STOP10: Benedict Mique on 'ML' and getting history right

Director Benedict Mique has somewhat a dual personality. On one hand, he is intensely passionate about politics and on the other, there is a playful streak in him that makes you think he is someone you would enjoy a beer conversation with. Also, despite his 20 years in the media production industry, none of it weighs down on his conversations with people. He is delightfully easy-going.

His film, ML, mirrors his personality in a way. ML, which stands for Martial Law is a thriller about Carlo a student who has been tasked by his history professor to do research about Philippines’ Martial Law under the Marcoses. Tipped by his neighbours to speak to an old general named ‘Colonel’, he sent himself to what he soon realised was the lion’s den. Colonel was a retired soldier with dementia and thinks Carlo was an activist. This sets the stage for some intermediate level gore as Colonel does his thing as if it was the 80s all over again.

ML is indeed an astute concoction of socio-political awareness and mindless fun. You can call it a perilous ride with a lesson to take home. With all the extensive TV training, it is of no surprise that Benedict has his pulse on popular culture and that ML speaks so fluently to the millennials. The youthful lingo, the punctuative editing, splashes of millennial-style humour, and of course, the playful gore, all serve to make this history lesson a ‘lit’ ride. Eddie Garcia, whose steely presence anchored much of the film, won him his third Best Actor award at Cinemalaya. If you look closely, under all that steel, he is quite endearing too (though it might not have been Benedict’s intended effect)

Our interview with Benedict yielded a crash course in political history and current affairs, but we were not complaining.

Jeremy (J): I heard a lot about Martial Law, is it well-documented in the Philippines school textbooks?
Benedict (B): There is a lot of material about it but in terms of teaching it to children, they have not really taught it the way it really was. It’s just part of history, and it is treated like it is so long ago, like it is not going to affect us anymore. so that’s why I want to try to expose this  the topic again. (pause) There are currently revisionists trying to say those were the golden years of the Philippines but it is not. In fact, the economy plunged.
J: So now the younger generation believes this?
B: In a way, because two years ago, Bong Bong Marcos, son of Ferdinand Marcos, ran for Vice President and that’s what he did. They got a lot of people to create propaganda, through the internet, through Facebook. That’s where a lot of the young people got those ideas from.
J: But in the history textbooks, what exactly is mentioned? (beat) How old are you by the way?
B: I am 43.
J: I see. So in the history textbooks in school, did they try to paint Martial Law as part of a ‘Nation Building’ effort?
B: Oh I know where you are coming from. It’s not the same as where you come from - Singapore!
J: Haha, you know, because we effectively are under an authoritarian government as well.
B: But you see, they did it for the country. It’s different here. The Marcoses did it for themselves.
J: The film mentions about the extra-judicial killings that are happening now in the Philippines, is that one of the things that triggered this film, in seemingly bringing back violence as a means of control?
B: During the Marcos era, they used Communism to scare the people. Right now, they are using drugs as the enemy. The government is trying to say right now that there are a lot of drug addicts and they need to go and that’s a form of scaring people. Eventually, they may enforce Martial Law. Who knows? There is a part of my film that references this.
J: So among the millennials now, do their attitudes mostly mirror that of Carlo (lead character in ML)?
B: We had this audition and we had 43 millenials and we asked them ‘What do you know about Martial Law’? Most of them thought it was good. I feel it’s got a lot to do with what I mentioned about the recent propaganda over the last two years.
J: Tony Labrusca, the lead actor, is not based in the Philippines?
B: He was born in Canada. So he doesn’t know too much about history here. He is a perfect representative of the millennials and how they perceive history.
J: Having had all that serious discussion about Martial Law, how did you arrive at this genre? I mean, this genre is actually quite fun. It was actually a very fun film to watch.
B: I have been in the industry for 20 years. I have done all kinds of genres, from drama to comedy to sitcom to suspence to rom-coms. It was a challenge for me to combine genres. If you notice this is a combined genre film. And it was also intentional to make it entertaining, because it is easier to make the younger generation appreciate it. Its form is entertaining but its content is serious. Having worked in TV for a long time, I wanted to combine all the influences, art and commerce, which turned out to be a pretty hard thing to do. Maybe the older generation may not appreciate but this is for the younger generation.
J: I definitely agree that this mixed genre piece that you created definitely appeals to people who watch YouTube and all that.
B: As an artist it is harder to do. I always feel it is harder to do a mixed genre than a fixed genre. I have done so many genres but a mixed genre like this can only be done for a film festival like this. It is something new for the audience.
J: I do feel a film like yours can be appealing to certain distributors in Singapore, if the context was in Singapore. (pause) Is it easy for such films to be picked by commercial distributors in the Philippines?
B: I am trying to. They are also screening this in Ayala cinemas in the malls and all the screenings have been sold out. So the response has been good. And as more people see it, the message of the film will reach more people.
J: Are genres like that viable for commercial distribution in the Philippines? I mean I notice a lot of rom-coms being commercially produced in the Philippines.
B: Actually, I do a lot of rom-coms for TV. For the past few years, I have done quite a lot for TV. But in a way, you are right, ML’s kind of genre is rather rare in the Philippines. But I hope this can reach out to the market here. (pause) I don’t know if you notice in the movie that I used a lot of metaphors. For instance, the scene in which Colonel hit the dog, it is a metaphor for ‘silencing’. During Martial Law, you are not allowed to speak as you can be killed for it. Even the lighting, if you notice, Eddie Garcia always has a red lighting patch on his face. Cos it is supposed to symbolise that fact that he has blood in his hands. Also, the house is like a symbol of his mind. Upstairs, it is pleasant but downstairs, it is dark and evil. (pause) Even at the end of the film, when [SPOILER ALERT] Colonel was dead, it is also a comment about how after Martial Law ended, everything was forgotten and none of the victims got justice. And as you know, the late Ferdinand Marcos has been buried at the heroes cemetery.
J: Eddie Garcia - I guess you worked with him before?
B: Yes, from TV.
J: So you knew him already from TV. (pause) And Tony was casted from auditions?
B: No, we picked him up. Because we want him to appeal to the millenials and he’s also got the looks. When we spoke to him, he showed himself to be hardworking and passionate. We did not do any acting workshops during rehearsals. For him, it was more important for him to understand who he is. So we did a lot of thinking about the character.
J: Is Carlo considered upper-middle class in the story?
B: Yes.
J: Any mishaps happened during the torture scene?
B: There was one. It was prior to rehearsal and Tony was already tied up. I was going to show Colonel how to use a golf club and while I did that it hit Tony on the knee! And for a moment, I was also not sure whether it was part of his acting or if it was real! But it helped in the acting, because it made him realise how painful it is!
J: I hope Pat, the girlfriend, is not permanently scared.
B: Hahaha. But oh, that’s a body double!
J: Ah!
B: We can’t do that to Pat. She is just 17 years old.

Interview and photos by Jeremy Sing

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