If necessity is the mother of invention, then this pandemic is the father of reinvention.
Take this year’s edition of Cinemalaya, for example. A leading beacon that shines a light on Philippine independent cinema, Cinemalaya had to take its cues from the travails of major international film festivals in the age of COVID. After the Cannes Film Festival wrung its hands and publicly bandied about a few alternative dates, the organizers had to relent and say that while the annual May celebration would “not go on in its original form”—a more roundabout way of saying that the party along the Croisette was cancelled—the films included in its lineup would still carry the Cannes label, to take to other festivals they would compete in and use as a badge of honor for their individual releases.
Taking notes from the initial confusion at Cannes, the people behind the Toronto International Film Festival announced a “reimagined” celebration this September that would follow physical distancing rules: Its selections would be given drive-in showings and digital screenings, with interactive webinars featuring industry personalities on the sidelines. (The third major film shindig—Berlin—avoided these trials by holding its festival this past February, barely squeaking in before the whole world slammed into lockdown.)
Cinemalaya is sandwiched right between Cannes and Toronto, not just in terms of scheduling but also in circumstance: It would have to crib its notes of execution from the Canadian festival, while in the midst of a dire COVID profile for the country that resembles France’s during the dark, early days of the pandemic in Europe.
The result is Cinemalaya’s first-ever online festival.
Unspooling from August 7 to 19, Cinemalaya’s 2020 iteration has fiercely embraced the short film—perhaps out of economic necessity, perhaps owing to the fact that all filmmaking is at a standstill. Its main competition section features 10 films in short format, and 22 more are included in the Indie Nation section. Three short films attracting such illustrious talent as Jericho Rosales (Basurero), Nanding Josef (Heneral Rizal) and Gloria Sevilla (Nang Em)are getting cushy premieres, while short films from Japan, Iran and the European Union round out the international selection.
Owing mostly to their miniscule budgets, short films can’t help but be laser-focused in their stories, and that focus can sometimes function as an iris that emphasizes the isolation of this age. It can range from the obvious (as in the face shield that Gloria Sevilla wears for the poster of Nang Em) to the narrative (in Janina Gacosta and Cheska Marfori’s Ang Gasgas na Plaka ni Lolo Bert, Dido de la Paz wallows in his solitude as an elderly gay man living with HIV) to the visual (Hubert Tibi’s gorgeously shot black-and-white entry Pabasa Kan Pasyon is replete with immaculately composed frames of people dwarfed by wide and often desolate vistas) to the symbolic (in lead actress/director Carla Pulido Ocampo’s Tokwifi, a 1950s starlet tries to connect with an Igorot man from inside the TV set that imprisons her) to the downright absurd (the couple at the center of Martika Ramirez Escobar’s Living Things are thrown for a loop when the guy suddenly transforms into a cardboard standee).
Like Toronto, Cinemalaya 2020 has opted to make its offerings available on the streaming platform Vimeo, and as a further nod to the decimated economic times in which we live, the festival has bundled its entries in packages you can view at your leisure for a week for as low as PhP 75 (which gets you five short films in the main competition section or a double feature from four select full-length films from past editions). If you splash out on the premium bundle at PhP 350, you get all the short films and documentaries, the tribute films to dearly departed industry stalwarts Anita Linda (in Adolf Alix’s Adela) and Peque Gallaga (Unfaithful Wife) and their online Q&As, and you get to watch filmed versions of the plays at the Virgin LabFest workshop and sit in on webinars with Cinemalaya filmmakers.
One gets the sense that this virtual offering of short films and past full-length hits is a baby step towards the digital future of moviegoing. But a tentative step is still a step. Once the audience—spoiled on streaming and online options during the world’s longest lockdown—realizes that they need not make the traffic-ridden schlep to the CCP or even haul ass to the nearest mall to watch that much-buzzed-about Cinemalaya feature, it’s hard to think of them reverting to the old, in-person viewing habits of a pre-COVID world without an irresistible incentive.
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But the brain trust behind Cinemalaya has added something truly exciting to the mix: In an effort to prolong the festival’s imprint on pop culture past its calendar of activities, Cinemalaya is making this year’s entries available to stream on TFC Online immediately after the virtual festivities close.
This opportunity to reach a worldwide audience instantaneously wasn’t available when the festival was still in its physical, movie-theater incarnation. Once again, it’s a baby step—this time into the borderless, limitless world of cyberspace. The implications for global recognition of Filipino filmmaking talent are exhilarating. In acknowledging the present realities in which it must function, Cinemalaya may have just pointed the way to the future of Philippine cinema.
Visit cinemalaya.org or follow the links from Cinemalaya’s Facebook page to get your festival passes