GREAT films are made up of moving pictures with much of the strips drawn from the inspirations and lives of the filmmakers themselves.
That's a grain of truth for Thomasian filmmakers Milo Tolentino and Brillante Mendoza whose distinct opuses echo much of their peculiar interests from the ordinary to extraordinary, whether personal or public.
Tales of ghouls and goblins shaped the world of Communication Arts alumnus Tolentino—who has earned a name in making independent horror films—even when he was a kid.
Back then, Tolentino was an aloof kid who didn't play much with other kids his age as he would prefer to unwind at the backyard of his grandma's house in Lipa City, which overlooked a misty, serene river. Around this setting, his lola would tell stories about the supernatural, which roused Milo's interest in the netherworld.
“During those days, my lola never failed to mention about legendary fireballs, tikbalang (half-man, half-horse giant), and all those types of monsters in Batangas,” he said. “At first I was scared, but as she shared more afternoon stories with me, my fear of the unknown grew into fascination.”
Not only was Tolentino fascinated with the uncanny. He became a bookworm and developed a penchant for the theatrical arts. This enthrallment for the mysterious hooked him to Stephen King's best sellers and Steven Spielberg's blockbusters.
Fantasy stories and other forms of fiction transformed Tolentino into a fan of magic realism. He carried this obsession through high school and later on to his filmmaking career. Although Spielberg's fancy visual effects lured Tolentino's gaze toward the mystics, these did not make him readily fall in love with the film craft. Instead, Tolentino channeled his inclination to writing.
“I never imagined myself making a film,” Tolentino said. “The people around me saw my potential as a creative writer instead.”
On his sophomore year at UST in 1987, Tolentino joined the Varsitarian and was assigned to the News section.
“Since my style of writing was very descriptive, I felt really out of place as a news writer,” he said. “But although that's the case, I never lost touch with my literary forte.”
While writing news articles, Tolentino would contribute poems and short stories to the Literary section, as well as art critiques to the paper's Circle (arts, culture and media) page. He was promoted to Literary editor the following year.
“My first fiction short story was titled Dawn to Dawn, which was very much like the theme of my second Cinemalaya short film Orasyon,” he said. Both of his creations deal with the agony of ageing, as he was nostalgic of his grandmother.
While helping edit the Varsitarian, Tolentino was also an active member of the Salinggawi Dance Troupe, which granted him a scholarship. He was also the musical director of the Artistang Artlets and a member of the AB Enrolment Committee all at the same year. Tolentino managed the pressure of handling four extra-curricular activities simultaneously. In fact, he said he prioritized his non-academic affiliations over his academics.
“UST gave me venues that made my talents more mature and more visible,” he said.
Right after college, Tolentino worked as a junior copy writer for ADSystems where he previously had his on-the-job training. While into mountaineering, Tolentino embarked on photography with the prodding of his colleague, former Varsitarian photographer Roderick Javier. Within two years of taking images in black and white, Tolentino was able to put up two major exhibits, Earth Spirits and Heavenly Bodies, which both had fantasy themes.
As a freelance photographer and a mountaineer, Tolentino also contributed travelogues to the Women's Home magazine where he worked with Manila Times journalist Tess Pacheco-Mapa. With much admiration for Tolentino's writing and photography, Mapa boosted Tolentino's enthusiasm for filmmaking. Tolentino soon enrolled in several film classes in the University of the Philippines in 2003.
“When I knew that I could enroll for a post-graduate course in film, I took the opportunity and indeed, it was worth it,” he said.
Majority of Tolentino's preliminary projects were flavored with the horror genre. Faithful to his childhood fascination with the eerie, his first short film, Buog, which he began filming as a student, featured a ghost. Tolentino competed in Cinemalaya in 2005 when his second short film, Alimuom, about a murderer's agony over the reappearance of his victim's vanished cadaver, became a finalist. Although he did not bag the Balanghay trophy for the best short film, Tolentino was ecstatic.
“My priority was just for my film to be screened and be appreciated by people in Cinemalaya since I think it's the best venue for launching indies,” Tolentino said.
Alimuom was followed by another thriller, Orasyon, in 2006, which was also a Cinemalaya contender. The 30-minute monochrome feature tells about a pious widow's vulnerabilities with the arrival of a nosy, meddling housemaid. This time, Tolentino took home the grand prize and earned the respect of colleagues in the field.
“Even before the awards night came, Orasyon was an early favorite for the top prize, which really surprised me since it was the least likely to win, being in the horror genre,” Tolentino said. The film was also screened in the first UST CineVita film festival last March, for its theme on faith and care for the elderly.
Tolentino's roster of films includes his experimental project featuring hermit crabs in Pagudpud Beach titled Uwang-uwang: The Hermit Chronicles, and his Cinemanila workshop short about the feet, titled Apak. Recently, Tolentino submitted his reedited, three-minute feature, The Boy Who Loves Flowers, to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (Unesco), which granted him funds after his story was selected last year. Tolentino was the sole Southeast Asian filmmaker included in UNESCO's top 10 grantees. He is also currently working with the production company, Studio Indio.
Now, Tolentino is keeping his fingers crossed on his latest short film, Kanlungan Sa Impyerno, for the Cinemalaya 2007.
“Just like Orasyon, we shot Kanlungan in Lipa too,” Tolentino said. “I really hope it would fare well to be a finalist in this year's Cinemalaya.”
