Monday, January 9, 2017

Di Ingon 'Nato (2011) Review and Interview

Di Ingon 'Nato: Zombies In Our Backyard

[My essay and and interview with director Ivan Zaldarriaga, published in Sinekultura Film Journal (University of San Carlos, Cebu) Issue #4, late 2012, and reprinted in Film International 63-4 (Sweden), August 2013]

A jaundiced zombie subgenre is given fresh bleeding eyes in Cebuano filmmaker Ivan Zaldarriaga's debut feature Di Ingon 'Nato ("Not Like Us", 2011), in which 28 Days Later tears screaming through the heart of a remote jungle barrio in the Visayas with a newsreel-like ferocity. Less of a calling card than a double-barrelled shotgun blast to the face, Di Ingon 'Nato introduces a dangerous new talent to Philippine cinema's landscape, and sends out a very clear signal that there are rumblings in the former regional filmmaking centre of Cebu. "Can the Visayan film industry return from the dead?" Ivan Zaldarriaga is asked by Australian writer and filmmaker Andrew Leavold.

With the exception of the recent Zombadings (2010), the living dead have been criminally underrepresented in Filipino cinema, appearing almost as an afterthought as supporting ghouls or comic relief. [1] And for the first half hour of Di Ingon 'Nato you'd be forgiven for thinking a zombie apocalypse had bypassed its sleepy barrio, as farmers till their fields in real time, and life crawls along at a languid provincial pace. The film suddenly lurches into fourth gear with the arrival of unnamed illness which causes the by-now familiar residents to vomit blood and what looks like milk, before their reanimated bodies start howling for human flesh, turning the barrio into a charnel house even before the gore can crust over. The voices of order and logic, in the guise of the Barangay Captain (Rez Cortez) and his medic daughter, are quickly drowned out by cries of "demonic possession" by the Catholic priest - his exorcism of a presumably possessed victim, in one of the film's many memorable set-pieces, goes tragically and bloodcurdingly wrong - and "restless spirits" by the profoundly pagan faith healer and his followers.

Although Zaldarriaga doesn't flinch from delivering genre's necessary meat and red, red sauce, the film becomes more interesting as it examines the effects of a plague and pestilence of Biblical proportions on its tightly-knit Visayan community, with the crisp and often stunning hand-held digital cinematography giving its undead apocalypse a palpable immediacy and velocity. The relative lack of blood (relative, of course, to most of zombiedom's post-Night Of The Living Dead gorefests) may be due more to Zaldarriaga's severe financial constraints than aesthetic or generic imperatives, but it gives the characters breathing space to contemplate the film's wider philosophical concerns: is this Judgment Day, and are the bodies being brought back to life to punish us? Are the restless spirits "evil" by Christian standards, or much older and more deeply-rooted in the province's animistic beliefs? To his credit, Zaldarriaga never reveals his hand, leaving science and logic to battle the forces of chaos on their own.

The no-budget nature of Zaldarriaga's film also raises some interesting issues about how one defines the term "indie" in a Filipino context. Historically the term "indie", when applied to cinema, referred to lower-budgeted fare made outside a country's studio system, and thus suggested, if not promised, a more idiosyncratic, artistic and less commercially-oriented film comparatively free from studio control. Until recently in the Philippines, the distinction was primarily an economic one. In the Fifties and Sixties, independent producers were notably wealthy businessmen, film stars or directors who pitted themselves against the Big Three studios of Sampaguita, LVN and Premiere until there was no longer a viable studio system left standing. Theirs' was blatantly commercial material whose primary purpose was to make money, and whose artistic worth was secondary or purely accidental. Art films generally lost money for producers; actors and genres dictated a movie's success. It must be remembered that Ishmael Bernal made a kung fu film early in his career for the export market, and that Lino Brocka also made a living crafting romantic weepies, star vehicles for the country's top box office earners, and even horror and bold films.

