STOP10: Kip Oebanda on going personal in 'Liway'

Tragedy and comedy have always been flip sides of a coin. So is happiness and sadness. The happiest movie in the world has the greatest potential of making one cry the most. While a movie that tries to milk your tears can feel as hollow as Yiruma’s woeful piano sets played on repeat mode. Kip Oebanda’s (pictured above) autobiographical film Liway seems knowingly built on this premise and for that has found resonance beyond the specificity of the Martial Law experience in the Philippines.
Liway tells the story of Dakip (what Kip used to be called) growing up in Camp Delgrado, a detention centre for dissidents under Marcos’ regime. He is there because his parents were fighting the regime as part of the revolutionary forces and were captured, and Dakip was born in detention and kept uninformed about his parents illustrious past as Commander Liway and Commander Toto.
But all these are downplayed at the beginning, as Kip has evidently set out to make prison seem like a happy place, at least from the eyes of Dakip. There is company to interact with, there is a fatherly-looking warden to say ‘lights out’ every night and most of all Day, Dakip’s mum will tell him bedtime stories of Liway the fighter battling monsters, without revealing that she is actually narrating her own story.
It is on this premise that sobering truths about the Martial Law situation are then gradually heaped on top of one another. Told in a non-linear timeline, we are being transported back in episodes to witness the Joan of Arc Day was in preaching revolutionary ideology and operating a rifle. Intercutting back to the present, the prisoners are faced with increasing hardship and mounting fears that prison may just be the last thing they see before they die. Kip’s knack for dealing with a rather complex timeline reveals a certain sophistication in storytelling that joins the dots between memories and the precarious future.  
For someone who has been personally living in Camp Delgrado, there might be too many entry points into the story of Day and Dakip. The most obvious angle would have been the larger political context. But Director Kip has chosen to mainly focus on how they get by behind bars, with a little dash of humour. Happiness is truly a relative thing. In one occasion when Dakip was offered the chance to live with Day’s friend outside prison, he first encounter with a proper bed was not to his liking. He ended up sleeping on the bathroom floor. There was also a scene in which Dakip was invited to speak a few words at a rally where the crowd was eager to hear stories of injustice. Instead Dakip shared his excitement of seeing a mannequin for the first time, which without trying made it even more poignant. This sums up the maturity of Kip’s storytelling craft, being able to send a message on two levels.
There is so much else to love about this movie, from Glaiza de Castro’s magnetic delivery of the titular role to the production design to the cinematography, it is no wonder it became the best selling feature in Cinemalaya of all time and won a couple of awards including Audience Choice. When the credits rolled and the audience roared in a certain euphoria, one got the sense that director Kip had a voice that outlives his films. Speaking to Kip face to face was one of the best things that happened at the festival.

