Balancing comedy and tragedy with Carlo Francisco Manatad

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Carlo Francisco Manatad walks us through his highly anticipated feature film "Whether the Weather is Fine," and talks about why embracing absurdity and ambiguity in life matters. In photo: Daniel Padilla in "Whether the Weather is Fine." Photo courtesy of CARLO FRANCISCO MANATAD

“The years I was editing, I was unconsciously learning from all my directors.”

Carlo Francisco Manatad has made a name for himself as one of the most prolific Filipino film editors, with works such as “F#*@bois,” “I’m Drunk I Love You,” “Meet Me In St. Gallen,” and “Balangiga: Howling Wilderness” under his artistic belt. But in the last few years, he has successfully made a name for himself locally and internationally as a writer and director. His immediate narrative and visual signature shine through in his contained worlds: the absurd and the mundane clash, bringing out levity in otherwise saddening circumstances.

The ideas for his films seem to come from anywhere and nowhere: “Junilyn Has” (which also competed in Locarno) follows nightclub dancers out of work during the papal visit, “Sandra” sees girls fighting on the streets in the name of sisterhood, “Fatima Marie Torres and the Invasion of Space Shuttle Pinas 25” explores the sexual desire of elderly people during a shuttle launch, and “Jodilerks Dela Cruz, Employee of the Month” (part of Cannes Film Festival parallel section Semaine de La Critique 2017) sees an employee on the eve of their gasoline station’s foreclosure.

His highly anticipated feature film “Kun Maupay Man It Panahon” (Whether the Weather is Fine) follows Norma (Charo Santos-Concio), Miguel (Daniel Padilla), and Andrea (Rans Rifol) as they attempt to escape typhoon-stricken Tacloban before the next storm arrives. It is set to premiere at the Locarno Film Festival in August as part of the Concorso Cineasti del Presente (Filmmakers of the Present Competition) program and the Toronto International Film Festival’s Contemporary World Cinema programme. Co-produced by six different countries, the international rights have been acquired by the Beijing-based sales agent Rediance — co-producers of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Memoria” and Anthony Chen’s “The Break Away.”

Daniel Padilla in “Kun Maupay Man It Panahon.” Photo courtesy of CARLO FRANCISCO MANATAD

I spoke to Carlo last week on a rainy July afternoon over Zoom to talk to him about his decade in filmmaking, the lengthy development process of his first narrative feature, and what the absurdity in the mundane reveals about the human experience. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

In your undergraduate years, you shifted from management to materials engineering prior to landing on film. What was it about cinema that drew you in? How was the process of combining both your desire to be an editor and a director?

When I was younger, my dad had a camera as a gift during graduation. So I was just shooting randomly with it. We would make on-cam edits and we would follow commercials at the time. It was during the weekends and then papanoorin lang namin. It was just for fun. ‘Yun ‘yung unang sabak ko into what would be filmmaking.

I wasn’t even considering going into film as an undergraduate course because almost everyone in my family was in the business side. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know which course to take. I wasn’t pressured by my family. But dahil I didn’t know what to do, so I’ll just do things na nakikita kong ginagawa ng cousins ko o ng mga tita at tito ko.

Nung nasa film na ako, I really wanted to direct. But also, everyone wanted to direct at ayaw kong makipag-compete with them. During the course of film school, I was really engrossed with editing and in our batch, there were few who really wanted to edit. I was very technical about things, so I decided to focus on editing just because it’s a different kind of storytelling and sometimes I feel it’s more or less directing: it changes a story from script to when you direct to when you edit.

I didn’t realize na na-e-enjoy ko na siya. But I was scared of how to go about the real world. I got lucky because, towards my last year in film school, someone got me my first feature film [to edit]. It was for Cinema One Originals: “Dagim.” I didn’t even ask how much I was getting. It was about the experience, how the industry works, etc. I wasn’t expecting other things to come after that.

