14th February 2017.
The wind was going wild as the moon was rising over the Magasang rock formation in the South of East. I could see the movement of the waves lighted by the moonlight coming from the open sea, rampaging below the rocks as high tide started to descend. From a distance the gigantic waves moved in slow motion and then created a loud “clap” sound as they hit the rocks. It was a beautiful and scary sight. I took a photo of it. My gaffer called me to tell that the next shot was ready. It was 9:45 pm on my watch and I was on the set of Signal Rock in Biri Island, Northern Samar. We had been stranded on this rock formation since five in the afternoon because of the rising water. The rain effects guy had been cursing the weather and dinner from the catering couldn’t cross from the mainland, so the actors, staff and crew of around 25 had been surviving with bread and biscuits. I was working with just two battery-operated lights, one for the background and the other for the foreground but still the actor’s face was too dark once he moved closer to the camera. It started to rain and wished that all I needed was one more light.
The moon rising at the Magasang rock formation.
I was lighting an experimental video, a dance routine scene inside a room at the Mowelfund grounds. Using an old 800 watt Lowell lamp, I was not really sure if I was getting it right. The first thing I learned at the Mowelfund Film Institute (MFI) workshop was how to light a subject with one or two lights and to make it interesting because basically that’s all you had in your lighting package. With around 25 workshop participants and all determined to make their dream short films, you sort of struggled with the limited resources provided by the workshop. It was indie filmmaking 13 years before Cinemalaya. I had heard of the MFI workshops and its Super 8 short film festivals three years earlier and every year I would plan to join the workshop but work would always get in the way. An injury while in the Cordilleras forced me to rest for a few months. Ironically that injury gave me window to join the workshop. The workshop itself was pretty basic and general – directing, creating the mise-en-scene, writing, editing, creating mood thru cinematography. But what was different about the MFI workshop was its anti-establishment and anti-mainstream stand. It offered an alternative to do films other than the big studio capitalists. It encouraged participants to do personal films and it showed us forms of cinema other than the usual long narrative form. This rebellious act against traditional cinema’s mode of production and the idea of being part of a revolution in Philippine cinema set the tone for the workshop conducted by indie filmmakers headed by MFI director Nick Deocampo with Raymond Red, Yam Laranas, Ricky Orellana, Louie Quirino among others. Although I grew up watching movies, my adult film education was confined to the films of Mike de Leon, Lino Brocka, Celso Ad Castillo, Martin Scorsese, Francis Coppola, Roman Polanski. At the MFI I saw Maya Deren’s ‘Meshes of the Afternoon’, Luis Bunuel’s surrealist short film ‘Un Chien Andalou’, Sergei Eisenstein’s ‘Battleship Potemkin’, Stan Brakhage’s ‘Mothlight’ , Nick Deocampo’s ‘Oliver’, Raymond Red’s ‘Ang Magpakailanman’, Roxlee’s ‘Juan Gapang’, Cesar Hernando’s ‘Botika Bituka”. These films blew my mind and offered endless possibilities. Suddenly making films was not bound by typecasting and became liberating. Armed with this dogma and later mentored by German filmmakers Christoph Janetzko and Monika Funke Stern, I went out and shot my first 16mm short film with the customary MFI gung-ho style, shooting with pure instinct attitude. I remember holding an Arriflex S 16mm camera on the first shooting day and not knowing exactly what to do but you didn’t have much choice so you stood up to the occasion. It’s what Lav Diaz, an MFI alumni would call, rock n’ roll filmmaking.
“Meshes of the Afternoon” and “Un Chien Andalou”
The yearly summer workshop class was not your typical college film class where half of the students wouldn’t know why they were even taking a film course. The participants came from different background all driven by passion to make films. It’s an eccentric community and a highly competitive one to which I think is inherent to filmmakers. But these created such a dynamic and lively community – writers, painters, dancers, musicians, architects and even non-artists — co-existing in one plane of creativity. The MFI created that space and provided that environment. Collaborations with fellow filmmakers went beyond the walls of Mowelfund.
But my fondest memory of MFI was on my second day of the workshop in Nick Deocampo’s class about alternative cinema. By the end of Nick’s lecture, I was so fired up I wanted to hold a camera and shoot films. Well I did shoot an experimental film a few months after and have not stopped ever since.
Shooting my first 16mm film (1992) and shooting “Signal Rock” (2017)
The rain has ceased at the Magasang rock formation. My watch says it’s exactly 10:00 pm. I took my gaffer’s headlamp and bounced it on a white board creating a slight illumination on Christian Bables’ face. The light made a difference in saving the scene and in an ethereal way reminded me of the old Lowell light I used back in 1991 at the Mowelfund Film Institute. I think that same light guided me for the past 28 years as a cinematographer.
*This article was written for Mowelfund’s Movement magazine in commemoration of Mowelfund Film Institute’s 40th anniversary this November 2019.