The power of Piding (Gym Lumbera and Paolo Picones) lies in more than just the empirical beauty of the island but in the poetic mysteries surrounding it, alluding to scientific pursuit but also succumbing to the logic of love. 
Cinema One Originals, one of the long-running independent film festivals in the country alongside Cinemalaya, had its annual run last month showcasing new films in competition from new, up and coming Filipino filmmakers and a foreign lineup that boasts of world cinema winners including Cannes Palme D’Or winner I, Daniel Blake by Ken Loach. After more than 10 years, the festival is still entrenched in the capital and has not devised a way of expanding its reach in the regions, making it hard for non-Manila cinephiles to watch Filipino films outside of the mainstream fare. (Cinemalaya had an outside-Manila run in Cebu last August for the first time and it would be relevant to assess the expansion.) It is particularly disheartening, to note one film festival programmer, that many of the films, including the past years featured in film festivals like Cinema One will never be part of national discourse.

Narrative films: Stories of the city and its outskirts

Interestingly, three films I saw featured stories that explore the city and the countryside and its intermingling narratives. In Jules Katanyag’s debut film, Si Magdalola at ang mga Gago, the lives of a witch-healer Magda (Peewee O’Hara) suddenly takes an unexpected turn when drug-dealing goons from the city come to their remote town, consequently wrecking the peace (and ignorance of its inhabitants to its equally nasty goings-on). One of the goons also manages to ensnare Magda’s pretty granddaughter Rosa (Rhen Escano) to escape to the city. The film in one part is the sexual awakening of the nubile Rosa, but the second half of it mostly follows a revenge plot, with Magda storming the city with a katana, hell-bent on exacting justice with the aid of one of the goon’s sister (Elora Espano).

The story and direction is wayward but intently so. Katanyag, in Tarantino-esque fashion, imbues the film with a lot of trippy elements – electronic music, drug-addled meanderings – in a genre mash-up of disjointed subplots. It’s messy and overall the staging of crucial scenes lacks the oomph to make it memorable. But it is not entirely a failure. The misgivings give way to an interesting and colorful take on, well, the city’s dangerous and seductive pull. Call it an updated version of the barrio-lass-meets-city-boy narrative wrapped up in

The countryside also figures prominently Keith Deligero’s sophomore full-length feature Lily. But unlike in his outstanding debut Iskalawags, the countryside in the film, which is based on a Cebu urban legend (similar to the Mario Labo urban legend that used to scare kids in Davao and some parts of Mindanao), is a figment of a past life that remains inescapable for one Mario Ungo (Rocky Salumbides). He is a man with a troubled past, haunted by violent memories of a wife (Shaina Magdayao) and child in a provincial town he has left behind as he ventured for a new life in Manila. It was a good thing that the director raised the city/countryside dichotomy because while presumptively a horror film, Lily is far more than the supposed urban legend of a murderous monster it was based from.

More than anything else, it is really a story of how these contrasting locus of identities create schisms in one man’s psyche. It’s also a love story gone drastically sour, with a vengeful mother also venturing into the city to exact revenge. The film’s interesting aspect though is its third narrative strand where it posits the idea of how stories evolve, much like how urban legends gain its notoriety. This is wholly captured in a scene where Lily reads a tabloid headline of an urban legend about her that is being turned into a film starring Magdayao as the titular character herself. After all, Deligero’s Lily is a version of an origin story, and the film could deliver something really poignant and distinct had it explore and played around with that aspect more.

I was late 30 minutes into Petersen Vargas’s 2 Cool 2 Be 4Gotten, the festival best picture winner, so I could only manage to give off impressions from two-thirds of it. The story concerns a high-school overachiever Felix (Khalil Ramos) whose life and character suddenly unravels with the arrival of the half-American Snyder brothers, Magnus (Ethan Salvador) and Max (Jameson Blake). What is at first noticeably distinct in the film is its look – shot in a 4:3 aspect ratio, the Instagram-like framing and washed-out, filtered colors, gives off both a nostalgic and millennial vibe. The story takes place in what used to be one of the lahar-stricken towns in Pampanga – and this is actually where 2 Cool opens up its discourse. While on the surface the film feels like a coming-of-age, coming-out-of-the-closet tale, it is also a film about the past, and for boys like Felix, its effect on one’s growing up. It can be said that Felix’s affinity with the English language and its pervasiveness in both his narrated diary entries and magnified by the presence of the Amboys, one of which Felix falls madly in love with, reflects our continued Western fascination and how it is still deeply entrenched in our psyches.