The whole time I was editing, directing would always be at the back of my head. I’ve been working as an editor for years. Feeling mo kaya mo siyang gawin, pero never mo kasi siyang nagagawa. There was this fear that if I delve into directing, may mangyayari ba? It was a decision made just because I said to myself: if I try doing something and it doesn’t work, I still have editing to go back to. I wanted to be a bit stable, then I could try what I dreamed of trying in filmmaking.

You started directing films again in 2015. What was it like making those first series of short films?

When I shot the first one, it came out of the push of Khavn, of course, but it also started as an activity with friends. It wasn’t intentionally done for a film festival with full production and we want to submit to this and whatsoever. It was more like, I wanted to try it out and if it doesn’t work. Edi, okay lang.

With “Junilyn Has,” there wasn’t really much expectation. At the back of my head (and I wasn’t saying it to my friends), but I really wanted to try Cinemalaya. But when I submitted it to Cinemalaya, I was rejected. I had a couple more rejections. Then I just did a blind submission for Locarno. But that was just it: I pay €65 for a submission fee, but this is the end of the life of this film. Wala namang may alam na may ginawa akong pelikula. It got in. I didn’t know how big it was. Wala akong alam how the A-list festivals work.

When I was in Locarno, I got a bit sad and depressed. It was my first festival. Nung nandoon na ako, all the filmmakers knew each other. So the first few days, I wasn’t enjoying the festival. But then again, I was already there. So I said fuck it. Enjoy ko. So I attended parties and screenings and whatever. I liked that feeling. Then I realized that with festivals, aside from being selected, it’s more about knowing people and seeing the differences in the filmmaking; in culture.

I wanted that feeling to transcend. I wanted to make it special but I also didn’t want the momentum to go down. So I made the next few shorts when I got back from Locarno. When I got back in September, I shot “Sandra” and then in November I shot “Fatima.” But it wasn’t publicized. It wasn’t even about going somewhere or achieving something. I just wanted to create.

Charo Santos-Concio in “Kun Maupay Man It Panahon.” Photo courtesy of CARLO FRANCISCO MANATAD

When I was starting with short films, it was always the case that the crew that I’ll be able to work with and people who know me the most. Alam nila ‘yung kagaguhan ko as a person, not even as a filmmaker. It was always the case that I would choose the same people just because they understand what I want regardless of them understanding the material. I feel like these people, who are also my friends, they’re supportive regardless of whether or not gets nila ‘yung gusto kong mangyari.

In many of your films (including your upcoming one), you create these contained worlds where the mundane and the absurd constantly clash, bringing out both tragic and comedic parts of life and humanity. Why do you gravitate towards these stories and this form of storytelling?

I was in conversation with a friend, my co-writer Giancarlo Abrahan. We were fascinated but also questioning why is it always when stories in the Philippines are represented, it’s always either sobrang hard-hitting or sad. Why don’t people see it in a more humorous way? I guess to me, the mundane and the tragic will always be comical. There would always be something humorous. We’re just used to it being presented as something, let’s say, on a very surface level, sad.

There are so many stories of the extremes: the poorest or the richest. But there is so little material about the people in the middle. Or the people that you’re not interested in telling their stories because they’re just the tinderas na nagtitinda ng banana cue. I always try to find the humor in the mundane because there always is. I just feel that for a certain subject, na hindi nag-fo-focus ‘yung people on it, the best way to approach it is to find humor. It will always be the connecting factor to people watching or people being interested in something.

I don’t like setting up a frame of mind in the head of the people watching about the material that I make. I always leave it up to them. With the films that I make, there’s always space. That’s what I always show the mundane because if you see something mundane at walang masyadong ganap, the one who’s watching it tends to think about it. And in the space of thinking towards how it ends, yun ‘yung gusto ko, because there’s a conversation — regardless of whether they like the film or not.

Your feature film “Kun Maupay Man It Panahon (Whether the Weather Is Fine)” has been in development since 2014. What made the gestation period so long and what did you take away from this lengthy process?

