Filipino director Raymond Red won an award at Cannes on the same day he saw a news story that would be the basis of his next film. Ten years the film is finished.
A giant leap for Filipino cinema
The day that any filmmaker wins a Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival is likely to change the course of their career. And while that's just what happened to the Filipino director Raymond Red, it wasn't for the reason you might expect. Just hours before winning the Best Short Film award at the French festival in 2000 with Anino, Red saw a news story about a man who hijacked a Filipino passenger plane and jumped out of it with a home-made parachute. After reading the article, the director knew he wanted to make a film about the event.
Almost a decade later, Manila Skies was screened as part of the Cinema of AsiaAfrica programme at the Dubai International Film Festival, after a successful run at a number of events around the world. It is the director's first full-length feature since Anino. Red emerged as a filmmaker in the early 1980s, making experimental shorts under the tutorship of the celebrated Filipino documentary maker Nick Deocampo. In the 1990s he moved into feature films, including the dramas Bayani and Sakay, before returning to shorts for much of the last decade.
In Manila Skies, he uses the hijacking to make a comment about the struggles of daily life in the Philippines. According to news footage included in the film, some 80 per cent of the country's population currently lives in poverty. "I get all this criticism from Filipino audiences about why I keep showing the negative side of the country," says Red. "But a guy really jumped out of a plane with a parachute he made himself. How can a man really reach a point of planning something as weird and insane as this?"
In the case of Manila Skies, the central character, played by Raul Arellano (who came out of retirement for the project), loses his job and is prevented from finding further work after coming up against a mountain of red tape. He then becomes briefly involved in Manila's criminal underworld, before deciding to escape to the countryside where he grew up. "I feel strongly that I want to show my convictions," says the director. "In Manila Skies I wanted to ask why we can't move forward in my country."
One of the film's strengths is its dialogue, which is largely made-up of conversations between out-of-work Filipino men desperately trying to seek a way out of poverty. Red says this is because his screenplay for the film was just 10 pages long and offered only rough outlines of the dialogue; the rest was improvised by the cast. Although film is one of the most popular art forms in the Philippines, public cinema attendance has more than halved in the past 15 years. Film production has substantially declined as a result, from a high of about 200 films a year during the 1980s, to around 30 in 2007. However recent years have seen a rise in Filipino independent cinema, with directors such as Brillante Mendoza, whose film Lola also played at DIFF, gaining acclaim around the world.
"Because of the recognition it's getting, people are saying there seems to be a rebirth of Filipino independent cinema. But I actually come from the first wave of independent cinema in the 1980s. It was around the time of the people-power revolution, when we toppled the Marcos dictatorship," he says. "It was a loose movement, a kind of revolution, with people shooting on Super 8 film." One of the current trends in Filipino independent cinema is the use of hand-held digital cameras, to create gritty and ultra-realistic footage. Although the technique is used in some parts of Manila Skies, the director believes the visual style is becoming overused.
"Manila Skies was a reaction to this trendy thing of filmmakers running around the city with a hand-held camera. This film was a little more restrained," he says. Despite his initial reservations about digital filmmaking, Manila Skies is the first Filipino movie to be shot using the Red One, an ultra-high-definition camera, used by the director Steven Soderbergh on both parts of the movie Che. Some have claimed that it now offers a quality comparable to film.
"Everybody thought I was a purist," says the director. "When they started working on digital in late 1990s, I was still using film. But when the Red One came out, I though this is definitely what I've been waiting for. Every time I see the film now, I'm blown away by the projection quality."