Martika Escobar’s “Leonor Will Never Die,” the eight-years-in-the-making film-within-a-film about a retired screenwriter, is not the only Filipino work that won in this year’s Sundance Film Festival. There is also Don Josephus Raphael Eblahan’s “The Headhunter’s Daughter” which received the Grand Jury Prize for Short Film.
Shot during the pandemic, the movie is about an aspiring country singer from the Cordilleras who ventures into the big, busy city of Baguio—on horseback—to enter a singing contest. In the process, the central character, Lynn, exposes herself to the post-colonial world of the city, seeing it from the eyes of an indigenous person.
Like his film’s lead figure, the director and screenwriter Eblahan is someone who thinks seriously about crossing cultures, an evident theme in his works. Born in Quezon City, he would eventually move with his family to La Trinidad in Benguet—and then he would move to Chicago to study film at DePaul University, a private Catholic institution in Illinois.
“‘The Headhunter’s Daughter’ was my attempt to embody my thoughts about my culture, my dreams of becoming a musician and figuring out a spiritual way of finding my place in this world as a young person of indigenous descent,” he told Tatler Asia recently.
Eblahan’s journey to making films started with the wealth of manga and anime he consumed as a child in the Philippines, followed by learning to play the guitar at a young age. Soon he would read books imagining how he will put sound in it and how a narrative will unfold visually.
His films have been described as possessing “an intimate, poetic, and dream-like quality.” Being a musician himself, it can’t be helped that music plays an important role in Eblahan’s works. “I always begin my writing process by listening to and making music,” he told Rappler. “Once I have reached a musical headspace where themes and ideas I care about start morphing into a ‘music video’ in my head, then I develop it as a narrative and begin putting it all in writing.”
“The Headhunter’s Daughter” was shot with a very tight crew of four which, on different occasions, increased to six or eight. “It was important for us to make this film with the community that we have in our hometown, as well as people who share the same identity as me, to be creating art together,” the filmmaker told Sundance. “We managed to make something intimate and very personal to us.”