A key player in independent production these days is Di Ingon 'Nato's funder Cinema One Originals, the "indie" wing of powerful media conglomerate ABS-CBN. Their output certainly ape the poverty-level budgets of most indies, and Di Ingon 'Nato's one million peso (approximately US$25,000) price tag is no exception. Which begs the question, are the films commissioned, bankrolled and distributed by Cinema One Originals part of a deliberate and quite arrogant move into the increasingly lucrative indie market? Is it possible that ABS-CBN's cheapies are the latest incarnation of "pito-pito" films (seven days to shoot, seven to edit), and that Cinema One Originals are merely the no-budget wing of a major studio, akin to Regal Films' subsidiary Good Harvest Productions in the late Eighties and Nineties?

For the parent studios, indie features promise a reasonable profit margin for their modest investment. Audience expectations, on the other hand, are geared towards artistic, personal, auteur-driven and distinctly anti-commercial product. Genre films muddy the dialogue somewhat between producers and the indie crowd, particularly with a blatantly commercial genre such as horror. Di Ingon 'Nato, with its rough-and-ready digital realism and genre savvy, is a perfect example of an indie straddling the personal and commercial, and almost screams for cross-over success in the mainstream. Add the fact the first-time filmmaker is from Cebu, the former film capital of the Visayas, and the possibilities of not just erecting a digital outpost of the Manila-centric studios, but actually resurrecting the Visayan commercial film industry, are very real indeed. And if there is any single talent to watch in the reborn Cebuano cinema, it's Zaldarriaga, the Visayan Zombie King himself.

[1] A shortlist of Filipino zombies: Supergirl (1973), Fernando Poe Jr's first Ang Panday (1980), the early Shake Rattle And Roll anthologies, Peque Gallaga and Lore Reyes' Magic Temple (1996), and as comic relief in films such as Chiquito's Estong Tutong (1982) and Mang Kepweng's Final Conflict (1983). Then there's Celso Ad. Castillo's Night Of The Zombies, Huwag Mong Buhayin Ang Bangkay ("Don't Bring The Dead Back To Life", 1987) and from overseas companies, The Thirsty Dead (1975), Italian directors Lucio Fulci and Bruno Mattei's Zombie 3 (1988), and Claudio Fragasso's After Death: Zombie 4 (1989).

Interview with Ivan Zaldarriaga August 2012

Andrew: What got you excited about film?

Ivan: The fact that I can fool people, make stuff up. I get to build my own realty and show it. Making films also excites me, the planning - it's like a con game, looking for the best way to make people believe in what you want them to believe. I like the fact that its all media mixed together. I studied painting; film is like painting only it moves and makes sounds. How fucking crazy is that?? Blows my mind away, hehe…

Andrew: How did you set out to construct a distinctly Filipino zombie film?

Ivan: I've been a big zombie fan since I was born. I actually just wanted to make a zombie movie. When I made my story I thought about how I'm going to be able to make it into a film. Budget was a big thing, so to make it cheap I decided that the only way I was going to make it was to set it in the province. Less people, less zombies. Next problem was how to get the budget, so I had to make it relevant, and it was a lot easier for me to make the dialogue in my own language. Story-wise too, it was the easiest and cheapest.

Andrew: When you were writing the film, what was your starting point for the back story? Dawn Of The Dead, 28 Days Later?

Ivan: More World War Z, the book. And Zombie Survival Guide from the same author.

Andrew: Were there any zombie cliches you deliberately wanted to avoid or exploit?

Ivan: We try to be original but its a genre film. I think mixing the cliches with the Filipino setting was what we wanted to do. Some, not all.

Andrew: With the glut of zombie films on the market, what do you think makes DIN stand out? What did you deliberately do in the movie to make it original?

Ivan: Filipino farmers hacking the undead.

Andrew: Simple as that?

Ivan: Not really. The psychology of this farmers not knowing what a zombie is. We made sure to point out that to them they weren't zombies but some spirit that captured a human body, controlling it to do its bidding for no apparent reason whatsoever. It can be out of mischief or an act of punishment, like the old Roman Gods.

Andrew: But really, the "plague" is never explained away?

Ivan: Better that way I think. Someday I'm gonna try and explain it, if I make another zombie movie.

Andrew: But the farmers could actually be correct!

Ivan: It's possible. Don't know yet. Needs more investigating.

Andrew: It's ambiguous, and that's what I love about the film. So who knows? It could be the angry Mountain Gods, or demons possessing dead bodies!