The brilliance of Brillante
Thomasian indie film director Brillante Mendoza loved surveying his environment. It's as if everything that surrounds him holds a story to tell. The most vivid of these images were those he encountered during his bus trips back home from UST.
“Whenever I took my bus ride home, I made it a point to look on both sides of the vehicle: the glass window where I witnessed the nostalgic sights from the highway and the center aisle where I observed my co-passengers,” he said. “As I gazed upon these characters, I was already inventing stories at the back of my mind.”
Mendoza is a true-blooded Kapampangan. In fact, his three films, Masahista (2005), Kaleldo (2006), and Manoro (2006), were all shot in the scenic plains and spots of Pampanga.
“Besides the fact that I grew up in San Fernando, there were really a lot to observe about Pampanga,” he said. “Pardon my biases, but Pampanga is really picturesque even after it has gone through disasters such as the deluge of lahar (volcanic ash fall).”
Mendoza entered UST in 1979 as an Advertising student. Throughout his four years of stay in the University, he impressed his professors and peers with his dexterity in the visual arts by winning numerous intercollegiate art competitions year after year. Aside from these, what made Mendoza's sojourn in UST most memorable were the times he spent with his colleagues such as Egay Litawa and the late Tatus Saldana, who both became line producers for films.
“I will always cherish the bonding we had during those days when we had to beat deadlines and spend overnight group works just to finish our art plates,” he said.
Mendoza pursued a Master's degree in Advertising at the UST Graduate School after he graduated from the old College of Architecture and Fine Arts (Cafa) in 1983. But he discontinued his studies after he discovered his interest in TV production.
“My friend, Cafa professor Rey Maniego, encouraged me to join a film class organized by Ateneo De Manila University and the Mowelfund Institute,” he said. “That was when I met director Peque Gallaga whom I believed gave me the break in the film industry as an art director for Virgin Forest.”
Fresh from his filmmaking classes, Mendoza became Chito Ro˝o's production designer for the director's first film, Private Show in 1986. Other movies where he aided in production design were comics-inspired films such as Baleleng at ang Gintong Sirena in 1988 and Valentina in 1989.
Mendoza has also worked on TV commercials. His latest commercial is the Smart mobile phone ad featuring Sam Milby, Angel Locsin, Dennis Trillo and Anne Curtis. To date, Mendoza has been a production designer and art director for nearly two decades.
“Although most of the time exhausting, I had so much fun doing the creative background for these movies and commercials,” Mendoza said.
During his stint as a production designer, Mendoza used the name “Dante” for himself. Back then, he felt the name “Brillante” was a very common name.
“After Masahista competed in Locarno, Switzerland, I used again my real name which was actually an advantage for my film to be more recognized by foreigners, especially the Hispanics, who have a clue of my name's etymology” he said.
Masahista took home the Golden Leopard Award, the top award in the digital competition of the 2005 Locarno International Film Festival in Switzerland. After the victory, international distributors in Europe started mailing Mendoza to buy the rights for commercial reproduction of the movie. The erotic but socially sensitive movie about a young Kapampangan masseur was also exhibited in other five international film festivals such as in Toronto and in Belgium.
Meanwhile, Mendoza's short film Manoro bested six other competitors in the local digital film category for the best film award in the 8th Cinemanila International Film Festival last year. Manoro also served as the opening film for the first UST CineVita film festival for its multifarious take on the Ayta indigenous community, literacy, and education.
Mendoza has his own production company, Center Stage Productions, which produced Siquijor: The Mystic Island (2007) and Mel Chionglo's Twilight Dancers (2006). In all the movies that he has produced and directed, Mendoza has always wanted to convey his reflections of honesty and truth.
“Whenever I make a film, I always remain faithful to the truth,” Mendoza said. “For me, it is important to translate reality on to the screen for the audience to realize the truth.”
Mendoza has recently finished his fourth full-length movie, Foster Child, which stars Cherry Pie Picache and Jiro Manio in a story about a mother's bitter struggle to have her child adopted. Foster Child was screened in the Director's Fortnight of the Cannes film festival on May 17-27, only the second Filipino movie to be featured in the important Cannes program introducing to the world new directors. The first Filipino director to be featured at the Director's Fortnight was Lino Brocka–in 1978, when “Insiang” was screened in Cannes.
Mendoza is again filming another movie, Tirador, which deals with the lives of small-time snatchers during the election season.
Both Mendoza and Tolentino share their sentiments on the growing industry of films in the digital and video format.
“It's great to know that there are film festivals in the country that aid in the commercialization of independent films and the separation of the high-quality stories from the substandard ones,” Tolentino said.
“For as long as you have the right subject matter for film, embedded in an honest, well-woven storyline, the format should be the least of your worries,” Mendoza said.
According to these two Thomasian directors, aspiring filmmakers should take note of three values when crafting a film: sincerity, passion, and dedication.
“When I make my films, my whole mind, body, and soul are very much drawn to the whole process,” Mendoza said. “That is why after bringing my films to their completion, a distinct kind of fulfillment seeps into me.”
With several years more ahead of their budding careers as filmmakers, both directors promise more unconventional stories and stirring ideas in the future.
“I haven't thought about and made my dream project yet, and I'm not going to stop filming until I do so,” Tolentino said.