We started doing the international route when we got Asian Cinema Fund from the Busan International Film Festival. But actually, it really started with Cinemalaya. In 2016 or 2017, we got shortlisted for Cinemalaya. We were waitlisted and somebody pulled out from that batch. It was the year of “Pamilya Ordinaryo.” They called me asking if I wanted to be part of it. It was my dream, so I said yes. Sobrang mabilisan ‘yung nangyari. I contacted my crew. We were already doing location scouts during that time. But the film that time is not the film that it is now. It was more narrative and dramatic.

When they were supposed to announce it, I also submitted it to La Fabrique de Cinema du Monde in Cannes. It’s also a workshop for co-production from different countries. During that time, I didn’t have that much of a portfolio. I wanted to try it out and I wasn’t expecting anything. But then we got a call from them and they said we were accepted. But the rules and regulations say that if you go to La Fabrique, the film should not be shot within a span of time because the program is specific for development and trying to find co-producers to go into the international route.

At the time, I was leaning towards Cinemalaya because I wasn’t confident about what I wanted to do with the feature. It was the faster route and I didn’t know how we would get the money whatsoever. But I wanted to know how these labs worked and sayang ‘yung opportunity. Not a lot of projects from the Philippines get selected for it. So before Cinemalaya announced, we talked to them and pulled out.

After that, we met a few producers and co-producers who were interested in the film. I felt during that time that they just wanted to meet us because we were from an exotic country like the Philippines. I was the only Asian participant during that time. So there was interest but at the same time, they were also unsure about me as a filmmaker because I only had one short film at the time. There was always this struggle: we would meet people and they’d like the material but they wouldn’t be confident about me.

Then our would-be-French producer said that for this film to work, we need to see something less of the experiment and more of the narrative. That’s why I did “Jodilerks.” It wasn’t intended to go to a festival. It was more of a material for submission purposes and talking to producers to show that I have a variety of works that they can actually see the range.

We got into Torino Lab and I felt that Torino was one of the labs that changed the game in a way. It’s a three-time lab stretched throughout the year. You consult in general: with your script, with the music, how you feel about the editing if mag-e-edit na kayo. It was very holistic. We got into Torino and I had a film in Cannes. Which was… nagulat rin ako. That’s when the producers started coming in.

‘Yun rin ‘yung kulang sa films in the Philippines. I’m not saying it’s bad to just have the money and make the film. But I felt like the whole process of taking time, it helped. At least for me, just because I’m not a good writer. It’s very visual in my head but once I start writing, hindi tumutugma ‘yung sinusulat ko sa na-i-imagine ko. Also, sobrang dami kong nakuha from the whole process of people commenting on your work and having another perspective, especially not just in the context of the Philippines or Asia but other contexts like Europe or the American context.

 "I also wanted to give a reaction to this Manila-centric mentality. During the time of the storm, when I got back to Manila and I was browsing through Facebook, I would see people partying and not giving a damn about Tacloban or even other tragedies not in Tacloban. Siguro doon nanggaling 'yung galit. Just because hindi siya nangyari sa center ng Pilipinas, it’s not that big of a deal."


Of course, these comments and suggestions will always come in but you don’t have to follow them.

Also, I get to meet a lot of people in between festivals that I would eventually collaborate with. For example, in 2016, “Junilyn” was in France and I met a few directors there and I collaborated with them. In 2017, the same time I had a film in Semaine de la Critique, the short film that I edited won the Palme d’or [Qiu Yang's "A Gentle Night"]. Rather than you wanting to get something out of a festival, I think it’s more of the relationship you build because it will build into collaborations. 

What made you want to tell this story about post-Yolanda Tacloban? How much of the initial story changed?

This project actually started without the storm. I had written something before. It was also a story of a mother and son. There was also tragedy involved, but it wasn’t a storm. At the time, I felt it was complete. But I also felt it wasn’t. I was trying to find kung ano ‘yung kulang but I couldn’t. Then I started collaborating with Gian. Then the storm happened. I experienced the storm and I took my family from Tacloban and went back to work. Normal life. Then there was one particular moment when I went back home and I just started crying.

