A film director’s mind is always restless –always in pursuit of the next film project, from tackling controversial socio- political issues that are gripping a nation to answering his own queries about life and its confounded realities.
This is exactly how it is with critically acclaimed director Brillante Mendoza, who conquered the international film industry with his neo-realist films and thus, became a household name in both European and Philippine cinemas.
Equipped only with his ever reliable camera, observant eyes and inquisitive mind, the internationally-renowned Filipino director would often journey through the unknown, encounter new experiences and somehow find an enlightened understanding on humanity along the way.
Creating films is something that the director from San Fernando, Pampanga in the Philippines has always wanted to do ever since he was young. According to Mendoza, his whole family was a regular at movie houses when he was growing up. And each time, he was amazed by how a lm could a ect cinemagoers, igniting his love for filmmaking.
“I remember how my neighbors would prattle about ‘Relasyon,’ a movie by director Ismael Bernal starring Vilma Santos and Christopher de Leon [two of Philippines’ most prolific actors]. The couple near our house would fight and it seemed they were like the characters in the movie. It was just a film, but it felt real. That was when I realized how powerful a film could be, and I began to dream of becoming a film director,” recalls Mendoza.
But realizing that dream proved to be a challenge for Mendoza. In the 1980s, the battle to penetrate the industry was tough and fiercely competitive. “If you were a neophyte, it would be really difficult to be in the film industry. The people working in the business were already there for the longest time. They have proper education and went to film schools. One really had to pass through the eye of a needle to break through.”
Mendoza had to put his dream on a shelf for the meantime. He finished his advertising arts degree at the University of Santo Tomas in Manila and then, worked in an advertising firm.
For two decades, he toiled as a production designer for a company, allowing him to learn the tricks of
the trade. His dream of becoming a lm director had completely taken a backseat. Come 2005, Mendoza would bump into a friend who reminded him that he was meant to be doing something else in his life.
The friend told Brillante about a film scholarship at the Ateneo de Manila University and Mowelfund, which the award-winning Filipino director immediately applied for, just for the heck of it. Soon after, a project to do a film project would come his way.
“I didn’t accept it right away. I had my doubts. That time, I was already 45 years old. I thought I was too old to become a director. Besides, I had already moved on from that dream and I wasn’t too keen on going back to that mindset.”
THE DIRECTORIAL DEBUT
But there was really no escaping what fate had laid out for this genius. Mendoza soon found himself directing “Masahista,” his debut film about masseurs who give their customers so- called extra services or sexual favours. The film made the local terms “spakol,” (a kind of male spa frequented by gays) and “happy ending” (not the fairy tale definition, mind you) popular in moviegoers’ consciousness.
“That time, I didn’t really care about the film story. I didn’t even know if [my friend] was serious about the offer to direct the movie. Later, I realized how indeed serious he was. So I got involved, changed the script, did some research and developed my own process,” says Mendoza.
Right after finishing the film, Mendoza thought that was it for him. He was finally ready to say goodbye to his dream, thinking about going back to the advertising world and forgetting about filmmaking. He never thought making Masahista would affect him, deeply.
“It became a life-changing experience for me. The lm itself made me realize so many things like the process of filmmaking: Creating something from scratch, viewing it on the big screen,and seeing its influence and impression on the viewers. I discovered the joy of filmmaking.”
THE FILMMAKER AS STORYTELLER
He hasn’t looked back since, dominating the independent moviemaking scene in the Philippines. Among his most successful indie films included “Serbis” (2008), a story about a family who runs an adult theater, and “Kinatay” (2009), which is about a police academy student who joins a group of gangsters to help his family and ends up witnessing the brutal murder of a woman. Both lms made it to the Cannes Film Festival, with the latter winning for Mendoza the best director award. He was pitted against acclaimed directors Quentin Tarantino and Sean Penn. Mendoza would make another 10 films and a few documentary specials in less than 10 years since his directorial debut.
