In conversation with… Rafael Manuel

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Filipiñana (2020) is a short movie written and directed by Rafael Manuel, that won the Silver Bear Jury Prize for short films at the 70th Berlin International Film Festival.

This short film is set in the almost dystopic and surreal microcosm of a golf course.
We follow Isabel, a “tee girl” whose job is to sort out golf balls; through her interactions with the – mainly white and always wealthy – clients the film exposes race and class related social dynamics.

Rafael Manuel agreed to answer some questions about the short film, his experience and his idea of cinema.

1) Which movies made you first realize you wanted to work in film?

There’s this one interview that Lucretia Martel does with the Criterion Collection where she’s in their Bluray closet picking out films to bring home with her and she pulls out Carnival of Souls. She says something like ‘As filmmakers we must always remember that to make just one film like this is enough.’ I hope that one day I can tell her personally that La Cienaga was that film for me.

2) How does the social, political and environmental context as well as the historical period you live in affect your work?

For me, cinema, like any other medium, is pure synthesis and expression. So I think those factors seep in and shape me in ways that I don’t even fully comprehend. But to give a specific example of how I try to let those factors affect my work – I think that because we live in a time-period that is oversaturated with media and content, it’s important to try and make things not just for the sake of producing something but because it really means something to you. A constant question I ask myself when I’m writing is ‘Is this just more useless content that the world has so much of already?

3) What specificity do you think the medium of short film has when compared to full length features?

I think that the short form is free from a lot of the commercial constraints that plague long form cinema. While the industry have their proven formulas on how to best exploit a full length film commercially, they have yet to figure it out with the short form. I think that the short form gives filmmakers a lot of autonomy to explore and express themselves. 

4) I’ve read you carried out your film studies at the London Film School, an international film school that is mainly populated with non British students. How do you think it would have been for you and other young Filipino directors to start a career in your native country?

There are a lot of young Filipino filmmakers that are based in the Philippines and that are making name for themselves internationally while being based there. Personally though, while most of my stories are based in the Philippines, I felt like I needed to leave the country in order to grow as a human being. 

5) Filipiñana is a peculiar word, how did you choose this title for your film?

Well Filipiñana can be used to describe a number of things; it can be used to describe a certain style of dress; it can be used to describe a section in the library where they have Philippine related print and nonprint materials; etc. To me, Filipiñana (a bit like how Americana is used in the context of the United States) is an adjective that describes things associated with the culture and history of the Philippines. I thought it would be quite dissonant to title a film set in a lush golf courses this, as I think it’s fair to say that it isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when the Philippines comes up. But I think that this representation of the Philippines is, at the very least, as truthful a representation as a lot of the poverty-porn centered cinema that comes out of the Philippines. I stylised the word to include the ‘ñ’ to allude to our Spanish colonial roots. 

6) It’s also a very specific topic the one you’ve chosen to talk about in Filipiñana, the reality of the “tee girls” ( girls who sort out golf balls for golf players ) that isn’t very known in many countries, but that appears in your film as significant to explain the social system on an entire nation. The film exposes social and gender dynamics and, from your film, it seems that you have observed this reality closely. Is it very important to you that in your work appears a political message of the condition many people live in?

I’m very much interested in class and gender dynamics, and I try my best to explore these power relations through the creation of originary worlds that aren’t opposed to reality but extend its nuances. But with regards to political messages, I try my best to refrain from writing anything with that as my aim. Personally, I prefer Beckett to Brecth. 

7) Watching the films of another great Filipino director, Raya Martin, I’ve noticed a recurring theme of a defense of historical memory throughwhich one can redefine the present and the future. Often an author may carry out a process of mediation between what they get from the outside and their own personal sensibility, the collective experience finds itself in a process of individual reflection that allows it to acquire its on autonomous conscience, but this time shared. Do you think you might have carried out a similar process and that in your films there is always something very personal and that it may be a way to look for answers?

It’s difficult for me to say as I don’t know what Raya Martin’s personal process is like; all I see are his finished films.  Personally, though I can’t really relate to what you described. Yes, beyond all the political undertones that people read in the film, Filipiñana is first and foremost a deeply personal film, as it was shot in a golf course that I’ve been playing golf in since I was old enough to hold a golf club. But I wasn’t really looking for any answers in the film. My intention was to take a really long look at what my role is in a broken societal structure that I’m so quick to critique and distance myself from in the everyday. 

