Chasing after strangers with Trishtan Perez

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We sat down with the filmmaker to talk about his fascination with strangers, his fixation on spaces of self-discovery, and the journey towards creating his award-winning film “i get so sad sometimes.” Illustration by ELLE SHIVERS

In the weeks leading up to Trishtan Perez’s win at QCinema 2021, he had been losing sleep. Premiering at a major festival such as QCinema is considered a rite of passage for budding filmmakers — a space where they can develop an audience outside of the classroom. “I feel very vulnerable and exposed, but I’m slowly learning to accept this journey,” says Perez, laughing at the absurdity of the moment. “But most of the time, I just [felt] like throwing up.”

Born in Pagadian City, Zamboanga del Sur, Perez hadn’t always planned to become a filmmaker. After transferring from UP Visayas’ Communication and Media Studies program to UP Diliman’s Communication Research program, the idea was introduced to Perez by a seatmate in one of his general education classes. “She was a member of UP Cineastes’ Studio and she started giving me films to watch.” The list included Pedro Almodovar’s “Bad Education” and Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Dreamers,” which Perez devoured immediately. “Sumabay pa na enrolled ako kay Sir [Patrick] Campos and he was showing us a lot of thesis films and recommending Wong Kar-wai and [Asghar] Farhadi.”

When he found himself spending more time conceptualizing thesis films instead of focusing on his course, he had to shift. “I was struck with the realization that this is the rest of my life we’re talking about,” says Perez. “I don’t know how to enjoy other stuff or do other stuff, so ayun. Kaya ako nag-film.”

Since then, his short films have been screened at prestigious festivals such as the Salamindanaw Asian Film Festival, Cinema Rehiyon, .giff Festival of New Cinema, and the SeaShorts Film Festival — with his most recent short film in-development “I Didn’t Want To Say Hello” being selected as a finalist in the 2022 GoWATCH Film Lab under Globe Prepaid and ANIMA. Taking inspiration from Asghar Farhadi and Ryûsuke Hamaguchi to Makoto Shinkai and Lee Chang-Dong, Perez is one of the distinct writer-directors who wears his influences on his sleeve. At the beginning of December 2021, Ryan and I sat down with Trishtan over Zoom to talk about his fascination with strangers, the fixation on spaces of self-discovery, and the journey towards creating his now award-winning film “i get so sad sometimes.”

This interview, which was conducted prior to his QCinema win, has been edited for brevity and clarity.

There’s a huge disparity between your “unreleased films” on Vimeo and your films that have been in competitions. What was the process of creating your first few shorts and how did that change when you first started submitting them to festivals?

‘Yung mga mas rak-en-roll na spirit of my films before were because they were for class exercises. I just wanted to really have fun with it and not take it too seriously. Hindi ganoon kalalim ‘yung self-exploration. You just try to be brave sometimes, but not exactly know who you are yet as a filmmaker.

Nag-start ‘yung shift talaga nung directing class. By then, the question is: “Who are you? Why are you making this? What do you want to make?” Doon na rin ako nag-scramble into really trying to know myself better. You’re about to graduate and things are about to get serious and you’re gonna present yourself to the world. Doon ko na-realize na actually something I haven’t talked about much but I have a lot of input on: ‘yung loneliness ko, being thrown out in Manila, and the comfort I get from strangers. ‘Yun ‘yung nagde-define ng life ko — this longing for something that I don’t know of.

Then I started with “Some Nights I Feel Like Walking.” Tapos I didn’t complete the class, so I had to retake it and that’s where I did “The Man Who Isn’t There and Other Stories of Longing.” Same class lang ‘yung dalawang shorts. Mas doon ako drawn na topics. My classmates tackled social justice, mga ganoon. But the level of experience I had, I don’t think I deserve to make those kinds of films yet. In the future, of course. Pero parang nasa point pa ako na write what you know and do something beautiful with it.

Congratulations on “i get so sad sometimes.” I know this project was in development for a while. Could you talk about its inception and why you set it in Pagadian?

It’s a really personal film. It’s only just recently that I confronted my feelings of pain and heartbreak [from] when I was younger. I started with the process to really talk to my [younger] self and that was when the magic started happening. It’s the perfect capsule to express this love-hate relationship I have with being a probinsyano and the seeming emptiness of my town. Apparently, the longing that I had in college actually started when I was younger.

It’s also just recently that I started crying about my childhood, as a gay person. I was very strong when I was young. I didn’t cry as much about getting bullied, no matter how isolated I felt because of my sexuality. I was silent and there’s power in that silence, stubbornness in that silence. I won’t let you see me [be] affected by all these, [including] religious guilt. These stories, I didn’t acknowledge them for fear of being ridiculed. I was so much stronger when I was younger. Since I didn’t cry growing up, there was this feeling of having a lump in my throat [and] that feeling of stopping myself from crying never really left me.

Realizing that about my childhood, I think it was unfair. We could celebrate strength, but it’s unfair for a child to already have that courage just because he has to; just because of fear of being discriminated [against]. I can’t imagine how much it took to go on with life. More than all of these backstories, I really just wanted to do a film that would honor my younger self, to acknowledge the suffering and the little heartbreaks. In doing that, maybe also allowing other people to look at their own childhoods and respect these children by talking about these experiences they’ve kept secret. That was my driving force.

Has it been cathartic?

