Found Story: Venice winner Raymund Ribay Gutierrez speaks his 'Verdict'

He is young and wants to call out the Filipino justice system with his latest film Verdict. Verdict is a Filipino drama about Joy, a mother and her daughter who face domestic abuse from her violent husband, Dante, whose drinking-led rage pushes her to the limits. She is badly beaten and finally decides to grab her daughter and report this to the police. Then comes the real commentary in the film - the painfully slow process of dealing with the bureaucracy which is trying to deal with her case. That filmmaker is 25-year old Raymund Ribay Gutierrez.

Starting out as a graphic artist, he later learnt he could tell a bigger story with moving images and moved into film. He was fortunate to have found a mentor in Brilliante Mendoza and Verdict was the result of their collaboration in which Brilliante was the executive producer.

This summer, the film received the Premio Speciale dela Giuria (Special Jury Prize) in the Orizzonti (Horizons) Section of the 76th Venice International Film Festival (Mostra Internazionale d’Arte Cinematografica della Biennale di Venezia) and it was the only Southeast Asian film to compete in the festival. The film has also been selected as the Philippine entry for the Foreign Language category in the 92nd OSCAR Academy Awards. Its recent festival screenings include the Toronto International Film Festival and the Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino Film Festival. Prior to Verdict, Raymund is the first Filipino director to have competed for the Palme d’Or twice in the short film category of Cannes with IMAGO (2016) and Judgment (2018).  Judgement was a precursor short film to Verdict.
Photo courtesy of Film Development Council of the Philippines

SINdie had the honour of speaking to Raymund on the making of his film and his craft in filmmaking.

Verdict has been described as a kind of slow burn commentary about the dire state of bureaucracy in the legal system of the Philippines. Can you share why you have chosen such a treatment for the film? 

I'm following a certain theory of writing/telling a story which is Found Story. From this theory our basis in writing the script is to base our imagination through the factual research we got. Believable is not enough, life and reality is our main objective which needs to come from the referent we interviewed. At first, I have a different voice about the material of domestic violence, but with a thorough research I found something much more interesting that involves a bigger issue of the society which is the justice system. That's were I manage to decide to stick to certain procedural structure. Domestic violence is the best case to manifest the struggles of justice system but it can also happen in a different case as well. The physical abuse from the husband/suspect is less compared from the abuse that the Justice System withholds. 

Can you take us through the casting process? Why was Max Eigenmann chosen for the role of Joy and Kristoffer King for the role of Dante? 

I came to my mentor, Brillante Mendoza's roster of actors at first, logistically and time wise this is the best thing to do. I always wanted to work with Kristofer King because we have the same ideology in the film making process, he can suggest as well as execute. As for the battered wife's role, we called for an audition because this is very critical. At first I was thinking to just hire a non-professional actress for this role only because of I want to capture the rawness of the situation. It's easy for me to instruct non-professional because they don't think too much. They just react, but it's very difficult to find these person that can commit genuinely. Max came from the audition and i was satisfied from her performance. We saw something that is very natural and interesting. 

Max Eigenmann

Kristofer King

Are you a fan of Cinema Verite? How do you achieve your version of it in this film or your other films? 

I'm a fan of mirroring life as it is without glamour. I also acknowledge mistakes and spontaneous in the set which can only capture more essentially by a moving camera; cinema verite. The birth of my in-depth passion in filmmaking is when I came to watch films from Polish, Romanian and French new wave. The struggles are very universal and the compostions are raw and brilliant. I’m still learning to master the film language for a better storytelling and not just stick from what i used to do. 

How did you work with your actors to get them to deliver your desired result? 

I only give them the script on the day of the shoot to avoid overthinking and being too mechanical. I try to give them the essence of the scene and also hear what they handle the situation as for their characters perspective because I also give them interpretation from what they perceive. It's a collaboration. Sometimes I limit my explanation in a brief matter and don't over do it. 1st take is always the best take even though there are mistakes and flaws, sometimes I re-write the script based from the mistake they did so that the scene can be more organic and natural as long as it says the same voice I have for the film. 

Photo courtesy of Film Development Council of the Philippines

Photo courtesy of Film Development Council of the Philippines

Your film has been compared to Xavier Legrand's Custody, also piece on domestic abuse, what are your thoughts on that comparison? 

I haven't seen Custody, well honestly I avoid watching it because I know I'll just be conscious on how to do things just for the sake of being different. I pay attention from the material I have and look more into what I can tell in that aspect. It's a bigger abuse of society is what I aim to convey. Film reference are great, It can give you different ideas, but the best idea should come from our perspective and character as a human being. 

Tell us a bit about Brillante Mendoza as a mentor to you. 

We argue from time to time in some aspects only because we are both passionate on what we do. I always keep in my mind what he said; In production you should always look for the problem because if there's aren't any, that's a big problem. Never become to comfortable in everything you do and always have multiple plans ahead. 

What kind of effect do you hope your film would have on Filipino society? 

When we make films, first we determine our position, I know I am making an art film and not mainstream thus all my decision and expectaion lead through that path. I'm not expecting a lot from the Filipino audience. We have a difficult situation living in the Philippines thus, I can't blame them for wanting to watch escapist films. Our films are too depressing and cold. We have a small audience which is the minority, a certain niche, though It's a common situation for films that tackles societal issues at it's finest. We are not hoping to make lots of money compared to mainstream, but at least I hope that these minority audience is strong, certain and consistent enough to take-in these art films we are doing. 

What were some of the best or most interesting feedback you received about your film at Venice? 

That they can also relate from the film.

Interview by Jeremy Sing
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