Ready for a Third Golden Age? An Interview with Cinemalaya Festival Director Chris Millado

 Cinemalaya Festival Director Chris Millado at a special reception for jury, filmmakers and guests
For a foreigner, one could argue that there could be many points of entry into Filipino cinema. For many, it could be two people, Brilliante Mendoza or Lav Diaz. If you are a little older, it could Ishmael Bernal or Lino Brocka. If you live in the Philippines, you could be forgiven if only rom-coms come to mind. But for a ground-level entry point into Filipino cinema, Cinemalaya should pop up on your calendar. A 14-year-old film festival happening in August every year, it could be dubbed the cradle of new Filipino filmmakers and a temple for Filipino independent filmmaking. Many film careers have started at Cinemalaya. The film that put Filipino films on the international radar again after a long drought in the 90s, was from Cinemalaya. That film was The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros. Since then, the festival, through its feature competition programme and support, has spawned countless first features and brought with it an audience pool to be reckoned with.
Cinemalaya’s Festival Director Chris Millado propositioned at the Awards night that we could be seeing the start of Filipino cinema’s third golden age after its first in the late 50s/early 60s and the second in the late 70s/early 80s. Albeit a big statement, the buzz at the festival suggests this could be not too far from the truth. SINdie’s Jeremy Sing sat him down in his office to hear from him what the festival is really about, where it is headed and his views on the state of independent filmmaking in the Philippines.

Jeremy: I notice Cinemalaya's turn out is really good for many films. Many young people are attending them. Who are these people?
Chris: A lot among the audience are students. This has been the case since it started more than 14 years ago. There has been a great deal appetite for this type of content since Cinemalaya started 14 years ago. One thing you must understand is that 14 years ago we barely had an industry. We were once the strongest in Southeast Asia, producing more than 500 films a year. Then it became only 38-40 a year. The main reason for the decline in production was the big change in the production environment of films. It became more market-oriented and the big studios became more integrated with the entertainment and television networks. We used to have more variety in what we called the golden age of cinema in the Philippines in the 1980s, when we had the works of Mike De Leon, Ishmael Bernal, Lino Brocka and that whole generation of filmmakers. That practically declined. And with that, the interest for this kind of movies. So, the CCP decided to address the glaring lack of content and we addressed it by focussing on grooming new voices.
J: How did you find new voices during that time? C: By putting up a competition. It had to be put up in a way that made it easy to be part. Of course, one of the factors that made it easier was digital technology. Before that, it was very difficult and expensive to get your hands on film equipment. So that helped propel the growth of Cinemalaya and content. Digital technology has made it more accessible to young filmmakers.
J: The many young students that Cinemalaya attracts, what are they students in?
C: Many are taking courses in advertising, fine arts, filmmaking etc. and this rapidly grew to simply millennials, who are seeking new content. And a lot of factors sort of converged. When we started, the idea was just to do a competition maybe once every two or three years because we weren’t sure how it would pan out. But after the first edition, we saw huge demand, so we did it every year. Our first press conference had only 5 to 6 media and now our press conferences are always one of the biggest press events in town. We would also like to believe that Cinemalaya has helped spawn the creation of other film festivals. Now there are six independent film festivals in the Philippines. While at our low we used to have 38 to 40 feature titles a year in the Philippines, with all the other festivals combined in the Philippines, we have a total of close to 200 titles a year. It has launched the careers of many new filmmakers.
J: Who are some of these filmmakers who grew out of the Cinemalaya movement?
C: Of course, there was the very first one which came out of the first edition of Cinemalaya, The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros. It went straight to Cannes and other international festivals. From then on, we started getting the attention of other festivals. Some of the festivals that often pay us a visit include the Udine Far East Film Festival, The Tokyo International Film Festival, Busan International Film Festival etc. It has also changed the landscape of the industry. The platform used to see mostly new voices and was a good platform that provided freedom for creating content that was not necessarily market-driven but definitely driven by the vision of the director. It also attracted mainstream directors to join the platform. We used to distinguish between filmmakers who have done less than 2-3 films and experienced ones. Attracting mainstream directors was an interesting development because these mainstream directors brought with them mainstream actors. So mainstream actors started taking risks with independent directors. Very importantly, with mainstream actors coming in, it also helped broaden the audience pool.
