No Sugar Coating

December of 2008, a few days after the screening of Namets! in Bacolod, Joey Gaston, Gina Martin and Agnes Villar came to me with a video project. They wanted to tell the story of the fall of sugar in the late 70’s. They wanted to share some lessons to the new generation of farmers.

But it was apparent that the story wouldn’t be understood unless it were given context from history and the present. By the end of that week, the small video project became a full-length documentary project.

And this took 3 years of my life.  And it literally changed me as a person from Negros and as a filmmaker.

(www.purezathemovie.com)

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I grew up both in Silay and Isabela, in sugarcane farms.  I grew up in a hacienda.  So when this movie project came up, I thought, yeah, I know this topic very very well. 

I was wrong.

The sugar industry fell in the late 70’s and I didn’t have a clue what was going on. I think my parents protected us from the real horrors that were happening.  Yes, they were probably just protecting us.

I grew up thinking Negros was the best place to grow up in. I believed Negros was THE place in the country.  

That we were special.  Maybe I was wrong. (Excerpts from my opening speech during the premiere of Pureza)

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Pureza article in Rogue magazine written by Vince Groyon

Pureza article in Rogue magazine written by Vince Groyon

Older poster design by OJ

Older poster design by OJ

I’ve worked on over twenty-five feature films in the country in a span of 10 years and only one was a documentary. The rest were all narratives. So in my mind, I was prepared to do this film.  I was not.  We spent three years trying to make sense of this documentary and although I’m happy that I found my voice, I wish I had studied film more.

What I can say is that this was not just another film project for me.  This was very personal.  I go home to Negros at least once a year and face my family, face my friends, face the Negrense hacienderos. I had to be sure I could hold up to what I said in this documentary.  And I can.  

Yosemite

When I was 10 years old, my parents took me and my siblings on a tour of the United States. It was really the first time we’ve been out of the country.  It was life-changing because for the first time, things and places you only saw on the television were actually both real and fake.  We got to see the fake stuff done in Hollywood of-course.  It was the typical US tour.

But what stuck with me was this place…Yosemite. There was something pure and real about it.

Now, 30 years later…I visited my son Febuary of 2011 for his birthday. There was a long weekend so we took a trip to the mountains with some old friends of mine from Bacolod.

When we entered the mountains, we stopped by the view deck, we took some photos then went down Yosemite park.  I took a shot of El Capitan with the warm sun lighting half of the wall. Then we set out to camp, found a nice spot, pitched our tents and started to build a fire. It was a perfect camp site. Ethan had such a great time with his tito Richard, tita Jana and tito Monette, the real campers.

By 9pm, I went inside the tent, it was getting too cold for me. Ethan loved the cold and so did the rest so they stayed by the fire and continued their barbecue and storytelling.

I woke up around 4am because I was hearing rain outside but it sounded different. When I went out, we were all covered in snow. Apparently, it snowed the whole night when we were asleep. Ethan got up around 5am and started playing in the snow as the sun was creeping in.

By 9am, the rangers were closing down the mounting and asking everyone to put on snow chains on their tires.  Two vehicles skided off of the cliff because of the ice.

The day before, Yosemite was this lush green summer mountain with snow caps only on the mountain top.  In one night of snow, it was a totally different place, a totally different look.  Amazing.

I took these photos off of my Lumix LX3 as we left Yosemite.

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Namets means Yummy!

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My very first solo film as a director was in 2008.  This was the genius of the writer Vince Groyon and it has a very long backstory.

In 2007, after watching my first film Ligaw Liham, we got into talking about collaborating. But he said, if we were to do it, it had to be in our dialect (Ilonggo). I agreed. So we moved forward.  What did we want to do?

I said I wanted it to be about the changing of power and wealth from the old rich to the new rich.  I think the struggle was that we also wanted it to be filled with our own humor.

What came out of all of our discussions was a concept and story for a movie that was going to be entitled Bacolod Scandal.

