The curious case of Brillante Mendoza
“Prolific, personable and perpetually in motion, he has come to symbolise Filipino cinema to the rest of the world.”
While the acclaimed subject of the Variety magazine article this quote comes from is indeed the most renowned Filipino filmmaker of his generation, most Filipinos have never seen any of his films. Such is the curious case of Brillante Mendoza.
After a two-decade career as a production designer and art director, Mendoza made his directorial debut in 2005, at age 45. His first film, Masahista (The Masseur), was shot on digital video in eight days with a budget of only US$10,000 (Dh36,727). It won him the Golden Leopard at the Locarno Film Festival.
Since then, Mendoza has directed a further 11 films, all of them produced by his tiny company, Centre Stage Productions. In a region dominated by sappy melodrama, his work stands out for being poetically dark, following the lives of midwives, prostitutes and poor families.
His gritty style – shaky cameras and grainy textures – hark back to Italian Neorealist cinema.
His films have been screened and won awards at the world’s leading festivals, including the big three: Cannes, Venice and Berlin.
Yet the 55-year-old has consistently rejected offers from big studios, opting instead to make and distribute his films independently. He has little interest in commercial success, so while his films are a hit abroad, few people have seen them outside the festival circuit.
“When you work from the heart, it is the kind of film that you make, and how you make the film, and why you make this kind of film,” he said at the recent Tokyo International Film Festival, where he was honoured with a retrospective.
“That is the most important thing – why you make this film,” said Mendoza, who was honoured with a knighthood by France last year for his contribution to the arts.
His latest work, Taklub (Trap), tells the story of three families who survived a devastating typhoon that hit the central Philippines in 2013.
It premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, where it won a Jury Prize, and is now screening at the Dubai International Film Festival.
Taklub is headlined by 62-year-old actress Nora Aunor, who has been dubbed by The Hollywood Reporter as “the grand dame of Philippine cinema”. She plays a mother searching for the remains of her three children, who died during the tragedy.
“Right after the typhoon occurred, people were asking me to do a film about it,” Mendoza said at Cannes. “I thought it would be improper and insensitive to make a film exploiting people’s tragic circumstances.”
He changed his mind months later, after being approached by the Philippine government’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources to make a film that tackled the issue of climate change, “with its consequences as the core message”.
“This film is a tribute to the victims and survivors of this tragic event,” Mendoza said.
Loren Legarda, who serves in the Philippine Senate and works on disaster risk reduction, praised Mendoza’s work for its “very relevant message”. “We hope that other filmmakers would look into advocacy projects such as this, which is a feature film with a message that not only educates but also improves how we live our life,” she said.
Taklub, the only Filipino film screening at Diff this year, also serves as a homecoming of sorts for Mendoza: his film Lola (Grandmother), about two grandmothers dealing with the consequences of murder, won the Muhr Africa/Asia Best Film Award at the festival’s 2009 edition.
• Tonight, 6.30pm, Mall of the Emirates; Saturday, 9.45pm, MoE
* With additional reporting by The Associated Press
Updated: December 8, 2015 04:00 AM