What is your next project?

No movie projects. I?'m working on two major works for the theatre almost simultaneously right now. One of them is an opera version of my first movie. I guess I?'m starting to cannibalize myself in order to stay in the business.

(Click here for Tiger Eye?s assessment of Peque Gallaga?s life work. It had the director wryly commenting, ?first time some critic ?got? my work.?)

UK Film Council Website

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