8) In Filipiñana you use a Filipino folksong about a fisherman who sells what he managed to catch at the market to buy some sugar cane rum. Do you have any type of emotional attachment to this song? How do you think it relates to the experiences of the film’s protagonist?

I chose the song because I thought the song’s story parallels the cyclical nature of a tee-girl’s day-to-day life and the lack of verticality in their prospects. 

9) Your triumph with the Silver Bear allowed you to make your work more
known worldwide. How did you live this experience?

I really couldn’t have hoped for a better premiere for the film – we’re really grateful to Berlinale and specifically Berlinale Shorts for giving us the platform and to the Jury for appreciating the film. When you make a short film that doesn’t fit in the gold-standard 15 minute timeframe – you’ll have no shortage of people telling you to cut it down. This was especially true for Filipiñana given that it was my graduation film at the London Film School; in the film school setting, everyone’s a very opinionated director and editor. And while that can be very stimulating at times, at other times that kind of setting can also make it very easy to conform, second-guess your intentions, and try to please people.

And while, of course I make films for an audience and I want audiences to enjoy the films I make, ultimately, the first person I make films for is myself, and if I manage to stimulate myself while at the same time being honest with and hypercritical of myself, then chances are I’ll be able to make a film that resonates with an audience, as well. I hope that the Silver Bear will act as a reminder to myself of that.

And of course, the Silver Bear is of huge importance to my team and I for other more practical reasons. Given the kind of films that we’re interested in making; ones that tackle themes and subjects in forms that aren’t predicated on industrial factors and commerciality, finding the funding for them is always going to be a bit challenging. And as a filmmaker I feel that that’s always one of the biggest questions looming over your current project; the question of ‘Will this film help us get the funding we need for the next one?’

10) I’ve read you had initially conceived Filipiñana as a full length feature and that you had to adapt it to the short format because of budget issues. Was it difficult to reimagine the film in its current format?

It wasn’t very difficult because we already the setting and the characters and for me that’s like 90% of writing. I knew however that I didn’t want to just make a compressed version of the full-length film or a teaser of the feature. I wanted to make a short that was a film in its own right. For me the most difficult thing was breaking the news to the rest of the crew who signed up to my project because they thought they were going to be doing a full-length film; they turned down other projects to do this. Fortunately, they were very understanding and supportive of the decision, at least to my face.  

11) How do you schedule the work for your films? Do you prefer to know immediately exactly what you are going to do or do you prefer to leave more room for improvisation?

I pre-shoot all my films principal photography starts; I do this pre-shoot with all the HODs and with some of the actors if they’re available and it’s very important that we do it in the locations we’re using for the film. It’s not a very big production and I don’t focus on rehearsals or anything like that, in these pre-shoots we focus mainly on framing, pacing, and rough blocking. I’ll then edit the pre-shoot and go over the rough cut with the heads of each depart and discuss what we can do to improve each and every frame (it’s not that hard because I tend to have not that many shots in my films).  So by the time principal photography starts, a lot of planning and intention has already gone into each shot and this gives us extra time to think about how we can improve it/adjust to what we’re given on the shoot day. I’m very open to improvisation on set but I think in order to do it properly you need be very prepared. 

12) Can you tell us anything about your next projects?

Sure. I’m currently working on 2 shorts; one based here in London about park culture, and one based in Philippines, set in the gated community where I grew up. We’re also currently in development for the full-length Filipiñana but this more a long-term 2-3 year project as we’re not in any rush and want to make sure that we get to make the film the way that we want to make it. 

Interview by Elisabetta Orsi
Translation by Margherita De Angelis

Jorybell Agoto (Isabel)
Micah Musa (Micah)
Sunshine Teodoro (Susan)
Elle Velasco (Charlie)
Written and directed by: Rafael Manuel
Cinematography: Xenia Patricia
Editing: Rafael Manuel
Sound Design: Manuel Colayco
Production Design: Andrea Vigoni
Co-producers: Naomi Pacifique, Kyle Nieva, Kiko Meily, Rafael Manuel
Co-production: Idle Eyes, London, Vereinigtes Königreich, Screen Asia, Manila, Philippinen
Simple Truth, Manila, Philippinen