Ivan: That shit happens here in the Philippines regularly, you'd read of demon possessions in newspapers.

Andrew: Aswangs?

Ivan: That too. I remember when I was younger, it came out on the national news.

Andrew: Your cinematographer, by the way, is amazing!

Ivan: Thanks. But in Cebu we don't have enough equipment. We make do with what we have.

Andrew: What kind of camera?

Ivan: We used an af100. Panasonic.

Andrew: Good for guerrilla-style shoots?

Ivan: It's too big and too camera-looking if you ask me. There were no guerrilla shoots on my film.

Andrew: How would you describe the way you shot, then?

Ivan: It was my first movie so I can say I was fumbling myself out of a maze. I made it out with my knees all banged up, shoulder busted and a black eye! I want to get on that ride again! hehehe

Andrew: Of course! So you'd mapped out the whole film in advance?

Ivan: Yup, did all the planning, schedules etc.. It's hard to go guerrilla on a tight schedule.

Andrew: How tight are we talking?

Ivan: Really tight. We did everything, if I'm not mistaken, in seven months, not including the writing. That's from post till the screening, excluding the writing.

Andrew: What about the actual shoot?

Ivan: Thirteen days shooting, two weeks editing, three days for sound. Sound didn't make it on the first screening. Tight, huh?

Andrew: Have you consciously thought of courting an international audience for your films?

Ivan: Yeah, just haven't found the right way to do it yet. Still learning about marketing. It's hard to do both creative and marketing at the same time.

Andrew: Cinema One aren't thinking of taking their films abroad? I would imagine that's their job!

Ivan: They already did one festival in Brazil. But I guess I need to do something too. I want to be more in control of where my films go.

Andrew: How was your experience with Cinema One?

Ivan: It was great - they gave me a million pesos! Didn't really have any problems with them, surprisingly. I heard that the other directors were in constant communication with them. They just left us alone, which is what we wanted. We were the wild cards of the group too.

Andrew: One million was enough?

Ivan: One million is not enough. I want more!!

Andrew: How did you scale the film to fit the budget?

Ivan: We had to cut some scenes. Some are crucial ones too - most are zombie attacks. Too bad !

Andrew: I guess that meant cutting back on effects as well

Ivan: Yeah, a lot!! The gore.

Andrew: How did you manage the effects you did on such a low budget?

Ivan: DIY. We bought some pro prosthetics stuff from Singapore for our main actors, but for the extras I think we used household latex and food coloring. CGI helped a lot too with the blood splatters and gunshots. It was also part of our plan to shoot it out in barangay nowhere, so we don't need a lot of zombies compared to shooting it in an urban setting.

Andrew: It's also quite jarring to see a zombie apocalypse in such a tranquil setting, and in such a tightly-knit community.

Ivan: Yeah, we made sure to slow down the pace at the beginning to show how quite it is in the province. I spent a lot of time in places like those in my movie. It's really creepy, deafening silence and all.

Andrew: Where did you grow up?

Ivan: Outskirts of Cebu. Cebu is mixed mountains and beaches, so that's where I grew up. Didn't really spend time much in Cebu City until recently, but I would always travel to Samar and other less developed islands in the Philippines. I'm 100% probinsyano! I like seeing trees when I wake up in the morning

Andrew: What about old beliefs and superstitions? There are references in the film to the "Mountain Gods" - they sound very pagan, pre-Christian, pre-Muslim…

Ivan: I've heard a lot of those growing up. I grew up in the world without cable and internet. It's the normal belief of people in the province. People believe in both the church and the mountain, sea, cave spirits. I was taught to say "tabi" ("excuse me") every time I piss in the woods. You have to do this otherwise you might piss on some spirit! I did that all my childhood up till my teens.

Andrew: Did you personally experience anything out of the ordinary?

Ivan: I did! But with the pot I smoke, I'm never sure, hehe… Of course nothing happened! Now I piss everywhere without asking no-one's permission!

Andrew: Let's talk about audience reaction - you had a number of full houses. What gets them pumped?

