What would young filmmakers from the lakeshore town of Buhi film about their place, and their experience?
Last week, on the 27th of May, Ryan Cuatrona and I were fetched from Tabaco City, in Albay, where we were winding up a three-day film appreciation and education workshop for government employees upon the request of the local government of the said city. Eric Basmayor Valeriano, the Tourism Officer of the city, facilitated the event. As always true for endeavors like the one we participated in, the local executive makes a lot of difference. For Tabaco, it was the Mayor, Krisel Lagman Luistro, who was actively supporting the workshop and the film festival happening soon in June.
For Buhi, Ryan, a faculty of the Ateneo de Naga Senior High School, himself a filmmaker, leads the Project Susog or PSusog, the organization behind the 2022 Nakabuhi Short Film Festival (NSFF).
Rushing to catch the Awards Night of the said festival, Ryan requested the driver to take the shorter and faster route, which was via Polangui. For a while, I was disinterested with the instruction until I noticed we were not on the highway but on the old roads connecting the town of Ligao to Polangui. We went up and up the mountains, looking down on the villages below. We were going through the inner part of Polangui. Then new roads appeared, and hugged the side of a ravine and offered a view of even more distant hills. Soon it was there: the arch surprising us, roughly in an hour, with the marker: Welcome to Buhi. It was then I realized that I was through this road, from the other side, when with Kristian Cordero, in our “kapilya” research, we drove on and on until we hit this part. It was not Buhi anymore, not Camarines Sur, but Polangui, Albay.
That night, in front of the eager youthful crowd, I told them about this trip. How it made me discover Buhi as not that really isolated. That it was not just from the side of Iriga that the town connects to the outside world, In fact, there is another road that goes up around the lake and moves through seemingly endless cornfields and rolling hills that takes one from Buhi to Ocampo, in Partido.
The reality of geography, however, does not matter. If the young filmmakers of Buhi believe their town remains isolated and unique, if they hold on to the claim that their language has kept them from being assimilated to the rest of the province, it is their right. Embracing that singularity is the wellspring of magic for the kind of cinema they would be producing. It is their birthright to profess that.
That night, indeed, a singularity marked by excellence characterized the short films for the second edition of this festival.
One film, Ely, directed by Elijah Leigh Labordo, was voted as the favorite of viewers. I had no chance to explain to the filmmakers why this film garnered a small number of nominations. It tackled a topic that required adult, mature actors but the production fielded very young performers, which made their screen presence closer to a pretend presentation. The film, interestingly, was polished.
As I always impress upon regional filmmakers, they need not look to Manila or to mainstream cinema for models of good filmmaking especially in terms of content. Their locale has numerous untapped themes that have not been made as cinematic subjects because, in the language of commercial filmmaking, they will not bring in profit. With regional filmmakers lacking the pressure to come up with a return of investment, they are not answerable to any hardcore film producers.
With such freedom, regional cinemas do produce fresh takes on social phenomena. Buhi was not an exception. Of the three films with the most nominations, two were on depression and the mental well-being of young people. These films were Ing-Ing (Whispers), directed by Philip Miguel Adorable and Lindeng (Shade, as of a tree), by John Mark Laguardia. In the said films, the lead characters could hear voices. Films like these are common among the youth, which should be a red flag that teachers should take note of. Here are films that are helping the youth express what’s inside them. Whether they are able to release their fears through the arts or whether these are distress signs, teachers and parents should heed the art of cinema.
In Lindeng, the two actors acquitted themselves so well they - Anthony Espiritu and Jose Dominic Gabalfin - were awarded as Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, respectively. Without any fancy camera work, the director framed the two in alternating medium shots, the camera focusing longer on the lead. It is mostly the sincerity of the exchange between the two that will keep the viewer in rapt attention all throughout the dialogue. I particularly like the story affirming how the youth can cure themselves, that they can talk to friends and there find a solution to the darkness in their soul.
There is another film and it is called Asog. Taking the name of the volcano, its open crashed crater facing like a monstrous mouth the Buhi lake, and reminding us it once was the sacred place for Babaylans (men who dressed as women), the film tackles a sensitive issue of incest and abuse by a father. The story is about siblings - one is a girl and the other a gay male/transwoman. Rich in imagery, with the dark lake and the enclosure of homes serving as metaphors about the places that narrate the crisis in the lives of the two individuals. There is no one to talk with among the neighbors in the community and the huge body of water seems to urge them to run away. Asog received the Jury Prize.
We congratulate PSusog, a non-government, non-profit, youth-led organization, for fulfilling their advocacy of cultural awareness and appreciation of various artistic expressions. For this film festival, the group worked with Savage Mind: Arts Books Cinema, Kamarin Art Gallery, Fundacion Luis Cabalquinto, and the local government unit of Buhi led by Mayor Margie Moran-Aguinillo.