Hindi ko alam kung saan nanggaling ‘yung emotion. I started talking to my friends and people also around. I pinpointed that the emotion that led to me crying na hindi ko na-co-control was basically built-up emotion that I was trying to hide during the time na nangyayari ‘yung bagyo. I was talking to Gian and then we just realized na maybe this is the certain element that was lacking in the film: it’s me.

I know this is very personal and also subjective, but I also wanted to give a reaction to this Manila-centric mentality. During the time of the storm, when I got back to Manila and I was browsing through Facebook, I would see people partying and not giving a damn about Tacloban or even other tragedies not in Tacloban. Siguro doon nanggaling ‘yung galit. Just because hindi siya nangyari sa center ng Pilipinas, it’s not that big of a deal. Maybe it was just me because I was too emotional, but I wanted to react against it, scrutinizing ‘yung complexities ng less developed areas like my hometown. In a way to show a place that was entrenched in the moralistic and parochial systems and how beliefs and superstitions na nagwo-work or hindi nag-wowork sa nangyayari. Ang daming pumapasok noon: ‘yung galit, ‘yung saya, ‘yung gulat. I was working on emotions rather than specific stories of people.

I wanted the film, regardless of the storm, to still stand as the same story. I took out a lot of elements and it still had the same effect. But also, wala siyang inherent meaning. Usually, you can talk about life when you just have one interpretation: it’s either tragic or comic. In a way, I wanted to see how these two interpretations are intertwined. When I was making the film, I didn’t know how it would become. But that’s still something I want to explore in my work: balancing the tragic and the comic, the real and the absurd.

Rans Rifol in “Kun Maupay Man It Panahon.” Photo courtesy of CARLO FRANCISCO MANATAD

Bringing this film to Locarno Film Festival this year kind of brings your filmmaking journey to a full circle. It’s where your debut short “Junilyn Has” premiered and where this feature is now premiering. How have these international film festivals and the Locarno journey shaped the film?

It was a game-changer for me. It made me feel that this is a different way of how I want my cinema to be. A lot of the things that I carry with me right now as a filmmaker came from that experience. Not because I attended a talk, a workshop or talked to somebody. It was the feeling; the push. Compared to other festivals that are more focused on the glitz and the glamour of the red carpet, I felt like Locarno, being an A-list festival, didn’t really care who attended. It was more about the film and the art and the artist. So I carried that thing with me: Your film is here. It must be good. You must be doing something okay. So just continue with it.

I’m really happy din na parang nag-pay off naman all of the years that we were doing the development of the film. There would always be questions of why I was still doing it: “Why are you taking so long to make this film?” o “Hindi na nagme-make sense.” o “Ano pa bang hinihintay mo?” But honestly, there was a time that I was really just stalling it because I felt that I wasn’t ready yet. Then it came to a point na wala nang ibang reason to stall. I really just had to make it work.

I did not expect the film to have people go on board na ibang bansa. I really just wanted to make a film. Plus points na lang na nakakuha kami ng funding and to have these mainstream stars go on board. And these are big stars. But sometimes, I question myself: How was I able to convince them? Hindi ko rin ma-pinpoint when and how but I just pitched to them and they just said yes. So nawe-weirdohan pa rin ako sa paano yun nangyari. If you notice, with a lot of my films, it’s mostly non-actors. But when I was trying to transition with “Jodilerks” and “The Imminent Immanent,” it was testing the waters of how it would go. 

I used to worry that the people who actually experienced the storm might not be the audience of the kind of cinema that I make. I don’t want them to feel like I was exploiting them. There is this fear, even until now, especially from the people from my hometown. But you can’t control that. You can’t control how people would think, especially since they haven’t seen any of my work. Yun ‘yung [ikinalulungkot ko] nung time na iyon.

But now, I’m quite sure that I’m on the right path. As a whole, the film is actually for them. At least on my end, I felt like I gave them the proper (for a lack of a better term) exposure of their narratives told through the story. More importantly, the film is centered on a specific region and a specific event. I want to contradict the space they’re in. With this, it sparks conversation rather than just accepting what a certain situation would look and feel like.