J: So before this, it was mainly indie film actors?
C: Yes, these are actors who would play character or bit parts in mainstream movies. But now, these indie actors have also become major players, picked up by commercial film producers to star in commercial cinema, aside from independent cinema. Same happened with the indie directors. About 5 to 6 years into the festival’s history, some of them found opportunities in mainstream films. And now, we have also seen major studios like Viva, ABS-CNB and Regal forming subsidiaries that focus on producing indie content or rather riskier content.
J: I notice the Philippines has a high rom-com output. Am I right to say that?
C: Yes, it is true. I think this came from the early tradition of box office hits in the Philippines, that featured many love themes. It was popularised by the major studios, in which they would put a lot of their resources into developing branded love themes.
J: What are branded love themes?
C: They would pair a famous actor with a famous actress and use it as a formula for every film. And everything is built around these two. Except that now, the rom-coms have become a bit more inventive, mainly because with lower budgets, the films producers and directors need to find other ways to make it interesting. Or have new ways of structuring the story which these newer directors, some of whom come from the indie scene, have.
J: How do Filipinos take to horror? I mean the horror genre is huge in most of Southeast Asia but I don’t seem to see that in the Philippines.
C: Yes, I do notice that though I have never gone round to investigating why. But Cinemalaya has featured a good selection of horror over the years as well. Though commercially in the Philippines, rom-coms are more popular.
J: As far as cinema audiences are concerned, does the commercial-indie divide also exists in the Philippines? Meaning people who like commercial are less likely to watch indie films.
C: That’s true. So you have mass audiences and you have the indie audiences. What you are seeing here in the festival is only a fraction of the film-going audience. We are talking about 75,000 to 80,000 people coming to Cinemalaya on its 10-day run. But if you look at the 13 million population of the Philippines, it’s a small fraction.
J: Does the festival try to influence the tastes of some of these mainstream audiences?
C: No. Our strategy is through the filmmakers. Because we do not have the resources to do that. For you to influence to influence and shape the tastes is a very difficult thing. You are going into the dynamics of a mass market. Cinemalaya draws its power from the filmmakers themselves, creating this group of filmmakers, investing in their vision, developing these young audiences to support their vision and hopefully through this, we are reshaping some of the major industry players. And I think that is already happening. (pause) I would like to add that it is a very good time to be a filmmaker in the Philippines, because of the many platforms, the many film festivals, the growing interest for indie films. Also, currently, the aesthetics and techniques of filmmaking are undergoing a lot of transformation. Last year, if you look at the major filmmaking awards, the ones critics love and the ones industry loves, which usually have different choices, were the same last year and most of them were indie films. That means there is a convergence and elevation of tastes.
J: The internet has changed some of the ways filmmakers approach content and distribution. Think YouTube and the opportunities it has provided filmmakers, as well as how it may have diluted the artistic vision of certain filmmakers. How has Cinemalaya been influenced by the internet?
C: There was actually a controversy tied to this topic. Some years ago, we were thinking while the festival has allowed a handful of people to watch the films, how about the people who did not attend the festival, is there a way they could watch the films too? So we explored setting a YouTube channel where people can watch these films for free after the festival, since we have a two-year ownership contract with the films. When we did so, it created an uproar, because the filmmakers thought they were being robbed of the opportunity of releasing the films commercially. We were also exposing their content to possible piracy. So in the end we stepped back. However, the internet has been helpful in allowing us to connect with the millennials, encouraging them to post and share content.
J: What changes do you think you have brought to the festival in the last four years as Festival director and how do you see the festival going forward?
C: I would say, with the help of my team, I have been sustaining the work built on the strong foundation my predecessors have established and just continuing to work towards the same goals. But one thing we have changed is extending the production time of the films. Once, because of the cycle, the filmmakers were given less than three months from approval of the film to production of the film.
J: That is crazy.