Documentaries: Pursuit of truth in beauty and horror

The showing of Teng Mangansakan’s Forbidden Memory on the day the Supreme Court issued its decision to bury Ferdinand Marcos at the Libingan ng mga Bayani could not have been more providential, as what the Mindanao filmmaker himself said. From its title, Mangansakan’s film deals about a collective memory that has not gained much attention in the annals of Philippine history – the massacre of around 1,500 Muslims in a mosque in a barangay called Malisbong, located in Sultan Kudarat, a town in Southern Philippines. Right up to this moment, there is no proper accounting of such crime, with the military continuing to deny the atrocities, which occurred during the Martial Law period, where Moro men were accused of rebellion. The documentary presents interviews, raw and unfiltered, with the narratives of the survivors and families of the survivors – wives, sisters, children – providing the terrifying milieu of a dark and forgotten moment of our history.

Mangansakan intersperses the interviews with reenactments filmed as if it looks like found footage, giving the narration an archival texture. It drives the narrative towards a point of urgency. It is as if we are hearing these harrowing accounts for the first time. The film could use a little more creativity in terms of the structure of the narrative, or with more time it could develop into something really poignant, which is not to say that it is not compelling because it is. As one of the survivors struggles to finish his account, one could help but be moved to tears, rage even. It would be interesting to think how the last parts of the film could have been rendered, because this is what gives the documentary the weight of remembrance: the narrators recognizing the filmmaker’s role not just in the documentation process but affirming his importance in the process of remembrance, in their shared history, and that to ultimately bring this recollection to the point of deliverance and justice, he, too becomes part of their narrative and memory.

Distinctly but in a way quite similarly, John Torres’s intriguing People Power Bombshell: The Diary of Vietnam Rose uses the documentary platform as a kind of preservation of memory, this time of a cinematic period through the revival of an unfinished film. While not imperative, it helps that you enter the cinema knowing the context of the film, which is made up of actual footages of the film Diary of Vietnam Rose featuring one of 80’s young actresses Liz Alindogan and directed by the late Celso Ad Castillo. The film’s unfinished status gained notoriety, which was allegedly due to problems that arose from its shooting between Alindogan and The Kid. The unfinished film also starred Dindo Fernando, Angie Ferro, Ronnie Lazaro, Maria Isabel Lopez, among other Filipino actors of the 80s heydays. Torres “updated” the footage (which was kept by Alindogan in the FPJ studios) and inserted a second narrative featuring actresses Ana Luna and Elora Espano, who supposedly found the footage in some beach. The resulting film is an experiment of sorts, with Torres interspersing audio interviews in the actual footage, and weaved into one continuing narrative, one whole film. It is confusing, but there is charm, allure even, in its confusion, especially since Torres leads you to an intriguing finish. As the film corrodes into the screen, Alindogan’s account never really coming into full circle and the mystery of its ending also disintegrating into it, we are left to grapple with the truth and the attendant complexities of its search.

My most favorite film among the six in competition films I saw, while announced as a documentary, is not bound to the rigors attached to the genre. One can actually re-label it as narrative, or attach the creative non-fiction label, and I would still be totally fine with it. Paolo Picones and Gym Lumbera’s Piding, on one hand is about the Piding (Gallirallus calayanensis), a flightless bird endemic in the Calayan islands, located far off north in Cagayan, some eight hours of travel through motorized bancas. The search for this bird, which was discovered by a team of researchers in 2004, is even made a tourism highlight of the island-town, making it as a must-do experience.

The film is also about the search for that bird, and it is where the fictionalized story of one Oliver Carlos (played with such gravitas by Spanky Manikan) figures in. In the film, Carlos (which is obviously patterned after one of the bird’s first discoverers Carl Oliveros) returns to the Philippines after a much-valorized career in science in search for the bird. He also wants to find his wife to tell her their son has died. On one hand, another explorer by the name of Matthew, a guy probably a generation younger than Carlos, may also be in search of the same bird. There is really no clear structure to the film. And it doesn’t need it really; its aimlessness is what makes it whole. We see both men wander (separately) through the island, reciting poetry, blending in with the locals and finding peace with nature. While Carlos is weighed down by his past, Matthew seems to be an emblem of the future, which might be hinted at through the narration of a Chinese-Filipino space mission (Shenzou-Luna) to the moon via transistor radio. The power of the film lies in more than just the empirical beauty of the island but in the poetic mysteries surrounding it, alluding to scientific pursuit but also succumbing to the logic of love. It remains elusive, but what great love or great discovery isn’t? – Jay Rosas