JNL Media talks to Phillipine Activist and Filmmaker, Isabelle Matutina.
JNL: How did you get involved in film?
IM: I’ve always been heavily involved in the arts since I was a kid especially in theater. I graduated in college with a degree in Broadcast Communicatons not because I was interested in TV work but because it was the closest to the kind of work I wanted to do. Theater was a no since it doesn’t offer a very lucrative career after college (at least according to my parents) and my parents couldn’t afford to put me up through film school. My course however, more or less influenced me into wanting to become a director.
My first job was in a film post-production company working as a Traffic Coordinator. After four months, I transferred to the mother company (which was the TV network) and learned how to edit. During this time, I was accepted in a free scriptwriting workshop. This is where I first learned about independent filmmaking and began considering making my own film.
I stuck it out in the TV network for two years, saving up for a film education and then eventually resigned. I took a crash course in Digital Filmmaking for two months in the Mowelfund Film Institute which was the cheapest film school in the country and produced my first digital short film right away. This in turn opened a lot of doors for me in terms of networking and got heavily involved in independent filmmaking.
JNL: What was your first film project? What role did you play (writer, director, producer, editor, etc…)
IM: My first film project was PANAGINIPAN (The Dreaming) which I wrote, produced, directed, edited. I also handled the production design since I had no one else to do the job for me. It was really multi-tasking since it was a purely independent project where I got most of my friends to help without pay even though they’ve had no experience in filmmaking whatsoever.
JNL: How did the project come to you?
IM: It’s basically how we are taught to think here. If one wants to make a film, produce your own and stop waiting around for funding or a big break. It’s really the best way to learn. “Panaginipan” was actually based on a play I wrote, directed, and acted in back in college and I thought it would work better on film then on stage.
JNL: What were the challenges for you?
IM: First, there was the problem of getting a crew. My boyfriend at that time was an experienced cinematographer already and I thought that’s really all I needed. I could do everthing else. I only had one location, 11 sequences, and two major actors anyway. The night before the shoot he (my boyfriend) demanded that I get people to fill in the role of an assistant director and production assistants at least or else I would have to cancel the shoot. He was partly funding the film so I had no choice. I quickly called up some old friends from college who had no film background as well. I told them I had everything under control and all they had to do was stand around and tell me what I had written on the paper for them. It was crazy, but we pulled it off.
Another challenge was working with non-actors. Since I had experience in theater, I thought it would be easy enough. But it was so different since my actors had to grow accustomed to the camera and the crew. I had to do a lot of takes and I was really under time pressure since I couldn’t afford to have a second shooting day. We wrapped everything up at midnight, thank god.
JNL: What would you do differently now?
IM: I do feel sometimes that I started so late in filmmaking. I shot my first film back in 2004 (I was already 26 by then), and a lot of my colleagues now in the independent scene started as early as 17. I feel so much pressure sometimes trying to keep up with them. A lot of them are already full time filmmakers, while I’m still trying to make ends meet and working my ass off doing tv work just so I could produce my own films and still wanting to learn so much more about filmmaking. I think I wasted a lot of time in college trying to be practical and pleasing my parents instead of just following my dreams. But I’m happy with the struggle I went through (and still trying to overcome now) because I wouldn’t be the kind of filmmaker I am now if not for that.
As with the way I do films, I don’t think I would have done anything differently. I made a lot of mistakes, but making those mistakes was the best education I could ever have. And I always make it a point to challenge myself with every film project and do things a little differently everytime.
JNL: You wear many hats, as do a lot of women in film. Writer, Director, Producer, Editor, etc…Which is your favorite?
IM: I love directing. I’m known by my colleagues as a control freak and I feel like I’m more in control when I’m directing. Although I write my own films, I’ve always had a hard time putting my ideas into words. I see things in pictures and the emotional tug of each scene. That’s the only way I can tell my stories. Directing for me is like giving birth and experiencing every painful and high moment in creating something out of nothing.
JNL: Do you produce just your own films, or have you produced others as well?
IM: As a way of repaying my friends who have helped me make my films, I sometimes partially produce their projects whenever I have money to spare especially when I really believe in the project. I produced the first narrative short of my loyal friend and production designer and the PSA of another colleague last year to name a few.