Jeremy (J): How you got into filmmaking?
Kip (K): Yes. So I started filmmaking only 4 to 5 years ago. I used to have a full-time job in a non-profit organisation. I studied Economics. In fact, I have a Masters in Economics and Management of non-corporate assets and companies. So I have always loved watching films. Films that nobody likes watching, I would watch them. So one day I was walking through Ortigas Avenue and I ran into this billboard for a night school that teaches film - the Asia Pacific Film Institute. So I thought it would be fun to do. And suddenly, it took off. One of the early scripts I write became a film because I won a contest. And then, a year ago, I released another film that was quite a hit. It was a fun little film. So here I am presenting a film about the Martial Law in the Philippines.
J: Is this your third feature film?
K: It’s my fourth.
J: Independent film?
K: Yes, very indie. Very small budgets. But I had some small success with my second one last year and it played in a few cinemas. The budget was very small, so it was easy to recuperate the cost. It generated a lot of buzz. Some schools hit the cinemas to watch the film. The film was about law school, taking up law. It was in cinemas for five weeks, so it made quite a splash at the box office.
J: And the other films that you made, they went the film festival route?
K: So my first film was done just to get it out there. The third one was under CinemaOne Originals Film Festival. It was a horror film. (pause) So, I never thought of becoming a filmmaker but once I got into it, I just wanted to learn more and more and grow as an artist.
J: I guess your love for the movies started when you were young?
K: We used to have a rental place near our house. There were day when I would rent 5 VHS tapes and just watch all of them. Sometimes, I would watch strange that no one would watch. Even those strange horror films that find no distribution, I used to watch them a lot.
J: What made you interested in those obscure films as opposed to the popular ones?
K: I also watch the popular ones. I watch everything basically. I like the feeling of being transported to another world. You can see bits of that in Liway.
J: So you’ve always loved film but you never picked it up because you chose a practical degree?
K: It was the obvious route. My family was not well-off and it was only practical to choose to study Economics. I was quite a good student actually. I never imagined I would go into filmmaking at that point of time. I mean I always thought I would be one of those film fans but never a filmmaker. And I knew nothing about filmmaking and I knew it takes time to grow the craft.
J: How long did you work in the non-profit organisation?
K: 3-4 years? (pause) As part of the Asia Pacific Film Institute course, I had to make a film as a final project so I decided to make a feature and it got picked up at the Cinemalaya pitching forum then. Same thing happened with my second script. The forum was really a good platform for filmmakers and producers to meet. For people like me, I didn’t really have access to resources for filmmaking when I was student so this was perfect.
J: Would you say the environment or depth of opportunities in the Philippines is supportive of filmmaking currently?
K: I think technology has enabled many people to dip their hands into filmmaking unlike in the past in which you had to shoot on film, which was quite inhibitive. With a certain amount of budget you can produce a film. But I think the difficult part is making your craft stand out from the rest. Like what is your uniqueness as an artist? What voice to you contribute? What is your style? Everyone is producing content now. So the challenge is to bring something new to the table. Cost-wise it may not be so prohibitive, but the bigger concern is whether your film will be distributed? Will people come and see it?
J: What do you think is unique about your style? Or what are your strengths as a filmmaker?
K: I think I will speak in relation to Liway, my Cinemalaya entry. I think my capital is being able to tell a truthful story in an way that is as emotionally honest as I could. Because I know that victims of the Martial Law are going to see the film and some of them have seen the film. So I want to depict them in the most authentic way possible. And to do that, I try to depict the complexities of life - the joy, pain, love and sorrow. Also, I want to zoom in on the resilience of these people. Instead of discussing the social political climate. Or zeroing in on the exploitation or economic degradation.
J: Was it difficult dealing with such personal material?
K: I think it was one of the most difficult things I have ever done. It has caused a lot of anxiety and self-doubt to be so vulnerable. What helped was I  started seeing a therapist and they helped me sort things out emotionally. At least for my experience, when you deal with something so personal, it creates a lot of anxieties in you. For instance, certain questions may surface like am I representing these people properly? Am I being fair? Am I using these people for my own personal success? These are questions in you head when you are making something so personal. There is also another cause of stress. Are you willing to take all the risks involved? Given the socio-political climate of the Philippines right now, it is a dangerous film to make. So it is already risky tackling these topics, as it is. And when you add yourself to the mix, it becomes doubly scary. So it has been a lot of managing these fears and anxieties. I don’t want to paint filmmaking as a walk in the park. This particular film was very hard emotionally.

When Marcos was buried in the Libingan ng mga Bayani, I shared a portion of the story on my social media and it became viral. It was shared and read wildly and to my surprise, it made people reconsider and rethink their political position. It had surprisingly almost no bashers or trolls. I started thinking that maybe the best way to spark a conversation is to just talk about the truth and tell stories. I figured that so many people are already sharing facts, studies and historical accounts so I would try to target the emotions and relationships that people have in the hopes of touching both the hearts and minds of the audience. This gives me courage to push for something so personal.

Kip and his mother Cecilia Oebanda (the real Liway) on set
Because the subject matter of the film is so personal, I got someone else on board to help with the writing of the screenplay, someone more detached from the subject matter. He is one of the best writers in the Philippines, Zig Dulay. He actually won Best Screenplay at Cinemalaya last year. He knows the culture and lifestyle of the underground movement particularly well. So, I didn’t need to explain much.
J: Was it challenging recreating the look of a prison camp?
K: Yes, at the start. There were very specific things that needed to be there like a tree in the middle of the yard. Finally, a few weeks before production, we found the perfect place.
J: Why did you cast actress Glaiza de Castro in the role?
K: First, she is a very good actress, we already know that.  Specifically, she had the emotional range for the role. She can be both soft-spoken and gentle or fierce and aggressive. It was the right choice in the end.

J: What do you hope to achieve with the film Liway?
K: At the bare minimum, stimulate discourse around the history of victims that is slowly being revised or dismissed. I think we would have succeeded if the film becomes a catalyst for some people to feel a sense of hope that no matter what happens there is a way to speak and act. That people should not stay silent in the face of oppression or injustice.
J: Just a general note on life, would you rather be aware of everything or blissfully unaware of certain things in life?
K: When you are young, of course, it is good to live in a bit of fantasy, like what you will in the film. But I feel in time to come, it is better to be aware but resilient enough to face the truth. Some people like to be in denial and the reality hits them hard. That’s not a good way to cope through life. Unfortunately, life becomes tragic over time. People die….you get sick. It’s so temporary. So looking at it through those coloured glasses might not be the best way to go about life. Plus, if you are not looking at all the ups and downs of life, you are also not looking at the full extent of happiness that you can have as a human being. I would say that thinking about things greater than yourself might be a good way to live life.
J: Totally agree on the point about seeing the different colours life can bring. (pause) But resilience comes with age. Were you a resilient kid?
K: Well, I was a happy kid. When I went back to prison 28 years later, I saw a note on the wall that I wrote when I was there. It says ‘Thank you to this room.’ It’s in the film.
Interview and photos by Jeremy Sing



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