The place of Filipino short films in Southeast Asian cinema

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A still from Petersen Vargas' "How to Die Young in Manila," starring Elijah Canlas and Kokoy De Santos. Photo courtesy of SEASHORTS FILM FESTIVAL

It has been quite a year for Filipino short films. In this world where time is precious, budgets are limited, and people crave for creativity, shorts seem to have found an unlikely home. The rise in the popularity of the short film is not only because it is an economical and accessible means of creative expression, but also because it can function as a vessel through which the status quo can be revealed and cultures can be challenged to change.

There are many examples of this: Sonny Calvento’s comic criticism of capitalism and contractualization “Excuse Me, Miss, Miss, Miss” became the first Filipino short to compete at Sundance. Rafael Manuel’s “Filipiñana,” which is centered around a young girl working on a golf course, won the Silver Bear at Berlinale. Mike Revereza’s experimental works detailing his life of an undocumented immigrant — “Distancing” and “Disintegration 93-96” — have been included in the Criterion Channel, along with his full length film “No Data Plan.” Isabel Sandoval’s sensual short film “Shangri-La,” done in collaboration with the Italian high fashion label Miu Miu, also has its theatrical premiere at the Venice Film Festival 2021.

Phyllis Grande and Angelina Kanapi in "Excuse Me, Miss, Miss, Miss." Screenshot from CINEMALAYA/YOUTUBE

But when we look at the history of short films locally and internationally, this movement has been a long-time coming. Unlike other countries, seed-money from institutions such as the Film Development Council of the Philippines and the QCinema International Film Festival has enabled individuals to proceed with local development and even international co-production. QCinema, Cinemalaya, Sine Halaga, and many other local film festivals have shifted to put a spotlight on short films through the virtual space. Paralleling this need, streaming platforms such as iQiyi, Vidsee, YouTube, Vimeo, and MOOV have expanded, creating de-facto digital theaters across the country and around the world.

As Filipino films continue to find more audiences, the task is to see not only how it is situated in the milieu from which it originated, but also against the larger context of world cinema. Southeast Asia is a region historically left out of conversations until recently. Upon examination, Filipino cinema has overlaps with other countries — not only in form (or lack thereof) but also subject and theme.

This is none truer than in the SeaShorts Film Festival. Founded by award-winning Malaysian filmmaker Tan Chui Mui in 2017, the event has grown into an opportunity to showcase Southeast Asian talent, bringing together a community that has been divided by geography, and erased by colonial history and capitalism.

The Main competition boasts four Filipino entries (“Gutab,” “Mutya,” “Kids on Fire,” and “How to Die Young in Manila”) while the non-competition program features recent products of workshops (“How To Not Make A Film,” “Naaninag,” and “Panahon sa Isang Butil ng Buhangin”) and films that have premiered elsewhere in the past (“Distancing,” “Orbit 50: Letters to My Three Sons,” and “A Child Dies, A Child Plays, A Woman is Born, A Woman Dies, A Bird Arrives, A Bird Flies Off (Arcade 4walls Edition”).

More than just talent development and networking, it has become a looking glass through which we audience members can see the cultures of other countries juxtaposed against our own.

Desire, damnation, and deliverance

Historically, Philippine cinema has punished those who have desired too much, with women and queer lives being its favorite victims. Fueled by colonial ideas of guilt and shame, desire is tied to damnation or deliverance across many cultures and is socially constructed rather than exclusively Catholic as seen in James Fajardo’s Cinemalaya entry “Looking for Rafflesias and Other Fleeting Things”.