C: Yes! We had incidents where filmmakers were running to the galas with their whole computers because they just finished editing.
J: Even now, 1.5 years still seems like not enough time. C: But I tell you, despite being given 1.5 years, they still produce it in three months.
J: And where would you like to see it go in the next five years?
C: In the next five years, we would like to continue to push the boundaries in terms of content. I guess after 14-15 years, you settle into some kind of formula. You are happy that people are screaming in the theatres. But at the same you are worried because they have started to form expectations of what a Cinemalaya film should be. And you might subconsciously end up settling into some kind of formula that resembles a commercial formula. You become market driven yourself!
You need to grow your audience but you also need to challenge your audiences in terms of new ways of telling stories and content. So it is important to broaden the vocabulary of work and styles filmmakers come up with and one of the things we have started is the Cinemalaya Institute, which provide resources to help filmmakers extend their capabilities and hone their craft further in various aspects of filmmaking from directing to producing to cinematography. We’d also like to broaden the horizon of our audiences too by embracing content from outside the Philippines. Three years ago, we started a Visions of Asia section, featuring acclaimed films from Asia to Eurasia. We also want to broaden distribution. While, we are not aiming for a mass market, we are aiming for broader market so that these films can be sustainable. So it encourages producers, small to medium-sized to produce independent content. Currently, when Cinemalaya closes, it still takes a long time before the films, those that could potentially find a commercial audience, to get a commercial release.

J: Why is this so? Take for instance, films that have some commercial appeal at Cinemalaya and I have seen a few, is it easy for them to find commercial interest?
C: No. The reason is there is a…….and let me think of a suitable word… system! A system created by the different cinema owners. They prefer films that have not been shown at all. So if your film has been shown at a festival like Cinemalaya, they consider it to be old material. So they want fresh content. But now we are initiating a dialogue with the cinema owners. There is hope because a two years ago, they agreed to set aside some of their cinemas for regional Filipino content, at least for 10 days, This is what the film festival Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino, who follows after Cinemalaya closes, is about.The festival asks for 10 Filipino premieres that have not been released before. It is a good initiative though unfortunately Cinemalaya films cannot be included among these 10, where it could actually be a platform for nationwide release. So that dialogue is still going on.
J: What do think is more powerful in growing a film industry in the Philippines? And you can only choose one of the following:
A. Having iconic filmmakers as role models such as Brilliante Mendoza, Lav Diaz
B. Having some really good iconic films
C. Film education
D. Strong funding  
C: I would go for film education. Again, it is one of the successes of Cinemalaya. I say that because Cinemalaya is one the film festivals that has really invested in developing film audiences. We have looked for different strategies for engaging the next generation’s audiences in discussions, forums and even hands-on engagement with industry players. We find that several of the filmmakers of Cinemalaya who started out as students have come back as industry professionals bringing family members and friends, basically being our advocates for Filipino films.
J: What is your background and what were you doing before you became Festival Director?
C: I worked professionally as a theatre director. I had a short career in TV as a scriptwriter and I have written a few scripts for major directors like Ishmael Bernal. Of course, I also have a background as an arts manager, running a centre and running programmes. Before coming on board Cinemalaya, I was the artistic director of the Cultural Centre of the Philippines.
J: What’s your favourite Filipino film of all time?
Maynila sa mga kuko ng liwanag or Manila in the Claws of Night. I watched it in a small cinema in my teens and it had a huge impact on me in terms of storytelling. Basically, the Lino Brocka films had a great impact on me. I was very fortunate to have worked with Lino Brocka too in the theatre. We came from the same theatre company. He was with the Philippines Association of National Education as one of its major leaders and at some point we worked together in this group called The Concerned Artists of the Philippines during the anti-Marcos revolution. In fact, it was Lino who sent me on my first international stint in Hawaii as a theatre director. He was invited to direct a play about people power in the anti-Marcos revolution there but he was busy with his films, so he asked me to take his place. So I gladly did. Interview and photos by Jeremy Sing Check out our other interviews with the filmmakers of Cinemalaya 2018 on SINdie.
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