The short documentary was supposed to be about the indigenous language of the Aeta in the remote, hilly village of Villa Espina in Lopez, Quezon. It was my intended entry to the 2022 Kota Kinabalu International Film Festival (KKIFF) in Sabah, Malaysia, on Sept. 17-25.
But a tight production schedule and a looming deadline for submission led my crew and me to shift subject to the distinct and unique Tagalog that is locally spoken, and a story about three young girls entangled in an enchanted kingdom.
The project didn’t come easy. As producer of the documentary, I strained to make ends meet because the money was hardly enough to get even a low-budget indie done.
But I was filled with idealism and enthusiasm to embark on yet another challenging journey to create audiovisuals. I felt the same way in 2010 when I produced a documentary on the Dumagat of Infanta, General Nakar and Real, all in Quezon, and their struggle against landgrabbers.
My work, “Dumagat,” subtitled “Dumagats, Aborigines of the Philippines and Nomads of Southeast Asia,” was a finalist in the 2nd Pandayang Lino Brocka Political Film and New Media Festival in 2010. It won a consolation prize at the 1st Festival of Photos, Documentary Films and Reportage on Asean Countries and People contest in Hanoi, Vietnam.
One of the judges in the contest would in time become my mentor, the Korean Cho Pock-ray, a film professor at the Beijing Film Academy, arts liaison in Taiwan, programmer at the Gwangju International Film Festival in Korea, among other professional commitments. He was amazed that I was able to pull it off on such a tight budget.
“I will write in my blog that you were able to make a film on that scarce production cost,” Cho said.
The next documentaries I produced, wrote and directed dealt with faith healing, a megalomaniac Christ impersonator, and the making of Quezon City (with Filipino-British Jowee Morel as director), among other topics, in the Philippines.
My TV broadcast background (“TV Patrol” and “Action 9” as field reporter, writer, voice-over and segment producer) allowed me to learn the ropes and subsequently pursue a practical and austere style of filmmaking.
The deadline for the 2022 KKIFF was Aug. 31, but we went out to the field only on Aug. 26. Earlier, I had to secure a permit from the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples, but it turned out that the document would require a long period of processing. I decided to just pursue the indigenous language of Lopez as subject.
Quezon is relatively far from Manila, and a bus ride would have been inconvenient for the creative crew—regional representative for museums of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts Gem Suguitan as camerawoman, visual artist Bon Labora as editor, and myself as writer. I tried to find a car rental for a meager sum under a sponsorship that would later be acknowledged in the finished film’s credits.
The only one that bit the offer—they were all booked—was Channel 31 online producer and talent manager Mathoy Samonte (aka Direk Toymats), through the intercession of media man Nel Talavera. Toymats suggested bringing his four all-girl talents with us to the set, and we could use for free (but not the gas) the Suzuki Multicab light truck owned by the family of two of the 10-year-old wannabes.
The concession was to squeeze the talents into the docu, even in cameo roles. I agreed. What else would I do with the kids and two grownups? To top it all, because the girls were all minors, their moms had to tag along, which I couldn’t refuse. (I thought of another project instantly—a short film for the girls which Bon has conceptualized, but our priority was the documentary.)
I wanted to capture the early tiangge (flea market) scene in Lopez, so Mathoy, along with Gem and Bon—in Mathoy’s LPG-powered taxi—agreed to leave Manila at 2 a.m. But they actually left an hour past to get to General Trias, Cavite, to collect the Multicab and the girls with their mothers in tow.
We hit the South Luzon Expressway at 5:30 a.m.
We reached the tail-end of market day (every Friday) on a rainy morning. In between drizzle and sunshine, we were able to shoot materials for the docu later in the day.
It was more challenging the day after: a mix of production work on Tagalog-Lopez and the short film. Though it was cloudy with the threat of sudden rain, we traveled to Barangay Villa Espina on rough roads. The poor Multicab battled the muddy route, with Mathoy—already triple-tasking as manager, director and cameraman—driving in a manner reminiscent of his days steering a delivery truck on bumpy and perilous highways.
Going to Villa Espina, the Multicab passengers included showbiz newbies Gwen Vedasto, Aki Cortez, Princess Conlee and Lotes Tesado; Joy Sabandal, Elvie Cortez and Lyn Vedasto, teasingly addressed as “scientific moms” instead of stage mothers; and Bon, Gem and myself. We had to get off with open umbrellas when we came to soft soils, slippery curves and descending roads.
It was still showering intermittently when we reached Villa Espina. I went to the forest to call on the chieftain of the Aeta community and get his consent for our documentary, but he was not around. After talking to one of the tribal members, I rejoined our group with muddied feet and soiled shorts. Several Aeta women were wandering on the bridge.
The sun was up and Bon was shooting his narrative in the river and valleys while farmers were walking around with long bolos tucked into their tattered pants. Beside the river was Segunda Matteo, a natural park where we stayed in a cottage without walls.
Going down the hill late in the afternoon, the Multicab’s tires were buried in mud. It had begun to rain again. The light van almost fell into a ravine. Still, Bon found a balete (fig) tree for one of the sets of his film.
Despite the rain and the dark night, we proceeded to faraway Pitogo in Quezon, and ended our trek on seeing the tree atop a tall cemented irrigation dike where it has silently grown for years.
We altered the shoot as the tree must be planted on the ground. Bon said he would look for an alternative when we got back to Manila.
Overall, despite the difficulty of shooting in the wild, we succeeded in getting materials for both documentary and short feature film.