Kyle Nieva’s “Kids on Fire.” Photo from SEASHORTS FILM FESTIVAL

While Kyle Nieva’s “Kids on Fire” explores how desire is suppressed by religion through shame, Petersen Vargas’ “How to Die Young in Manila” presents the perils of chasing and consummating it, displayed against the backdrop of an all-too familiar Manila, with death around the corner and bodies littered on streets only to be ignored. These metaphors for queer damnation ring true in many Southeast Asian cultures: many of which, like the Philippines, still do not have policies to protect lives from the LGBTQIA+ community, where cases of queer deaths — whether by discrimination, violence, disease, or poverty — still rack up. The short film format provides an avenue to tell these complex truths without adhering to mainstream conventions, which are often dictated by heteronormative and conservative expectations.

But there exists narratives that subvert these too. Queer death can signal a form of rebirth into authenticity such as in Ratchapoom Boonbunchachoke’s “Red Anisnsri; Or Tiptoeing on the Still Trembling Berlin Wall” — a Thai queer espionage film turned romantic coming-of-age story. While it is important to depict how queer lives are threatened by systems bent on killing them, it is equally important to remind audiences of queer hope; that there is also truth to rebellion; that the narratives that we see constructed about us can reflect our imagined futures rather than our harsh realities.

Ratchapoom Boonbunchachoke’s “Red Anisnsri; Or Tiptoeing on the Still Trembling Berlin Wall.” Photo from SEASHORTS FILM FESTIVAL

Beyond binaries

Conservative ideas of gender roles are intertwined so deeply with our religious and cultural beliefs, so much so that they have been difficult to abandon. Southeast Asia has reinforced these power relations even in cinema. These types of cinematic violence exist everywhere in Southeast Asia. Pom Bunservicha’s IFFR film “Lemongrass Girl” details how traditions keep women oppressed on film sets, while Julia Diệp My Feige’s “YẾN” shows how an androgynous Vietnamese woman is treated as an outcast because of her non-traditional appearances.

Julia Diệp My Feige’s “YẾN.” Photo from SEASHORTS FILM FESTIVAL

This is also true the Filipina, who has long been victimized and villainized in national cinema, subjecting her to both the visible and invisible violence that torment women everyday in reality as seen in recent local shorts such as Enrico Po’s “Out of Body” and Christian Paul Lim’s “Hija.” In particular, two women are under most scrutiny locally and globally: the beauty queen and the trans woman, each a subject of a Filipino short film in the SeaShorts main competition. The former suffers from being the ideal, the mold by which all other women are measured against, and is the subject of “Gutab” by Mary Andrea Palmares. The latter, the subject of “Mutya” by Jon Cuyson, exists outside of the conservative mold and is, in many circumstances, forced to sacrifice much to fit into these societal definitions.

A still from “Gutab” by Mary Andrea Palmares. Photo from SEASHORTS FILM FESTIVAL

The short film offers stories outside the usual expectations of women a chance to exist — in contrast to the highly romanticized identities in commercial films and the torture inescapable in independent cinema. What is remarkable in both cases is that neither “Gutab” nor “Mutya” fixate on the suffering, but rather focus on reasserting some form of agency. Jo-an, the beauty queen, attains independence by her own definitions by pursuing her desires, framed by the weaving practice as a form of liberation in choosing unity. On the other hand, Mutya, the titular character, questions her boyfriend’s perspectives on her transition and his treatment of his mother, showing compassion and solidarity even as their relationship becomes grayer.

A still from “Mutya” by Jon Cuyson. Photo from SEASHORTS FILM FESTIVAL

Both these reflect the changing attitudes towards women globally: that women can participate in traditions while negotiating their rights and liberties such as in films like Mouly Surya’s “Something Old, New, Borrowed, and Blue,” Joanna Vasquez Arong’s “Sol,” and Myra Aquino’s Cinemalaya-winning film “Beauty Queen.” Though these are few independent points among a constellation of similarly-themed films. They are indications that storytellers are no longer settling for stereotypes that have long oppressed their subjects.

