Review: Fireflies by Robin Estargo @SeaShorts

Three friends seek sanctuary in music, in this ambitious musical short by 21-year-old Philippine filmmaker Robin Estargo that enchants more than not.

Fireflies follows a wannabe songwriter, a closeted restaurant worker and a teenager after her abortion, as they negotiate heartache through song and dance over a night of drinking. The everyday experience of hiding behind a good song translates on-screen with great style, but its youthful energy is somewhat muted by stilted acting from its young actors, who play second fiddle to the soundtrack.

The real stars of the film are the original compositions that quite literally grant our characters a break from reality in the most colourful of ways. We are treated to three easy-listening pop songs that take over three key sequences. The dominant presence of original music is impressive for a short film, but without distinct identities the three songs blend into each other, and may eventually lapse into background music for some viewers. It’s a shame, because the musical compositions display considerable heart and talent.

With some fine-tuning, writer-director-musician Robin Estargo could shape his undeniable ambition and flair for experimentation into a unique filmography, one that stands out from the wave of gritty social realism predominating Philippine cinema in recent times. This young director is one to watch.

SINdie conducted an email interview with writer-director Robin Estargo on his short film Fireflies.

SINdie: Congratulations on your short film! What was the inspiration behind it?

Fireflies is inspired by the lives of vilified Filipino ‘Millennials’ and ‘Generation Z’, who are perceived as entitled, but are really just misunderstood.

It was my college thesis film, and I wanted to encapsulate my journey of self-discovery in college. It was when I first drank, came out as gay and had my first kiss.

In my college (De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde), there is this night culture popularly known as ‘Happy Thursday’; classes for the weekend on a Thursday and students make use of it for drunken all-nighters. The next day is a free day for hangovers.

I had my first drink during one of these Thursdays, and met friends who shared secrets about heartbreak, family problems, suicidal thoughts, depression, sexuality, abortion… If the walls of those bars could talk, it would be an overflowing bowl of stories that need to be addressed and heard from today’s troubled youth.

I wanted Fireflies to be that voice for them; a voice filled with optimism and comfort that says, “Hey, it’s okay. Everything is alright. You always have someone to talk to.” They need to know that their story is not unique and that they are not alone. I have felt the same way, whenever my parents dismiss me for talking about my mental health problems and true sexuality.

Many Philippine films in recent times seem to focus on the crime and danger arising from the Philippine Drug War, but your film is noticeably lighter and more optimistic. 

I find these films that focus on the Philippine Drug War very important too. Most Filipino films that attract acclaim overseas tend to focus on the crisis and murders. I feel that foreigners only get to see this one problem lingering in the Philippines because of this current, unintentional and unfortunate subject in Philippine cinema. And foreigners eat up these types of Filipino films because it’s what they often hear from the news.

I wanted Fireflies to be the antithesis to this matter, a unique, optimistic silver lining to this era in Philippine cinema.

But even the drinking culture that the youth utilise as a form of innocent catharsis gets touched by the issue at hand, because people do not feel safe on the streets they’re used to. I give a little nod to it in a scene when my two characters run from the police and a gun is clicked without being fired.

The Philippine Drug War raises a lot of sociopolitical problems, but I believe we also have a responsibility to focus on other problems that are rarely talked about. These are the concerns that teenagers raise at the dining table, but are dismissed by parents as unimportant. What parents don’t realise is that these issues are worthy of time, too. And they question why these kids would rather tell their stories in bars, with friends over drinks? It’s because no one else wants to listen.

Music plays a big part in your film. Was the story written around the songs, or the songs composed to match the story?

It was a mix of both. I wrote Fireflies’ first concept when I was drunk in a bar with friends, Ash, Amiel, and Kaye. It was my first time drinking. Amiel lent me his pen.

I wanted to make a film that dances with the music, as I was inspired by all the lights in the bar, my friends dancing to the music, the noise, and the camaraderie a place can initiate from people. All the characters were inspired by people from my life.

In my screenplay, I described the three pieces of music that I wanted to produce, what it should feel like and what the lyrics should contain. At first, I wanted to compose original songs. I’m very close to the independent musician, Ruru (Denice). She’s currently on tour in the US, and I knew I wanted to work with her on a musical project back when we were best friends in college. When I was looking for music producers, Denice was at the top of my list, and she agreed.

