Filmmaker under lockdown: Bagane Fiola

It seems to me that my whole month of February was spent only on conditioning myself to begin the work on the post-production of what would be my third feature film. It is a documentary film that follows the Filipino singer and ethnomusicologist Grace Nono as she revisits her shaman mentors—the keepers of indigenous sacred chants and rituals. I’ve already reserved a suite in the office as an exclusive space for the editing phase of the project. I even purchased a new headset so as to distract the curiosity of fellow filmmakers who share the rent in the same building, but most deliberately for the purpose of not attracting the Unseen who has been dwelling in the office long before us. Then the COVID-19 pandemic came, like a “jump cut” in a movie scene that seems so irrelevant in the whole montage. The coronavirus eventually swarmed several areas in the archipelago in a matter of weeks. On March 16, people who originated from the provinces and who were only transient or working in Manila would then leave rapidly for their hometowns in the next 72 hours before the capital, where the first coronavirus infection happened in the country, engaged in a total lockdown. Other cities would follow the order to implement Enhanced Community Quarantine or ECQ imposed by the President of the Philippines. Some remained lax and some became, initially, in denial. But there were many who prayed in the midst of uncertainty, hoping that the arrival of asymptomatic returnees would not contaminate the population in their provinces. I became more of the latter, to a point where I began to wonder about the essential role of regional filmmakers in Philippine cinema amidst the pandemic crisis, while the country’s film center, where the production grants and award-giving bodies dominate, has been affected with orders that restrict movement of the “non-essential” population. 

For several days, after the imposition of ECQ here in Davao City [more than 600 miles from Manila], I was trying to, as much as I could, distance myself from social media, except from the government announcement posts, news reports, and COVID-19 updates, which all have contributed to my enormous novel anxieties and an outbreak of sleepless nights filled with irrepressible wonderings on how my decades of filmmaking investments would become useless, when it comes to a point where even imagining cinema as being shared by a community in a theater or other big screen venues is impossible. Despite the vast achievement of regional cinema, the uncertainty the outbreak has brought would make it more impossible for our own community filmmaking efforts to even project a faint light. 

The daze of the days that followed slowly transformed more and more into lethargy. There were scenarios that I was no longer aware of, physical objects that my eyes started conceiving, like those characters in the book that I was reading that took shapes in the landscape of my mind but never existed in that work of literature, or another fabricated plot drifted from the movie I was watching that never made sense at all. There were also times when dreams became my constant amusement. Out of nowhere, a friend of mine, whose physical appearance I've had trouble remembering or imagining ever since losing contact with him for decades, suddenly appears in my dream vividly. Another dream was with a skeleton crew somewhere in a suburban area shooting a low-budget film with Grace Nono, and in that dream, I can only recognize them as shapes moving so slow against the setting sun. The next morning, I received a text message from Grace. We talked over the phone about the possibilities of resuming the editing of our documentary film amidst the crisis and how we could move forward to look for post-production grant or support. I was also reminded by the events in our documentary shoot in one of the Blaan tribes in South Cotabato province—we respected the Blaan’s request not to start the production on the first day of the year since they would be spending that time to offer rituals most dedicatedly to the prophesized prodigious event that would happen in the year 2020 which, on a hopeful note, would contribute greatly and positively to nature. Dreams are always the indigenous peoples’ ways of connecting with the ancestral spirits of the lands and their way of life—weaving, medicine, chants, the hunt for food, and even the nature of the universe are all manifested in their dreams. Dreams are coming back to me now maybe because of the slowness of time brought about by the pandemic. I have been separated from my dreaming world for a long time, I could not remember since when. They always make sense to me especially when everything seems impossible to decipher. Dreams make me more human, they are my inspirations for most of the stories I wrote and most of the films I made, but most importantly they allow me to breathe, away from the complicated material world. 

They say a good film always gives meaning to all visual elements and connects everything for the so- called harmony of beauty. After a couple of months in quarantine, I became more connected to myself and eventually became hopeful that whatever happens to all the prophesies of this world, somehow this “jump cut” would make sense in the whole montage. Perhaps, the advent of online cinema is beginning to comfort my apprehensions, giving me a hint of life for regional filmmakers to surface from their own waters. Perhaps it is also true that cinema will always find its way to be in its purest form, of being ethereal in no matter what medium it thrives, and that we should somehow allow it to dream itself and become less material, away from becoming more of a product produced from recycled elements, as we also should allow ourselves to flow and be subject to its ever-changing reflections. I think cinema is our own spirit, that we may continue to live and dream. 

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