When I read the first sequence treatment, it was great. Vince is seriously a genius. The only problem was that it was full of sex, naturally.  So I called Vince and asked him if he wanted this to get into Cinemalaya and he said yes of-course.  And I told him that it would never get into Cinemalaya. First 5 minutes of the film had about 3 sex scenes already.  In my mind, I really believed that Cinemalaya was too conservative at that time.  But the other reason was that—even if we got in Cinemalaya, I don’t think I can shoot this in Negros, I told Vince.  Who would allow their houses to be shot in with all these sex scenes—after all, Negros is still a relatively conservative province and I don’t have the stature to do a film as daring as this.

So we went back to the drawing board and said—ok what do we want to do?

We both wanted two things—a pure Ilonggo film was one. The other was—we wanted it to have our humor

The minute we asked the question—what is the most distinct culture of Negros, we knew it had to be about food and Vince did his magic.

I remember after a few weeks, he texted me the opening “caveman” scene and I laughed and thought he was sassing me about the script.  But he was serious. Took me a while to actually get the joke. That is Vince Groyon for you.

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Day one, Angel Jacob arrives from Manila on the first flight and goes straight to the set and we shoot this “Cansi” scene. All goes well and we shoot other scenes. In the evening, we shoot the Chicken “Inasal” scene only to find out she doesn’t eat meat. Angel is a pescatarian but she never complained or said anything. She was such a trooper!

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Master Chef JP Anglo came to help us out…it was such a treat!

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I shot the caveman scene last because I didn’t get the scene. I only got it when we got to the cave and we started doing the scene. Luckily I did get it.

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Bronze

Ligaw Liham

My very first full length film which I co-directed with Manny Montelibano in 2007.  What a great story and concept…but it was problematic.  I learned a lot on this film but what an expensive lesson I have to say.  Sometimes I wish that this wasn’t my first film, then, I would have done a much better job.

I remember Karylle being such a nice and positive person. She was the happy person on the set.  What a great artist to have and work with.

We had two great DP’s on the set—our main DP Carlo Mendoza and Anne Monzon who did associate work. What a fun time when we were all just starting out.  Color grading with Marilen Magsaysay was such a great moment, I will never forget it.

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Edge Work

Shot on a Fujinon S1, my very first DSLR. I think it was a 5 megapixel camera. I super loved that camera. It was a collaboration of Fuji and Nikon. The body was a Nikon but the digital technology was that of Fuji.

 

Chicago Sunrise

I shot this photo at the break of dawn on the very last leg of the Chicago Night ride of 2006.  It was a bike marathon that starts midnight and finishes around six in the morning.   I did it with my high school batchmates Kevin Limas, Patrick Hilado (who was the consul of Chicago that time) and Alwayne Tulayba.

Eventually this photo won and came out in Time Out Chicago.

Refugees in Chicago

Summer of 2006, July, Chicago, IL.

Falling in love with a whole new genre in photography and listening to Thatcher Cook in Maine made me go home to Chicago yearning for an output.  So I searched and volunteered as a photographer for 2 NGOs working with refugees from Somalia, Russia and Africa. I took a ton of photos following them through their summer programs.  In hindsight, this was a real turning point for me as an artist, I think.

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Maine on Film

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Back to School (2006)

After 2 years of apprenticing under Lee Briones-Meily, I sold my car and moved to the U.S. to study.  I settled down in Chicago gearing up to take the summer workshops in Maine, before practicing as a cinematographer.

Maine was great. Met a lot of people from around the globe. I particularly liked my classmate from Saudi Arabia who knew Filipino words and loved adobo growing up with a Filipina yaya.  He loved Filipinos.  I also particularly liked my classmate from England because of their humor.

Rode the bike to class. That was really nice. Mind you, I was 33 years old when I went to Maine.

But my most memorable class was a class I sat in after regular classes—Thatcher Cook’s class on documentary photography.  It was packed and it was free. He was great.  He opened me up to a whole different world of photography—and that changed me.


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