As we celebrate 100 years of Philippine cinema, a film I shot 16 years ago will be screened at the Busan International Film Festival this coming October 4-13. Together with nine other classic films, Dekada ’70 is part of a special program focusing on Philippine cinema. Dekada’70 was shot for more than 55 days in a span of almost two years. It was a test of patience and endurance not only physically, but also in maintaining that creative drive.
The interview was done just before the release of the film in 2002 and was published online on Star Cinema’s website.
It’s interesting to note that after 16 years I still speak of the same aspirations as a cinematographer- independent spirit, creative freedom and control of the image.
Interview with a Cinematographer
Neil Daza: The Eye of an Eclectic Beholder
by Gina S. Carino
Neil Daza is a free spirit constantly flitting from one field to another. Constantly?
There are constants beneath the restlessness. The organ: his retina. The tool: his camera. Neil Daza was born with an eye for the visual, and with it he trained himself in the tricks and culture of the lens.Think Cartier-Bresson and the Magnum greats of Time-Life. The professional beginnings of this UST Fine Arts graduate are in photojournalism, and to photojournalism he regularly returned. Two years ago he held one-man shows exhibiting photographs of people in the monstrous metropolis of Manila. Think art and truth, like Walker Evans sensually portraying Cuban conflicts,or, more recently, Sebastiao Salgado’s powerful takes on beast-like oppression in Brazilian mines. Salgado also showed our SmokyMountain to the world.
Question: Social realities are the theme, too, of your much applauded hop from the still document to the moving document. Your over-an-hour long Disyembre, about female migrant workers in Japan, was very well received. Documentary photography —now there’s another medium you always fall back on.
Answer: Vis-à-vis full-length feature films, I find peace in documentary filmmaking.
What I love most about documentaries is dealing with real people and real stories. It’s instinctive filmmaking. That is, you rely so much on your instincts, and in the process learn so much about life, real life. Also, it’s nice when people appreciate your work as a cinematographer or director of photography (DOP) of a movie, but it’s different when the vision of a work actually comes from you as the director. When I do a documentary, I work alone, I’m my own director, I try to finance my own projects, I don’t have to talk to some oppressive producers. Well of course I do also have to get institutions interested in my photo documentary proposals. Or I get commissioned.
Q: And sometimes they want exclusivity on the copyrights, right? You worried as much in an SOS message you once posted on the Internet. In the same message, you declared that documentaries are where your heart truly belongs.
A: I think it’s also the medium with the greatest capacity to change people,
in part because of the discussion it creates when heightening, freezing reality
in a single frame.
Q: But more people are seeing movies. Here, you started out very much part of the alternative film scene. Now you are a multi-nominated and multi-awarded cinematographer in the mainstream. There’s Laro sa Baga, La Vida Rosa, Yamashita:The Tiger’s Treasure… So besides flitting between media, you straddle streams—main and marginal— and are comfortable with it.
A: I like doing all these things and can’t picture myself giving up one for another. I like doing movies because it requires you to become a pictorialist. You try to put harmony in a frame, forever going for that perfect shot. I started in independent cinema, with its low budgets and having to pay for your own food…
Q: And of course its ‘intellectual muscle’—as against the blockbusters with the popcorn-munching.
A: Yes. But, why not, I can like the ‘bigness’ of big-studio commercial productions too. I’ve done five films for the major studios. Even box-office hits. Take Spirit Warriors I. There’s so much money involved it becomes a high-pressure job that puts you on edge. I can get a kick out of such big-business stress. It’s only for a few months at a time anyway. In the end it doesn’t really matter whether you’re working inside or outside the industry, as long as you maintain your principles and your independent spirit and are ready to stand for the film that you want to make.
Q: The bottom line: not to sell out completely, or essentially. But this brings us back to something you were saying before. With movies, the director has the chair. You are there to help materialize his vision. How much freedom is left?