“I believe that filmmakers are storytellers. But a director should know what he is telling and [should be] really honest with the story. He has to be able to stand up for his story, no matter what.”
Mendoza’s filmmaking process means questioning everything about the script, turning it upside down, so that he can deliver a story that is truthful, raw, and full of grit.
“Life is not always beautiful. There will be something – a question about myself, a criticism on the government or issues on the society – I want to express. And I explore it creatively. I can’t work with a ready script. I want to cook the story myself, choose the ingredients and put them together before serving the nished dish to the audience. So, I can tell the story truthfully and wholly,” explains Mendoza, adding that when he is not shooting scenes, one can find him researching for his next film.
The brilliant director reveals that he usually shoots without additional lighting and gives his actors just an outline of the scenes they are lming. Having the freedom to tell the story is important for Mendoza, letting the actors do a few improvisations on their characters so that they can also add their version of “truth” to the role they’re playing.
CRITICISMS AND RECOGNITIONS
Mendoza describes his films as “mirrors of life.” According to him, he makes films that reflect the current state of the country, with topics that no one really likes to discuss.
In fact, his films have faced heavy censorships and harsh criticisms because they hit a little too close to home.
“These are the realities. With ‘Captive,’ a film about the kidnapping in Dos Palmas, Palawan, [I wanted to show that] there are kidnappings happening anywhere and until now some cases have not been solved. ‘Thy Womb’ centers on a midwife from Tawi-Tawi, Mindanao, who has a hard time coping with her own infertility. There are some couples, or women, who are really facing this,” says Mendoza.
“The Filipino audience has to look beyond what the pictures show. While I tackle the darker and ugly realities [of life in my lms], there is also the good side. In ‘Lola,’ it shows the gritty side of living in slums. At the same time, it talks about the resilience of the characters, which says a lot about the Filipino people. At the end of the day, it is not about being controversial, but simply being truthful about the issues that surround us. We, as Filipinos, have to acknowledge that there are problems going on and face reality.”
Admittedly, Mendoza’s films are not for the mainstream audience. They appeal to a certain type of movie fans.
“Some audience may not be ready for my films, while others are open to it. Europe has a more established audience for art lms. In the Philippines, we don’t have a solid audience for these kinds of films. We still don’t have a venue for them aside from Cinemalaya [a film festival in the Philippines showcasing independent lms),” says Mendoza.
THE FILIPINO KNIGHT
To his credit, Mendoza has won a number of accolades for his “neo- realist” films, as one critic described his works. These include “The Golden Leopard,” the grand prize at the 58th Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland in 2005 for “Masahista;” best director for “Thy Womb” at the Asia-Paci c Screen Awards; the La Navicella/Venezia Cinema prize for “Thy Womb” at the 69th Venice International Film Festival, among others.
Mendoza is the first and only Filipino director to compete in all major lm festivals in the world like the Cannes, Venice and Berlin lm festivals. Retrospectives of his lms were also done in major European cities, central Europe, Scandinavian countries, Latin America, North America and Asia.
Early this year, Mendoza’s talent and body of works have been acknowledged by the French government. Mendoza is now a knight in the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (French Order of Arts and Letters), one of the highest distinctions conferred on individuals by the French government, for his “personi cation of the rebirth of Philippine cinema.”
Despite his achievements in and outside his home country, Mendoza remains humble, making no mention about his awards unless he is asked. “I feel elated with the awards because they validate all my hard work. But through the years, it is not about the awards anymore or the return on investments. It becomes something else – a purpose and a goal as a filmmaker. You start to question yourself: Why do you want to make films? Why do you want to tell these kinds of stories? It’s no longer about you as a director, but about your advocacy.”
All things considered, Mendoza says he doesn’t consider himself a director.
“For me, I’m just a storyteller. I think the moment I tell myself that I’m a director that would be the end of it. I’m still learning. I learn as I make my films. As long as I have questions to ask, ideas to share, I will still make films.”
No doubt about it. Mendoza is indeed a knight of the Philippine cinema.