I also became friends with Anthony, the lead vocalist from a local band, Space Onigiri. When I discovered their dream pop EP called, ‘OK’, I was ecstatic, because the three songs matched exactly how I wanted the music to feel and what the lyrics should contain. I eventually decided to include all three songs in the film.

Finally, Ruru’s ‘Sepanx’ started as an inspiration, but its lyrics were so close to what I wanted my film’s first song to be, that we eventually decided to reproduce it with my actor, Ash on vocals.

I had 76 scenes in the script, whereas a Filipino feature-length film would typically have 40 scenes. People were shocked, but I defended it, because it was almost like a trilogy of music videos, composed of many cuts and single-shot scenes.

How did your professors and friends react to the finished film?

People loved it! A few said I should not call it a musical because it is just three music videos compressed into one film, and I’m like, “Yes! Exactly!” That was what I wanted to achieve.

But this was a rebellious choice for a thesis film concept, as a film professor once told me that music videos are not cinema. But still, Fireflies is indeed a musical, when you think about it.

You have a remarkable portfolio of shorts, documentaries and music videos for your age. How did you get started in filmmaking?

That was how my eyes were exposed to cinema, through my grandmother. I grew up watching a lot of horror movies with her. But I first realised my potential in filmmaking in high school, about six years ago.

My school had this annual event, in which third-year students should make a full length film as a class requirement. It would be screened in the school’s film festival and we would sell tickets for it. Highest grossing film wins. My classmates picked me to direct our film. Our camera was this junky DSLR and we edited the film on our laptops. We knew nothing about film at that time. I actually watched it again recently and it was not a great film but back then, it was a work of art for us. We were the highest grossest film, and we used what we earned to fund classroom expenses, as far as I can remember.

I always want to be three steps ahead of everybody, or more. In my first year of college, I was already interning at film companies. I was already filming shorts and documentaries. I was already winning at film festivals. My first big project was when I directed a documentary for my college and had director Jose “Joey” Javier Reyes, a god in the Philippine film industry, as my producer. I was in my second or third year at that time. After that, people hired me to be their cinematographer, director, and/or producer, and I wasn’t even out of college yet.

My biggest influence in filmmaking would be my past and my childhood. I know, most of the time, filmmakers credit other filmmakers they admire as their influences. My films are mostly drawn from my own life. I lived in a small conservative town in this province in the Philippines called Laguna. I’ve heard stories from my aunts and uncles about provincial life, and I’ve experienced my own story of recklessness and rebellion from that type of life.

Fireflies, in a way, was born from my story of recklessness, when I moved to Manila for college and shifted toward a more liberal, independent way of life. That recklessness is important to me. I needed that at the time. I think that’s where my source of anger comes from as well. A director is known for his unique source of anger that makes him do the type of films he does. I think my childhood is my source of anger.

What was the biggest challenge in making this film and how did you overcome it?

As usual in many small independent films, the biggest challenge was funding. All funding came from my family’s pocket. We were middle-class people earning a standard income and trying to make a high-budget film.

But come to think of it, money never felt like an issue during production.

Many people offered free locations, equipment and work, in exchange for nothing but the experience in making a film. I’m eternally grateful to my crew. They stayed up all night for nine days to finish our film. I’m also thankful for my producer, Jayvery; my co-producer, my mother; and for my family and relatives who travelled from Laguna to Manila to help with my thesis film.

Every character you see in Fireflies, as well as every crew member you don’t see, is played by a friend, relative, or schoolmate. I would not be where I am today, and the film would not be where it is today, if it were not for them.

What can we expect from you next?

I was a finalist in a recent film pitching event in the Philippines with a short film I am currently developing. I won two post-production prizes for it and I’m currently applying for a production grant, so we’ll see where that goes. I’m also waiting for a music video project to be greenlit, and I’m still waiting for more opportunities to open for me.

Fireflies was screened recently at the 2019 SeaShorts Film Festival in Melaka.

Interview answers have been edited for clarity.
Written by Joshua Ng

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