STOP10: Che Espiritu on 'Pan De Salawal' and her 'magic' touch

Hope should be listed as one of life’s most important commodities. Like oxygen, it keeps one going, even when all arrows are pointing in the opposite direction. Pan De Salawal, Che Espiritu’s first feature is built on hope and miracles and a lot of Disney-esque fairy dust. The film, a Cinemalaya feature finalist, is distinguished from the other finalists by the fairy-tale world it recreates in which every character is identified by an overwhelmingly distinctive trait and everything ends in song and dance at the end.

Miel Espinosa carries the weight of the film on her shoulders fairly well as the lead character, a street urchin who goes around helping sick people in the most unusual way - hitting them. Tumours, stroke, kidney stones, you name it. Miel is a one-hit wonder literally and through her adventures, lives are transformed and new relationships born. She is Elsa (Ismael Bernal’s Himala) version 2, without the crowd control entourage and with an underwear fetish. The film succeeds in creating endearing characters and Che’s remarkable ability to keep the sense of wonderment uniformly across all the adult characters.

For the shy person Che is, being able to orchestrate a strong ensemble performance like this is an achievement, which lucky for Che, this has not gone unnoticed. She took home the Best Director prize at Cinemalaya this year. Nestled in the comfort of a hotel lounge where a special reception of the festival was going on, she shared her less than common journey to making this first feature which had its starting point in medical school.

Jeremy (J): The topic kind of reminds me of Himala. Where did you get the inspiration from?
Che (C): At that time, my dad was having a problem with his kidney stone and I knew how hard it is. Back in film school, we had to come up with a story idea and so this film started from there. (pause) Also, I have not shared with everyone but I studied a pre-medicine course. My parents were both doctors and they wanted me to be a doctor. So I finished a degree and I was able to interact with patients in a hospital. So I think as a filmmaker, my vision and inspirations stem from illness and healing. Even my short films leaned towards that kind of topics.
J: So did you parents teach you to kick people in the stomach like Aguy?
C: Not really. (laughs) But also in the Philippines, there are a lot of miracle films because we are a religious country. I am also a spiritual person but I don’t really like to put faith in the film and preach. I prefer people to believe in things willingly and not have things shoved down their throats. So I thought about how to incorporate miracles in the film without being preachy. So I thought why not have a girl who can heal people in this special way?
J: You mentioned that the little girl, Miel Espinosa, who played the lead is rather well-trained and not new to acting? Where did you find her?
C: So I was looking for the perfect girl to play the role and it was very difficult as the role was quite demanding. So I went to watch many indie films trying to find the girl and I happened to watch a film from QCinema last year in which Miel had actually a small role. I was interested in her so I asked her to audition. It’s funny because I wanted a girl who looked like she came from the province. But Mia, she looks kinda rich. So we actually, had to make her look a bit more poor through the styling. She is supposed to be homeless. But at the same time, I was looking for a really smart girl.
J: Yes, she does look very intelligent.
C: She is the smartest seven-year-old that I have ever met. I mean, this girl, she is not afraid of anyone.
J: I would like to add that she had very easy chemistry with all the adult actors in the cast, almost everyone!
C: Many of the actors that I cast are veterans in their fields, whether on film or on stage. And comes this little girl. She was never intimidated.
J: I learnt something yesterday. I realised the man who played the butcher has a twin brother. This started when I noticed something in the film Liway that someone looked similar to the butcher in your film.
C: Yes, they are twins - Felix Roco and Dominic Roco.
J: Does the one in Liway (Dominic Roco) act more serious roles and Felix, less serious roles?
C: Actually they are both serious actors. I was actually quite surprised that Felix accepted this role because I thought he would prefer serious roles. I was really surprised, because Felix has been acting in a lot of Brilliante Mendoza films, so I was surprised he would be open to do a film like mine.
J: So acting runs in the family!
C: Yes!
J: That’s amazing. And of course, there were other funny characters in the film…. such as ….oh the beauty queen. I notice beauty queens are a big thing in the Philippines.
C: Yes it is. It has always been and more recently, because we just won Miss Universe two years ago, so there is more interest over beauty queens. Have you watched the documentary Sunday Beauty Queen?
J: No, but I would love to, because I saw the poster in the shop downstairs at the CCP shop. (pause) I also read that you received a lot support for the film, such as funding from Screen Singapore and also getting this company called CineFocus on board. So how did the CineFocus guys know about you?
C: As you know the festival is in August and months earlier, we did not have not funds to finance the film and I really wanted to make it happen. And then at the very last minute, a friend of a friend introduced me to this American guy, his name is Herb, and he told me that he was very interested to produce a Filipino film. So he asked for the script first. So I sent him and I was really surprised he like the film. He fell in love with the story, so he asked his partner if he would be interested to support this project and they came on board. So I am extremely grateful for this.
J: So they came on board for post-production or….
C: They funded the whole thing and helped cover it from pre to post-production. And right now, they are going to market it and they are also the ones doing it.
J: That’s awesome!
C: I have been very lucky. And I am also happy that they liked the film, because I guess I wanted to make sure that they were happy.
J: I am also interested to know your journey in filmmaking, especially since this is your first feature. I know getting the first feature out is always a big struggle. It is like giving birth. How long have you been making films?
C: As you know I started studying pre-Medicine, and then after that, I studied two years in the University of the Philippines and I was just making short films then. I studied in the US too. I took a Master degree in film, but then I realised I wanted to be a cinematographer instead. So after I came back, I started a career as a cinematographer and camera operator.
J: You are like the Sharon Loh of Singapore. She is also petite like you and a cinematographer.
C: But then, I really wanted to make a film. At least one film, in my lifetime and I really loved this story and in fact, I have been holding on to this story for a long time, over seven years, as a short film. So I tried Cinemalaya as a shot to make this one film and it got accepted. So I am thankful. I just want to touch people with this one film.
J: Have you made many short films before this?
C: I have made two short films but most of my work were cinematography work. So making this feature was a baptism of fire for me. (pause) It was tough. Usually, I only focus on lighting and equipment but now I have to handle a lot of people and talk to actors. That’s the toughest part.
J: But how did you overcome that fear of talking to actors?
C: I don’t know.
J: I guess it is not difficult to get along with you. You have an easy-going personality. (pause) On the flip side, I am sure there are days you need to fight fires. How did you deal with days like that?
C: When I am set I am actually very quiet, because I am an introvert and I try to conserve my energy and focus on the tasks that need to be done. And some people think I am moody but I was actually not haha.
J: You mentioned you were trained in pre-Medicine. Did that influence the way you think or work?
C: Yes pretty much. I tend to be quite systematic. But I try to be flexible too. Because you have to deal with so many factors…. the weather, the actors etc. You just have to be flexible. Actually on the first three days of the shoot, there was a typhoon. It was very scary. We thought we would not finish.
J: Lastly, from your point of view as a relatively new filmmaker in the scene, how would you describe the scene here in the Philippines?
C: I always tell this to everyone. I think we are very lucky in the Philippines because we get a lot of support and a lot avenues to develop in the Philippines, such as film festivals. It may be a little to saturated sometimes, like too many films being produced but I think it is very healthy compared to other countries. So I attended the Asian Film Academy in 2016 and I had my friends there from other countries in Asia. Through talking to them, I realised how lucky we are here in the Philippines. In their countries, they really have to work for many years in order to make their first film. Compared to me, I only started only on my film in December 2017 and it got produced as a film by August this year. And I am only a first-time filmmaker. There are a lot of independent companies looking for filmmakers. I think it is also a lot cheaper here to make films.

Interview and photos by Jeremy Sing

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