The International Film Festival of Manhattan Celebrates Philippine Cinema
By Rory Winston
Although, lately, the vast majority of I-told-you-so’s have been usurped by politics, exploited by pundits, and justifiably ascribed to those whose proclivity for pessimism has found its match in the run-up to the general elections, there are still a few self-congratulatory moments left over for our meagre non-newsworthy lot – reviewers who have extolled films that are finally receiving the adulation they so richly deserve. For this Resident reviewer that film is Ricky Carranza’s self-funded documentary, Beyond the Block which just won Best Documentary at the International Film Festival Manhattan (IFFM). But since the aforementioned festival is about a lot more than my projections, let’s get back to Carranza later.
After all, The International Film Festival of Manhattan has done more this year than just acknowledge standout debuts. It has paid its respects to a long overlooked phenomenon – namely, the contributions of Philippine talent in film. Although directors such as Brillante Mendoza have been justifiably lauded by film buffs, the New York based festival chose to honor less globally renowned but equally important figures, giving their Lifetime Achievement Award to Ricardo “Ricky” Lee – probably the most profound and prolific screenwriter living in the Philippines today. Having penned over 150 produced scripts – among them Jaguar (Lino Brocka’s Palme D’Or nominated film) and Ishmael Bernal’s Himala (Chicago film festival winner and Berlin International nominee) – Lee has brought attention to issues as varied as child abuse, misogyny, alcoholism and inequality between the classes. Besides Filipino classics like Anak, Muro Ami, and Memories of old Manila, the award winning journalist has also written many brilliant plays and novels.
Other Filipino winners at IFFM included were directors such as Sigfreid Barros Sanchez whose Magtanggol took the award for Most Popular and Filemon Mamon which won won Best Socially Relevant film. Given that Magtanggol is an engrossing film about the intrigues of a career politician’s family undergoing hard times, the timing of its US screening couldn’t have been better. As for unexpected gems, Filemon Mamon, it tells the story an overweight high school student who is left in the care of his dotting grandmother whose endless cooking is an attempt to keep him ‘healthy’ looking while he himself wants nothing more than to land the lead role in a school play about the gaunt revolutionary hero Andres Bonifacio – a stepping stone on the way to impressing a girl with whom he is secretly in love. By turns hilarious and emotionally revealing, Filemon Mamon fits in the Juno-like category of quality indie comedies.
Acting was another area wherein Filipinos scored well with Best Actress deservedly going to the highly versatile Nathalie Hart. Playing the part of a widower’s young mistress in Joel Lamangan‘s Siphayo, she ends up having torrid albeit psychologically incapacitating affair with her man’s two sons. Ms. Hart is anything but a makeshift femme fatale set up merely as erotic fodder. While she maintains her integrity as a character, her male counterparts often read their own desires into her subtext. Going from insouciant maid to wary lover, the persona avoids all the characteristic pitfalls of Pedro Almodóvar’s usual neurotic archetypes. If anything, her role is a volatile cross between Anna Barton in Louis Malle’s film Damage and the highly symbolic Ruth in Harold Pinter’s Homecoming. While she maintains her personality throughout, her male counterparts can’t help but read their own sordid grievances into her subtext. In a sense, she becomes the dei ex machina of myopic men who have a hard time seeing her as a character in her own right.
When it comes to the Philippine debut extraordinaire, it had to be Walang Take Two, a film which took home the coveted Best Ensemble Acting award – a prize that by its very nature acknowledges the director’s contribution. This is quite a feat for a debut auteur working with first-time actors. The story itself is the sort that reminds one why Tom DiCillo’s Living in Oblivion worked so well. Though this one veers into more genuine drama, it (like Living in Oblivion) deals with the sort of turmoil that likely exists in the life of the first time filmmaker shooting the product we are watching. In short, this is a movie about making a movie. Hapi is a debut Indie director with big dreams. His life, however, is composed of all the usual traumas that afflict many a young artist – absurdly funny situations which can take a tragic swing at any given time. Though the main character’s own dad is a retired videographer who warns his son that in his given profession there are no second takes. It takes a while for his son and audience to realize that his pithy comment refers as much to life as it does to film.
Other up-and-coming Philippine directors include Rhoda Joy Blaza who inhabits a feral mental landscape all her own. Her bloodcurdling student film The Equation depicts the highly driven and tormented world of a deeply injured young woman seeking retribution. Not since Kathryn Bigelow first hit the scene with markedly poignant compositions and philosophically driven action sequences has madness been so efficiently calibrated to cause maximum distress and thoughtfulness all at one go. While coldly calibrated actions take on almost meditative edge, impulsive and cruel decisions feel oddly domestic and familiar – almost as if they were no more than the boring daily routines of someone who happens to be a dangerous zealot.