Returning home

If there is any feeling more persistently present throughout the last two years, it is the feeling of placelessness — a desire to leave but a duty to stay, creating an alienating tension within the Filipino caught in the betweenness of waiting. Yam Kin Wai’s “Pulang” sees its protagonist return to Malaysia from Taiwan, only to realize that there are major changes in the city and within his own family, while Muhamad Ardan Ar’razaq’s “A Letter to My Wife” communicates his longing for his wife without any clue of her return. These desires are not exclusive to the pandemic but are exacerbated by it, especially as vaccine distribution is delayed and as the COVID-19 variants continue to ravage Southeast Asia, turning homes into digital islands.

Yam Kin Wai’s “Pulang.” Photo from SEASHORTS FILM FESTIVAL

Muhamad Ardan Ar’razaq’s “A Letter to My Wife.” Photo from SEASHORTS FILM FESTIVAL

Almost all of the Filipino films in the non-competition program explore this theme of returning. Miko Revereza’s experimental film “Distancing” narrates his struggle of returning to Manila after years of living in the U.S. Embedded in his failed attempts at speaking the language and learning the geography necessary to survive in Manila is this ever-present feeling of being caught in between unique to the Filipino diaspora. Shireen Seno’s “A Child Dies, A Child Plays, A Woman Is Born, A Woman Dies, A Bird Arrives, A Bird Flies Off (Arcade 4walls Edition)” explores similar themes of being neither Filipino enough to return nor American enough to stay. Instead, using images of birds and children in place of space and architecture; playing with contracting aspect ratios and overlapping images to show how small people feel amidst the expansive world.

A still from Miko Revereza’s “Distancing.” Photo from SEASHORTS FILM FESTIVAL

A still from Shireen Seno’s “A Child Dies, A Child Plays, A Woman Is Born, A Woman Dies, A Bird Arrives, A Bird Flies Off (Arcade 4walls Edition).” Photo from SEASHORTS FILM FESTIVAL

Both “Naaninag” by John Peter Chua and “Panahon sa Isang Butil ng Buhangin” by Malaysian-based Filipino filmmaker Kaizerine de la Cruz extend the scope of these anxieties further. These films articulate both a personal and a national crisis, with Chua and de la Cruz grappling with the inability to recall personal histories, unearthing a far more uncertain future exactly because it is neither memorable nor imaginable.

A still from “Panahon sa Isang Butil ng Buhangin” by Malaysian-based Filipino filmmaker Kaizerine de la Cruz. Photo from SEASHORTS FILM FESTIVAL

Kidlat Tahimik’s “Orbit 50: Letters to My 3 Sons” stands as a towering contrast to these contemporary films. Made three decades ago, it is a film-letter to his sons, whose German descent immediately sets them apart in Benguet. “Orbit” serves as a reminder of that which makes them distinctly Filipino: their names and qualities given more weight than their appearances. Through Kidlat’s wickedly funny yet emotionally patient voiceover, we are comforted to see that returning is a process, that identity is a commitment towards wholeness, that we are constantly shifting like our nation into who we are and must be.

John Peter Chua' “Naaninag.” Photo from SEASHORTS FILM FESTIVAL

Kidlat Tahimik’s “Orbit 50: Letters to My 3 Sons.” Photo from SEASHORTS FILM FESTIVAL

Cinema of recollection

International film festivals have been spaces for exploring taboo topics and styles too experimental to get funding or an audience locally. Khavn de la Cruz’s 17-minute rap-extraordinaire “How To Not Make A Film” spits out the truths behind many of the established filmmaking conventions, breaking these down along with the beats. The SeaShorts Film Festival reminds us that the short films are not only intersections of markets and entry points for talent but also fertile ground for the introduction and development of ideas.

By situating our short films in the broader context of Southeast Asia, we see that these systemic struggles are universal but the cultural responses provide nuanced answers. Some of the most remarkable Southeast Asian short films are ones that document the cruel realities of cultures they are born from, but also bring to light whatever resistances remain on the fringes of collective memory, as well as the hopes that filmmakers carry for their nations, for the world.


SeaShorts 2021 runs until Sep. 2.