The Filipino filmmaker tells us why he will continue to make films about his country’s social issues
Filmmaker Brillante Mendoza: ‘I want to make films that make a difference’
Leading Filipino filmmaker Brillante Mendoza is showcasing two films at the Busan International Film Festival in South Korea this week. His drugs drama Alpha, The Right to Kill, which is like a condensed version of his Netflix crime series Amo, will screen tomorrow and on Friday. Meanwhile, his film, Lakbayan (Journey), received its world premiere at the festival last Friday. The movie is split into three parts: one directed by Mendoza, with the others by Filipino directors Lav Diaz and Kidlat Tahimik.
Alpha, The Right to Kill, takes Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody and violent war on drugs as the central theme.
Official statistics reveal that over the past two years, police have killed roughly 4,000 suspects who have allegedly fought back while being arrested. The film highlights this institutional violence, as it smartly manoeuvres a story of a petty criminal peddling drugs at a fruit store into a full-blown tale of police destruction and brutality.
It starts and ends with the policemen patrolling the streets. “The parades are a bookend to the film,” Mendoza tells me at the San Sebastian Film Festival in Spain last month, where his feature won the Special Jury Prize. “When we open the film, we are just showing the institution that is supposed to be guarding the nation. Then we see the story of a person who is part of that institution, where there is corruption. So, when we close with another parade, it has a completely different meaning and I think this adds a political subtext to the film in a subtle way.”
When Mendoza first started working on the television series, Amo, which is about the war on drugs, many in the Philippines felt that the show would act as propaganda material supporting president Duterte. “Before it was shown on TV, I got a lot of criticism in the Philippines because in the past, I filmed the state of the nation address, so people associate me with the president,” explains Mendoza. “But I shot those, like other filmmakers have, because I saw it as an award for being a successful filmmaker. But they stopped criticising me because Amo is not propaganda, and I do not side with any political party or personality.”
Indeed he refuses to draw on his own personal views of the war on drugs or if he thinks it’s successful: “It’s not really the role of the filmmaker to explain his philosophy, because not everyone has the opportunity to talk to the person behind the movie when it is showing. Since I don’t have the privilege to explain it every time it’s watched, I believe the film should be doing that for itself.”
It’s another Mendoza work made in his gritty signature docudrama style that has become familiar over the years. The director, 58, became the first Filipino filmmaker to win Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival in 2009 for Kinatay – also a gritty crime drama. “I am into the found story principal of film theory,” he explains. “My features are always based on real people and their experiences. To truly reflect their situation, the execution has to be realistic – which is made possible with the cinematography and editing. This also means that the action shouldn’t be too glamourised and the story has to revolve around society.”
As part of this found footage theory, Mendoza employs both professional and non-professional actors in his movies, and shoots in locations where locals are actually going about their daily business. “Most of the people playing police officers in Alpha, are real policemen and this helps make their actions and dialogue authentic.”
Speaking at the Busan International Film Festival, where the movie is screening tomorrow, Mendoza reveals that he never intended to be a filmmaker. Initially, he worked as a production designer on several films before directing his first film, The Masseur, in 2005. “It was going to be a one-time gig as part of my filmmaking journey. I admit I was attracted to the glamorous side of cinema at the time, because I didn’t have an understanding and knowledge of cinema, and I didn’t realise directing would be so addictive. The film was shown at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland, and it won the major prize [the Golden Leopard]. It totally changed my life.”
This terrific reception for his debut changed his outlook to cinema. “From then on, I wanted to make films not for the glamour, but to make a difference. I became more interested in the social issues in my country and what is really happening on the political front. So, after 13 or 14 years, I’m still doing the same kind of movies, and I will continue to do that in the future.”
His contribution to Lakbayan, the short film Desfocado, also follows this filmmaking formula and aesthetic. “It’s about a farmers’ protest that saw them walk from the south of the Philippines to Manila, but of course it’s a journey riddled with political issues, as the farmers demand land.”
Lakbayan was made as part of the Philippines’s year of celebration to mark a century of filmmaking in the country. Busan has a focus on the Philippines to mark this occasion and the inclusion of two Mendoza films highlights his position as the vanguard of Filipino cinema.
Lakbayan will screen today. Alpha, The Right to Kill, will screen tomorrow and on Friday at the Busan International Film Festival in South Korea