Taklub (2015, “Trap”), the most recent movie from Filipino filmmaker Brillante Mendoza, represents the lives of three families after the devastating Typhoon Yolanda. Here the established director uses his artistic tools to raise awareness about climate change and although it is a government-funded project, he has managed to preserve his autonomy while telling his story in a very unique and personal way. Talkub does not teach or instruct the audience on how to behave in the face of climate change, but rather offers Mendoza a chance to reflect on the situation. It is hard to watch the movie and not be affected by its tragic moments. I managed to talk with Mendoza at the Cannes Film Festival; what follows is my discussion with the director.
What was the source of inspiration for your movie?
Well, first of all, this is a government-funded project so initially I was asked by the senator who funded the project to make a documentary about climate change. I was a little hesitant in the beginning because not a lot of people are watching this kind of documentary. Furthermore, I did not understand climate change, so I got educated about it and apparently it’s not really complicated to understand the issue since it is just a matter of being practical and responsible.
I was asked to put that together with a story about what had just happened in the Philippines with the impacts of Hayan, one of the greatest typhoons to ever happen, and a lot of people suffered because of it.
Because of my hesitation about the impact of the documentary, I asked her, why don’t we make a feature and then why don’t we make a story about Hayan? At that time, I still did not know exactly what kind of story that I would make. These were just the initial talks and then I went to Tacloban to do research, which is where everything came together and we were able to come up with stories about the real experiences of people who survived Hayan or Yolanda.
Did you have any other movies in mind when you directed this? Have you watched other movies related to the same topics?
I try to avoid that, especially if I have the same subject matter. I would watch another film but not of the same subject matter, like a disaster movie.
So this subject has not been explored in the Philippines before?
The fact that the project is government funded did not have any impact on your artistic decisions?
Not at all. I was given full creative freedom on how I wanted to execute the film and I was very thankful for this because normally you get a bit suspicious once you hear the words “government” and “government funding.” That’s because it runs the risk of becoming like propaganda or something if it’s funded by the government. But with this project – no, not at all. I presented the project, I presented the story, and said that I am not going to do something that would instruct people to do certain things since people would not listen. If you want to make your laws and your rules effective, don’t teach people how to do it because they don’t follow. You just tell them the outcome of what could happen to them, and then maybe they realize. They could think about it but don’t instruct. So I think the senator or the person who endorsed me to this government institution understood it and there was no pressure on me.
You talked about the fact that you needed to do some research on this subject. Can you elaborate on this?
It’s very different when you are in a place where something has really happened because you listen to the people and you can feel their real emotions and listen to their experiences with what they’ve gone through. It is very different because now you understand them better and it’s no longer just stories about climate change or stories you want to make; it is no longer only about sympathy. You feel their issues because you understand the people and it becomes about the feeling of emotional connection, and that is totally different. After that, I tried to put their stories together and representing each of the stories of the people who survived Yolanda by creating characters related to them. So this is a story represented by a mother who lost her children, a husband who lost his wife, and children who lost their parents. These three characters represent everyone.
Don’t you think the fact that it becomes fiction diminished the social or political function of the movie?
That’s why I made a point to make it look realistic. There is already a thin line between it being a documentary and being a fictional story because I wanted to make it really look like a documentary but at the same time still fictionalized because it is not just about climate change. It is about a story of humanity, survival, and real people, which I think makes a big difference from just doing a film about climate change and disaster risk reduction because you are already dealing with the actual victims.
Your camera is always moving from top to bottom. Can you say something about your philosophy of camera work?
Well, in terms of that kind of setting, I try to always become an observer in all my films. My aim is to be a viewer in a way because I don’t want to get too close to the character like how we used to do when making fiction. As much as possible, my camera is just an observer, so that’s why it is free flowing.
I understand that you used both actors and non-actors. How was this experience of working with both professionals and non-professionals at the same time?
I have always done that before and it’s a win-win situation because both the professional and non-professional actors learn from each other. For example, non-professional actors are more natural and when you give them instructions, they just do it. For them, it’s simple. With the professional actors, no matter how good they are, sometimes they become a bit too mechanical and when they see a natural actor, a newcomer or a non-professional, they are reminded that it should be that way. It should not be a performance. It should be more of a natural way of how real people do it, which is why I am trying to avoid performance in my film.
Do you provide lines for your actors or do you allow improvisation?
A lot of it is improvisation, but I have a very well structured script that I follow, though I don’t give it to my actors. As much as possible, I shoot chronologically so that I can give them their lines on the set and then they could interpret them however they want to say them. I don’t want them to memorize lines so the actors have a lot of freedom and it becomes a very collaborative way of interpreting the scenes because the actor is also doing their part rather than only the director doing it.
I haven’t heard much music in your previous works, so why did you change your attitude here?
Among all of my films, I think this one features the most sound and musical design since I don’t normally put music into my films. It is very, very rare, if ever, but for this one I think it helps to enhance the scenes. I just felt that it’s more emotional with music.
What is the function of art movies in the Philippines?
Well, in the Philippines, of course, mainstream movies still dominate the market, but films like this have a special niche audience such as students, so we have universities that want to feature this kind of cinema. However, this film was not made for a commercial audience, so I don’t have any problem with that. Independent and art house cinema typically has a very low level of audience participation and a very, very small audience share.
Don’t you think that the movie’s lack of mass appeal will impact its social value? As you said, it would be watched mostly by a special niche of people in Indonesia.
You don’t need really that mass appeal.
But apparently you have a goal for this movie to raise awareness.
Yes, but then it is a lot better than doing a documentary. It doesn’t mean that because I did fiction I want to have huge audiences. If you really want to have bigger audience, I would not use this type of actors; I would be using more famous ones. I could definitely try to make small changes to the characters and the way I put the story together in order to make the movie more appealing and acceptable to the mainstream audience, but I did not do that here. Nonetheless, I still know that it will have a better audience than a documentary would.
Are you working on a new project?
Yes, I am working on a project about a small time drug syndicate in the Philippines.
Do you think the fact that the movie has been screened at Cannes might have an impact on its reception in the Philippines?
Not at all. It may happen but it still cannot compete with mainstream movies. Art house will always be art house and will always have the same kind of viewership and audience participation. It’s quite different and it’s very difficult, but thanks to Cannes, I think that it’s not only about the Philippines. Now maybe the film will go somewhere else but at least we were able to show the film at different festivals and to other nationalities beyond the Philippines.
Fascinated by the issue of alternative and utopian space in cinema and architecture, Amir Ganjavie has published widely about cinema, architecture and cultural studies. He has recently co-edited a special volume on alternative Iranian cinema for Film International and edited Humanism of the Other, an essay collection on the Dardenne brothers (in Persian). His most recent contribution is an article on the meaning of space and utopia in cinema by analysing the films of Tsai Ming-Liang.