Sobra. I actually brought my parents to the screening and they don’t know that I’m gay. Maybe they get that I’m gay, but I’m not out to them. Pretty brave, ano? I was nervous the entire time. The film is almost a… “pagsusumbong sa sarili.” Your kid felt these things and he felt so sad, and to know that they liked the film and they don’t have any issue with it — sobrang laking relief. I even caught my dad rewatching it on KTX! Hindi ako iiyak! Bakit wala siyang bini-bring-up na anything. It’s their way of recognizing and accepting.

More than being in service to myself, baka it could be a start with my parents — the start of acceptance. They were really cool with it and they told me they really sincerely liked it. Sobrang sarap na process. Nag-connect-connect lahat. I was doing this for my younger self and by bringing them to the screening, I also did this for them and for myself and our relationship.

A still featuring Perez in his short film "The Man Who Isn't There and Other Stories of Longing." Photo from RAPPLER ACT ONE/YOUTUBE

All three of your short films tackle not only queer longing, but also isolation, performance, and identity. In each of them, you create these contained worlds that seem to have progressively gotten bigger yet more intimate; wherein your queer characters are safe but are unable to escape. Or at least, they find themselves returning to these spaces as different people. Why do you gravitate towards these stories and why is it important for you to create these spaces for your characters?

I think the world is already very suffocating as it is. What more for a queer peerson like me who has to face these microaggressions and judgements on a regular basis? This very general queer experience, it’s kind of grounded in creating these artifical safe spaces where you’re safe from judgement or where you can be your truest self when you’re in it. For example, in the cruising culture, in the acad oval, in the online chat sites, places where you can have another identity and have some sense of escapism. Or maybe the four corners of a photo booth where, in a way, you’re hidden from the rest of the world and that is the only place where you can express yourself. It’s all playing with this idea of identity and possible selves.

I think queer people are just looking for spaces where they can just truly be themselves or create another version of themselves that they’re comfortable with and that’s still them, it doesn’t mean it’s not them anymore. I always find myself drawn to these spaces, and even want to stay in these spaces myself, longer than being in the real world. All these longings in the world, I feel can be remedied by a touch of the hand, a conversation with a stranger, or a sexual release in the Acad Oval.

"I think queer people are just looking for spaces where they can just truly be themselves or create another version of themselves that they’re comfortable with and that’s still them, it doesn’t mean it’s not them anymore."

Society may think there’s a perversion or deviance in the creation of these places, but you have to do what you have to do to feel more human or to exercise being human in the first place. I create these spaces to thank the spaces, to pay respect to it, for helping me survive for even a single night. I wouldn’t be here surviving in the outside world if these spaces didn’t exist.

You said before that you were a fan of defeatist narratives. But now, you’re more into hopeful ones. What’s changed since then?

I still believe in hopeful endings, pero mas mahirap siya i-pull off. Lahat tayo right now, parang we’re down in the dumps. If you want something strong or an impact na sobrang clear, you go for a defeatist one. Since it’s harder to pull off a hopeful narrative, that’s where I’m more challenged. People might interpret the Tokyo Tower ending [of “i get so sad sometimes”] as sad and defeatist. Pero if you ask me, while there is sadness, there’s also a sense of hopefulness and gratefulness for what it has done to him. Even if the person represented by that person and the thousands of possibilities within that poster are suddenly wala na, and if it’s already not there with you, you recognize how it made you feel.

What do you hope to do in the future as a filmmaker?

I think people have an impression of me as a really “sadboi.” I’m sure not all the connotations of a sadboi is good, parang ngayong nga diba manipulative na nga siya. But, I really am a sad, you know, since I’m on Twitter a lot so parang nagmumukha siyang image building, ine-express ko lang talaga siya. Parang sentimentality could be a powerful thing. It’s something I focus a lot on, in an age where [may international film festival formula] na to be deadpan and to hold back. It’s a breath of fresh air ang sentimentality. Sabi ng iba: “Mukhang mababaw lang. Why is he crying about it?” But it’s really about wanting to acknowledge what we truly feel about things. I wanted to be unapologetic about it.

In my previous films, they’re centered on romantic longing. So I want to venture more into family. It’s something I haven’t started unpacking yet with myself — being a middle class kid with a family with upper class aspirations. Longing pa rin ‘yung theme, but meron pa ring other aspects in my life. Writing lang, so I don’t have to be stressed to shoot it.

I also want to write for other people. Although, just knowing the realities of the industry, I don’t think they’d think I’m ready yet. Maybe I feel that way as well, talking about full-length as a next step. I want to write and train myself in writing full-length muna for other people. There’s a lot of directing in writing. So yeah, that’s the plan. But, if not, I don’t know. Change career? Char.

May running joke nga rin between me and my filmmaker friends na sino ‘yung makaka-cast si Tilda Swinton first in a local film. It sounds absurd pero when think of Tilda’s trajectory with “Memoria,” like nag Southeast Asia siya, and parang nangongolekta siya ng direktor, sabi ko, ‘di malayo ata na maging game siya to do something wild in the Philippines.

What do you hope to leave with your audience members?

To be more honest with themselves and their sadness. There’s a lot of things we keep just because they seem embarrassing. These little heartbreaks, these sexual experiences we can’t forget, they say a lot about our state of mind; about what really hurts us as people. It reveals a lot about us [and] these small experiences don’t get talked about as much. When we talk about our lives, it’s all the big moments we go directly into. So when we become honest with the little ones and you unpack the little things that happen to you, you get to discover a lot of things about yourself. In the writing process, I have a question for myself. I force myself to be honest with how I write. Hopefully, in return, the audience could think about their own lives and be honest about their similar experiences.