JNL: Do you write for other filmmakers?
IM: No, I haven’t tried that, and I don’t think I will be anytime soon. I don’t think I’m that good a writer to be writing for anyone. Most of my films which I wrote worked mainly because I directed them, I think.
JNL: Tell us about the PSA campaign that you have been working on.
IM: Last year was really an eye-opener for me. I had a very close friend whose activist brother (Jonas Burgos) was abducted by military forces last year as part of the current government’s counter-insurgency program. Ironically, he is also the son of the late press freedom fighter (Joe Burgos) who fought and spoke against the Marcos dictatorship back in the 70’s. It was only then that I realized how many killings and abductions of activists and journalists have been taking place in our country even after the dictatorship. As an artist and as a Filipino, I felt that it was my duty to do something about it, to make more people aware about these things and to help in any way I can through my art.
So I got the help of many other independent filmmakers and initiated a human rights campaign where each filmmaker would produce a 30 second to 1 minute ad that tackles the current human rights situation in the country. The response was overwhelming. We were able to compile 17 PSA’s for the first volume and planned a formal launch of the campaign in the only independent commercial cinema (which is an oxymoron, I know) in the country.
The launch was slated for September 21 last year. It was to be the 35th anniversary of the declaration of Martial Law, which was a very significant date for Filipinos. Unfortunately, the compilation got censored by the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board (MTRCB) saying that “scenes in this film undermined the faith of the people in the government and duly constituted authorities, thus, not fit for public viewing.” The censorship came as a shock to all of us. Here we were campaigning about human rights and a government agency had the audacity to trample on our own rights as artists to freely express our rage against the culture of impunity and the numerous human rights violations happening under the current administration. It was also perhaps another wake up call to all of us.
The censorship worked for us in a way. It created a lot of publicity and we had the media and the academe on our side. Everyone started talking and debating about press freedom and the freedom of expression and the government using the MTRCB as a tool for political repression. The compilation was not screened during the planned launch, but the initiative reached a far bigger result. The compilation got invited to a lot of schools and independent venues. Newspapers wrote about it. Forums were put up to talk about censorship and our current human rights situation. Eventually, due to public clamor and media pressure, the MTRCB lifted the ban on the film compilation. From an X-rating, “RIGHTS” got an R13. Right now, we are in the process of compiling more PSA’s for the 2nd volume of RIGHTS.
JNL: What inspires you?
IM: A lot of things. I’m a very emotional person and I’m easily moved by people around me. I try to get inspiration everywhere. From films, songs, books, moments that leave an indelible mark. However, I don’t always make films out of them. I can’t really describe it but I usually know when I absolutely need to make the film. All the films I made were written overnight. And that says a lot since I’m not really a writer. Most of my films are very personal. Some might even say they’re almost auto-biographical, but I guess it’s only because my personality always comes out in the films I make.
JNL: Seeing that you do so much, what is the ultimate goal for your film career?
IM: My goal is of course to be able to make all the films I want to make. It’s hard finding the time and the money. And then of course, having people see these films and the opportunity to move and connect with people. I used to think that finishing a film was the ultimate goal. But I never really believed in art for art’s sake. I soon realized that nothing compares to seeing people actually react to what you’ve created, like an affirmation or validation of your existence and knowing how much you can do to actually change things. I know it kinda sounds dramatic, but I guess my ultimate goal is really to make films that can move, change, provoke people – films that matter and make people see. Which is really kinda tough for me since there is no way of knowing whether the films that I make would matter. I can only hope.
JNL: What projects are you working on currently?
IM: I’m currently working on the musical score for my first ever silent film (short feature) entitled EIGHT SUNDAYS. It’s of the romance genre (also my first) because I had the feeling I was becoming too predictable since I was always doing tragedies. So I tried my hand at something that’s light and really very simple but still moving enough. For me, it’s a very nostalgic film since it made use of Tanaga verses (the Filipino version of the Haiku) and music that sounded like a “Harana” (Serenade).
I’m also in the writing stage of my first feature-length film. I’m really hoping I finish this one.