Imbued with a self-sanctimonious air, Aaliyah is on the sort of one-man mission that an Abel Ferrara character might appreciate. Here, ruthlessness is steeped in symbolism and vengeance is sported with a type of matter-of-factness unbecoming its level of horror. Aaliyah reasons that since everyone in her immediate family has recently been offed in a drug bust gone sour, it is she who must avenge their loss. Likewise, since her brother’s friend, Gilbert, bears the blame, it is he who must undergo trial by fire. As the self-ordained high priestess, Aaliyah exacts her revenge. She kidnaps Gilbert’s entire brood, devising a scenario wherein Gilbert himself must undergo a monstrous Sophie’s Choice-kind-of-option and decide between sparing the life of his brother, his wife or his child. Since the unexpected twists and turns all fall under the heading of spoilers, I can only foreshadow that by the closing credits most of the viewers will have suffered from both nausea and a cold sweat.
In terms of music videos, the Philippine US collaboration between singer/songwriter Kirby Assunto and director Kurt D. Fick took Best Music Video for the single Exist, while Best Short was won by Philippine actor Giovanni Baldeserri who starred in Rom Factolerin’s Lucky Jinx (Misericordia) a story of a man who escapes death in war only to succumb to his own homespun battle.
Director Ato Batista’s Psycho-horror thriller about twins and a psychiatric patient haunted by her sister’s crimes, Gemini won Best Feature Global, while Cliff Hokanson won Best Cinematography for his post-apocalyptic landscape in Ian Nsenga’s Another Place. Of course, IFFM also focused on some local talents as Best Director USA went to John Bernard Richardson for Aponi, a story of Jack, a white veteran police detective, who falls for Aponi, an up and coming black defence attorney many years his junior. Just as his working class pastimes begin to fit in with her hip New York lifestyle, their worlds come to a crashing halt as it turns out our young hotshot lawyer is investigating a case that involves Mike, a former partner of Jack’s.
Best Feature USA went to director Francesco Nuzzi and producer John Hedlund for Star Crossed Lovers – a contemporary rendering of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet that manages not to lose the inimitable lines of the classic while still transposing the set and mood into a suburban hell with which New Yorkers from across the bay can easily identify. Less a designer-relationship than Baz Luhrmann’s star studded 1996 variation, the film attempts to make up for in candour and concept what it lacks in verve, soundtrack and general pizzazz.
Although Peter Evangelista and Lauren Muraski’s seething determination may do little to wrest the wreath of golden compromise (for ‘compromise’ it was when Luhrmann successfully created a film that kids wanted to go see despite the fact that it was Shakespeare while parents wanted them to go see it despite the fact that it was mostly a music video) from Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, it is a noble attempt.
Of course, when it comes to noble attempts, the immortal bard may have summed it up best when he said: “What poor an instrument may do a noble deed,” nevertheless one has to respect that incomprehensible drive to churn out Shakespeare remakes. To give some perspective on Romeo and Juliet in the movies… Although this one lacks Luhrmann’s flamboyance, lacks Franco Zeffirelli’s magnitude and cinematic scope, lacks BBC’s (1978) acting integrity, and even lacks the interesting urban twist of the ‘long in development’ Romeo and Juliet in Harlem production (whose trailer filled me with hope), still… as my grandmother would say, “it’s nice someone’s doing West Side Story without music.”
Renowned from the world of soaps, actress Brynn Thayer has just pulled off Best Screenplay for Thicker than Water, a film she codirected with Shahaub Roudbari, for a story about the familiar feeling we all get – regardless what our age – when having to separate from our mothers; while The Special Independent Achievement Award went to Brian Pollock’s Licentious, a film about the classical ‘when the cat’s away the mice will play’ married woman whose extramarital activities are in fast forward whenever her husband is out of town on business. A unique award, Achievement in Popular Art, also went to New York’s own pop artist, the phenomenal Peter Marco whose works have kept people bemused, entertained, taking double-takes and always smiling whether in painting, poster or book form.
As for Best Documentary, well, it’s finally time to get back to my I-told-you-so projection and the rise of the Philippine-born filmmaker Ricky Carranza and his Finnish entry Beyond the Block. For a view on Filipino Street Dance and the respective mavericks whose contributions still inform the field, Carranza’s cinematic study is nothing if not ‘extensive.’ For how else can one describe a film that clocks in at 167 minutes and takes viewers from the late 1960’s to 2016 – one that starts in Manila and goes to Sydney, Helsinki, London, Venice; Helsinki and Las Vegas, one that begins in a Filipino slum with children imitating moves they had seen on Soul Train and ends with their descendants taking First Place in an International Dance competition.