A: I am fortunate to have been able to work for directors with a high visual culture who share my vision and have responded to my technical needs and supported my artistic explorations. I have shot my last five films with Chito Rono. Each film was of a different genre and demanding a different look. Given the general state of our movie industry, I can’t complain. I’m pretty much satisfied with the works I’ve done and the directors I’ve worked with. But since
there’s a hundred more ways to tell a story, I believe there’s still lots of room for experimentation. Okay, if there’s one thing I’d like to do in mainstream cinematography, it’s perhaps to give DOPs more control over the definitive version of a film, the image that people eventually see on the screen or TV set. DOPs also deserve a say in a movie’s video release, considering that future generations will watch our works on DVDs more than on theater screens.
Q: There are more and more young cinematographers entering the mainstream. How do you think this will affect the quality and substance of Philippine cinematography.
A: The visual landscape of Philippine movies will change much in the next five years. The new generation of cinematographers will stretch the limits of image-making because they come from a variety of disciplines: documentaries, music videos,TV commercials. DOPs are no longer technicians. It’s not enough to know how to operate a camera and get a correct exposure, you must also know about music and painting. Then, directors themselves, both new
and established, are starting to look for new approaches to their films.
Joey Reyes has a new DOP, Regimen Romana. Mel Chionglo is working with
Gus Cruz, a DOP from advertising. Lav Diaz is doing a digital film with the new
cinematographer Bahaghari. And producers, too, are opening up to new
Q: In La Vida Rosa, as you explained in an interview when it came out, you captured the film noir quality of the underworld through a gritty, bleached, and erratically handheld camera that frequently went for the brazen close-up. I believe this is like the dizzying Dogma technique used in Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark to express Bjork’s imminent blindness, or the dogfights in Alejandro García Iñárritu’s Amores Perros. In the French Nouvelle Vague of the 1950s, there was Jean-Luc Godard’s À bout de souffle.” For bleaching I think of the horrifying final basement scene in The Silence of the Lambs. Not to mention Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic. Will we be seeing any of this nervous and discolored manipulation in Dekada 70?
A: This is my fifth collaboration with Chito Rono, who has always made me part of the creative process. My approach in cinematography is always to try something new, to experiment in form and technique. I try to look at a new film project from a different perspective and work on its concept as if it were my first film. I would also say I’m a cinematographer without a style because I ‘thrash’ a lot, throwing in all the things I have done in previous films. Anyway, the visual inspiration in this case was social realism. Dekada was written as part of the social realist art movement that emerged in the 1970s with political repression at its height. Since you couldn’t read truth in the newspapers, you got it through the visual arts, theater, and literature. My challenge here was to make the
scenes as realistic as possible.
Q: How have your own political involvement and convictions shaped the way you shot the film?
A: My father was a political prisoner for eight years. I practically grew up with Sunday visits to Fort Bonifacio. My siblings were activists and there were nights when we had to pick up one of them in a police station because he or she had been caught participating in a demonstration. Martial Law was omnipresent in my childhood. That’s my personal 1970s experience.
Q: So how exactly does that tie in with the visual treatment in Dekada 70?
A: The idea from the very start was that the lighting should not catch the viewers’ attention. We have such powerful historical and dramatic material here that it doesn’t need fancy photography or fancy camera motion. Just let the drama unfold, let the audience feel the photography rather than consciously see it. Except for some dramatic scenes, I decided on a flat high-key lighting reminiscent or evocative of the 1970s movies, giving the film an overall warm tone. For the rally scenes, I went for the documentary look. I felt that the dramatic content of the movie should dictate the visual approach of the film. You can’t use the skip bleach process in every movie without risking it being read like a novelty. In this case it would have been distracting. There was a need—yes, even a personal need—to come across as ‘real’ as possible. The characters themselves were so real with their pains and weaknesses, but with a layered political standpoint.
Q: What’s it like working with a veteran cast?
A: It was an honor to work with Vilma Santos and Christopher de Leon. These two actors formed part of my film education as I watched their movies in the 1970s and 1980s. Through Bernal, Brocka, and Mike de Leon, their images and characters shaped my view of Philippine cinema. And you know you’re working with artists from the way they approach their craft, delivering way beyond TV soap opera acting. One long scene with Vilma Santos took us just one take as she hit all my focus marks with all the right emotions. I had goosebumps by
the time Chito yelled “Cut!” It was like I’d been watching the movie through my camera’s viewfinder.
Gina Cariño, the interviewer, lives and works mainly in the plain in Spain.