Ivan: Yeah its funny how they reacted to it. They'd be laughing at one point then screaming! I like the mixed emotion. That's how I react to most movies that I like. I constantly discover new things in the movie whenever I'm at a screening. Some scenes that I think are weak would work for the audience. They all loved the fat kid!

Andrew: …with his dirty shirt!

Ivan: Yeah! But there are no fat kids in the mountains, we cheated on that part.

Andrew: I called that early part of the film "provincial pace" - sleepy, languid. Then the film suddenly changes gears very quickly.

Ivan: A lot of city folks don't get it. They say its slow and boring - we made sure that it's slow and boring! we wanted to show something and not say it in dialogue like most Filipino movies.

Andrew: Ah good point. You really do get a very solid sense of time and place in the opening half hour.

Ivan: I also wanted it to look like it's poverty porn at the beginning.

Andrew: Why so?

Ivan: 'Cause everybody's doing it.

Andrew: Then the film switches tone, and the audience is like "huh?"

Ivan: Yeah! Hehe…surprise! I should've marketed it as that, as poverty porn.

Andrew: Poverty gore?

Ivan: Nice!!

Andrew: Let's talk about casting...mostly local actors? Semi-professionals? Friends and family?

Ivan: We held an audition. Mostly local TV actors, amateurs and radio voice talents. We had two real actors from Manila who didn't speak a word of Visayan, and one Cebuano rockstar. Tons of people from the local barangay as zombies.

Andrew: Real actors - Rez Cortez and who?

Ivan: Rez and Mercedes Cabral

Andrew: They had to speak their lines in Visayan?

Ivan: Yes, they didn't understand a word they were saying. And sometimes the Visayan actors would ad lib - hehehe, funny shit…

Andrew: Rez is GREAT in the film. How would you describe his place in the film world to a non-Filipino?

Ivan: He was always bad guy, so we made him good guy. Bad guy/good guy! I asked him a bit about his career - turns out he started as a dancer. Then he built a career doing villains in old movies. One of his best was Lino Brocka's film Insiang.

Andrew: With his huge afro! He was a motherfucker in that film.

Ivan: Yeah, afro Rez! Well yeah, he fucked Insiang's mom so technically… He's the national rapist of the Philippines.

Andrew: His presence obviously has helped the film?

Ivan: It helped a lot. His part was the hardest part to cast. We tried local actors - they just don't have enough presence, malevolent and kind at the same time. Like most local politicians. 

Andrew: How much of the budget did his presence chew up?

Ivan: A lot!! But he helped out when we were running out of cash by giving us a discount. Good guy!

Andrew: Did you ever think "Shit, we don't have enough cash to finish this film?"

Ivan: All the fucking time!!!! I thought I was going to have to go to jail for it.

Andrew: How did you manage to get out of those close calls?

Ivan: Just by working around whatever was in our way. A lot of times we pulled it off. Some we really fucked up. Most were behind the scenes, like cars getting stuck in the mud to actors not showing up on time. It's a mix of big and small stuff. Sometimes it's the small stuff that kills you. One time we had to stop shooting because our location up in the mountains became too dangerous - people getting hypothermia, fogs coming in so there no way to get home.

Andrew: Can you picture a revival in regional filmmaking?

Ivan: Maybe but not in the near future. I don't know. The thing is whenever somebody from out of Manila makes something, they often go to Manila for more work. Like me for example. I made a Visayan movie, now I'm in Manila hustling for work. There's nothing for me in Cebu. It's kind of a regional brain drain.

Andrew: What needs to change, in your opinion?

Ivan: Hard question. I think its the attitude towards regionalism that has to be changed. Everything is concentrated in the Metro that other regions are ignored.

Andrew: But it's so ingrained!

Ivan: That's why it's hard for me to see the revival of regional filmmaking that's fully sustainable. We need Manila money to make our movies. The good news is some of my director friends are getting grants from producers abroad. So there is a small chance of it happening.

Andrew: What's the plan for the next film?

Ivan: Still writing it. Want to shoot it all guerrilla. I've got some friends hooking me up with producers so cross fingers. It's going to be completely opposite with my first film. I'll try and kill people without showing blood. Going the subtle approach!

Andrew: To make it really different, everyone must live!

Ivan: Nah!! They all die, hehe…

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