In addition to getting a myriad of interviews with renowned dance-innovators scattered across the globe, we witness the precise evolution of the form as it goes from disco to American show-dancing to a hybrid genre where street dance is infused with tribal Filipino movements. From there it’s off to b-boy heaven; a world of toprock, downrock, power moves and freezes that soon gives way to locking, popping, spinning, and floor-manoeuvres. Finally, our own playing field emerges. Today, pyrotechnics have become the norm; and, as long as the contenders demonstrate precision and panache, crews now have the freedom to battle in whatever style strikes their fancy. Gymnastic leaps, complex air-born rotations, spasmodic digressions, krumping, vogue… nothing is expected but, as always, impressing the judges demands a certain level of artistry.
And all this so far is only approximately half of what Beyond the Block is about. The more understated but equally enticing parallel plotline details the ongoing saga of Carranza himself – his artistic, philosophical and personal journey. Taking us from the impoverished streets of Manila into the posher local TV studios, we see as Ricky’s dance crew achieves its first modicum of success, only to be shown how celebrity status comes at a price and that criminal gang lords in the Philippines are never far behind the scent of newly made money. In an effort to avoid what could become a precarious existence, Ricky suddenly doffs his sneakers, abandons his crew, and sets sail for a new life. He becomes a missionary, free from all former ties – he learns, experiences and travels.
Paradoxically, just as Ricky settles into his new life, the past beckons his return. His philosophical forays having reached fruition, he – upon good consul – is advised not to abandon his gifts but to use them in the service of his recently discovered commitment. In short, under the auspices of the church, he begins to teach children to dance – a temporary bridge which soon lures him back into the more demanding world of professional performance. From instructing dancers to creating elaborate choreographies for shows and videos to meeting his future wife and founding his own school in Finland, Style Dance Industry, Ricky is back with a vengeance.
By the time Carranza is making this film, we understand that he has come full circle – the culmination of his story being the very documentary we are watching. The street on which we stand with him is the one where it all began. Looking through the lens with Ricky, we notice something has changed. His childhood home is missing. It is, in fact, the only house on the block that has been gutted and torn down. As metaphors go, this is perhaps the most apt vision a dancer could hope for. Dance, by its very nature, demands unrequited love. By the time you have mastered all its techniques, nuances and ‘made it your own,’ it’s time to retire. Having achieved the perfect balance between athleticism and artistry, the body begins to give. As the old joke goes, ‘we age at just the wrong time.’ And so, just when dancers could theoretically contribute the most artistically, they either end up settling for teaching or – a lucky few – are asked to choreograph for others.
For someone used to regularly learning, moving and being creative all at once, this is meagre recompense indeed. But Ricky had planned his escape from physiological constraints just in time. And the medium he was using to convey this message was itself the answer: Film. In a sense, the creation of Carranza’s all-encompassing documentary is a form of majestic delirium, one that is guided by the very same passion, discipline, and stamina it was meant to portray.
It would be journalistically amiss if I didn’t disclose the fact that I have known Ricky for some time – more specifically, throughout the five odd years I spent in the UK and Scandinavia. It was while engaged on a TV pilot there that I hosted a comic daily drive time FM radio show with rotating celebrity guests. After realizing that many of the recording artists that had come on my show had music videos which were either choreographed by or featuring dancers that had been trained by Carranza, I asked Ricky to join me on air for Rhythm & Rant (a show later menacing dubbed, Rory’s Rant thanks to some very flattering threats I received on air). It didn’t take long before the two of us became friends, made new enemies on air, and vowed that anything was preferable to either resignation or stagnation.
Not more than a few days passed since our first encounter when we decided to embark on a project together; and so began a long series of regularly scheduled meetings wherein we worked through long nights on a feature film script (working title: Dance Boy) based primarily on Ricky’s experiences as a dancer. Despite setbacks and respective difficulties with questionable producers on other projects, we managed, in the end, to work through several drafts of the script, honing what we both perceived as being a highly idiosyncratic and exciting story. Since neither of us had great faith in the fact that we were in the right place to find a production house for a dark multicultural drama set to dance – especially given that the entire saga starts in Manila and traverses several genres (crime, action, dance, romance) – we held off on pitching the material locally and opted, instead, to wait for a time when at least one of us would be within driving distance of a more urban setting.
As I left for the UK, Ricky’s partying words to me were, “When – not if – we make this movie, I want to know enough about directing so we can do it ourselves and not have it turned into one of those sappy afterschool specials they usually call dance movies.” Rather than viewing the interval of time between our finalized draft and production as a delay, my soft shoed Bojangles did a silent heal click and jumped so high emotionally that even I started feeling lightheaded about the prospects. As a dancer who knows how to bend his knees before descending, Ricky cautiously added, “the thing is it’ll take time to get this baby up and running so meanwhile I’ve decided to go ahead and make a documentary film on the kind of characters and places that are part of the story anyway.”
As I learned, Ricky had started to do research for a documentary on Filipino Hip Hop Dancing. “No one’s really done a substantial one yet,” he enthused; “And the contributions from that place are just incredible.” Eyes ablaze, Ricky went on to explain that not only will the experience of shooting a documentary on Filipino dance familiarize him with the locations, sets and the themes in our script but the small self-funded project is a learning opportunity – one that will give him time to practice some of the technical ins and outs of filmmaking. One that will allow him to fine-tune his craft so that by the time funding does roll around, he himself might be able to make a bid on directing his own life story.
Absurd? Hardly. As someone who spent his youth studying dance and performance, I understood the logic. Although my own dancing career only lasted from ballet academy to Off-Broadway and summer stock, I knew enough about the respective art forms to understand that interdisciplinary marriages often made for the most stable long term relationships. As a long-time fan of Bob Fosse, the idea made profound sense to me. Maximize on the art you are most familiar with and realign the aesthetics of the given medium so that it can “dance” in time with its new partner. In this case, the partner that film would have to learn to dance with would be hip hop dancing itself.
This was the same methodology evoked when Fosse directed All that Jazz, the same more finely honed methodology he employed when he took the Broadway musical, Cabaret by composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb, stripped it of Harold Prince’s direction, revised and altered the choreography of Jerome Robbins, wed Joe Masteroff’s libretto with a parallel plotline made up unused material by Christopher Isherwood (on whose short stories everything was originally based anyway), and juxtaposed all of it with the historical period’s zeitgeist.
Merely two weeks had passed when Ricky emailed me stating that he was on his way to making a documentary on Philippine dancers like himself who had bounced their way from the gutters and made a name for themselves abroad. As research into both filmmaking and the world Carranza intended to represent in his future feature film, I could think no better a mission. Without any state funding, without any endowments from the arts, Carranza had been set in motion.
Of course, as we’ve all been told, ‘it ain’t over till the fat lady sings’ or – in this case – till the b-boy drops or pops. And pop he did. From one continent to the next. From one dance studio to another. And all on a shoestring budget of his own making. Keeping up with his list of interviews, locations, and his endless pursuit of hunting for the origins of certain dances was enough to make even reading his correspondences exhausting. The one thing it didn’t do, luckily, is make Carranza give up.
No producer, no marketing agent, and with still no promise of distribution from the country in which he resided, Carranza had his film in the can but had no place to send it. The entire filming process boasts the kind of resolve and endurance that leaves studio executives wondering why those without any funding often get more done than those they have chosen to invest in. And so came part two of the independent filmmaker’s ‘all dressed up but nowhere to go’ saga: emails, phone calls, and hustle, pitch, hustle. The result being that Beyond the Block was accepted into the first annual Hip Hop Film Festival NYC where I finally got a chance to see the fruits of Ricky’s labor. Clocking in at 167 minutes, the film was a heady rollercoaster ride through several decades dotted with several dozens of dancers, it was educational and entertaining, intimate and inspirational. In short, it felt like binge-watching a brilliant PBS or BBC series.
No more than a week later and the film was part of the Special Selections group in California’s Long Beach International Film festival where it was picking up a slow but sure following from luminaries in dance and hip hop. By the time Ricky had returned to Helsinki a few weeks later, he was informed that the International Film Festival Manhattan (IFFM) had officially entered his film into their competition as well. And it was just this evening, as I sat here writing this article that Ricky called to inform me: “Bro, we won!” And when it comes to Ricky, the ‘we’ is genuine. His ‘we’ includes the dancers who had taught him, the innovators who had inspired him, the choreographers who provoked him, the colleagues who had danced alongside him, the students whom he teaches and those like myself whom he sometimes works with.
Ricky’s ‘we’ is legacy and legend. It is his lifelong ability to learn from others as much as it is his devotion to teaching others. ‘We’ is the enduring vision of earlier masters whose elemental force is found in the pyrotechnics of contemporaries. ‘We’ is the humility of acknowledging the past and the hunger in working alongside others to pave a future – a path upon which to dance, a yellow brick road with an endless number of wizards along the way. Approaching film with as much ferocity as he has dance, it is more than likely that the next time Ricky clicks his heels to go home, that home may well turn out to be somewhere in Hollywood. Or, if poetic justice does come our way, Ricky and many of the aforementioned under-the-radar talents will one day bypass Hollywood altogether and end up with the global distribution they so justly deserve.