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Foreign Contenders: Brillante Mendoza’s Ma’Rosa Tells a Real-Life Story, Driven By the Energy of the Philippines

Foreign Contenders: Brillante Mendoza’s Ma’Rosa Tells a Real-Life Story, Driven By the Energy of the Philippines

Directing

MovieMaker‘s weekly series “Foreign Contenders” will feature interviews with the heavyweight helmers behind their respective countries’ entries for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

Each week, we’ll explore the subjects, issues and modes and means of production that have placed moviemakers’ foreign features in the running for international Oscar gold. The Academy releases their shortlist in December and will announce the eventual nominees in January. This year, a record 85 films have been submitted.


Bustling with stimuli and perpetually alive, the streets of Manila serve as an immersive, chaotic canvas for Filipino auteur Brillante Mendoza’s Cannes-winning film Ma’Rosa. The film makes a mother-turned-criminal its narrative focal point to address social difficulties deeply ingrained in the Southwest Asian nation. Shooting with multiple cameras to facilitate his cast’s interaction with each other and their surrounding environment, Mendoza ditches tripods and conventional setups for a spontaneity that allows audiences to share in the characters’ emotional turmoil.

Jaclyn Jose’s subdued-yet-strong femininity gives life to the eponymous protagonist, as she confronts the consequences of her actions, carried out to support her children, with utmost dignity. Sentimentalism has no place in the hyperrealist world Mendoza creates, and Jose blends in seamlessly into the film’s harsh world, guided by faith and family. Her central position within this community quickly transforms what could be an individual problem into a collective battle in which decrepit institutions and indifference are the real villains.

With more than a dozen features to his name, Mendoza is one of the leading filmmakers chronicling the Filipino experience today. However, this is the first time one of his films has been selected to represent the country at the Academy Awards, and it’s great to see his fellow countrymen recognizing his singular approach to moviemaking. MovieMaker spoke with Mendoza about his technique and influences, as he continues to pick up awards around the globe.

Jaclyn Jose in Ma'Rosa

Jaclyn Jose in Ma’Rosa

Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Your films often deal with marginalized people, which is the case in Ma’Rosa. Where did the character of Ma’ Rosa originate? 

Brillante Mendoza (BM): It came from a real story, like all of my films. From the very first film up to this one, my 13th, all of my films are based on real-life stories. I always try to talk to people, do research and reach out to other people to hear their stories. Four years ago I was interviewing someone and he told me about this story. At that time, he told about an incident that had happened to his family, so I tried to dig deeper and I talked to the rest of his family. From that, I developed the story into a screenplay.

MM: The camerawork is incredibly dynamic and alive in the film. Why do you shoot films this way? What does it add to the narrative and how difficult is it to achieve? 

BM: The environment where things take place is always a character in my films. I have to put that into context, where the characters are situated. It’s important that you show the place and the people within that place so that you are able to have an understanding of why they are in that particular situation, why the characters react a certain way, or why they are put in those circumstances in their lives. That was part of my aesthetic not only in the way the camera is handled, but also in the storytelling itself. For viewers, it [creates] the experience of being in this situation—it somehow brings us there. As an audience member, you don’t just watch it from your seat, your point of view. It gives us anxiety, like we’re experiencing the same thing that the character is experiencing. It gives us a deeper connection, not only with the character but also with the place itself.

MM: The actors move naturally in every scene. Do you choreograph sequences? Are you able to break some rules because you know your actors or how a scene will pan out ahead of time? 

BM: It has to be very spontaneous because I don’t like to rehearse much. It’s more about understanding the place, even prior to the shooting. It’s more about immersion, so that I am not just telling a story but being the character as well. As far as I’m concerned I don’t just shoot the scene, I have to be involved in the scene. I have to know these people. So I don’t really choreograph it.

Of course, when I start shooting in a certain place with my cameraman and my crew, I have to talk to them about all the technical stuff before the shoot. It’s a lot of work, a lot of preparation and it’s a lot of pre-production. So it’s not as simple as saying, “There is no choreography.” In my mind there is already choreography before we start shooting. But we have to be ready to capture the spontaneity of the actors. I don’t tell my actors about my camera placement, my angles, or whatever I shoot. I have multiple cameras and I let them go. I treat every situation like it’s a play or a real-life situation. Everything is lit already and everything is set up. I do very minimal set-ups and I use very few lights. I don’t use tripods. It’s very unconventional and realistic filming. It’s more like doing a documentary.

My background is in advertising and I know how everything on those sets is done in terms of all the technical stuff, but I try to avoid that in my films because I don’t like that glamorous look, with a lot of light. For me, the more realistic the better, because my stories come from real life. I don’t think I break the rules, it’s just my way of doing it. I must say, it’s a lot of work and I’m still learning. I try to take every opportunity to keep on exploring and learning some more.

MM: Is Ma’ Rosa a film about the eponymous character, or about the people she touches and how her problem becomes a collective one?

BM: Ma’ Rosa represents a community. It represents mothers who suffer in this kind of situation—not specifically drugs or corruption, but any situation that they get into. This is the story of a human being, of a person with dignity, but not a perfect a person. She was put in this situation. I’d like us to reflect when watching Ma’ Rosa, seeing the predicament she has been through. Ma’ Rosa might be an imperfect citizen of the country, and so are the children, but the children are also good children to their parents.

I’m trying to pose a question of what is right and wrong. We cannot really define life as black or white. Life is always gray depending on your situation, your status in life and where you are. Her problem becomes a community problem; that’s why family is an important factor in our lives. As a Catholic nation, the Philippines gives so much importance to our religion. You can’t deny the fact that the people in the Philippines rely on their family, their community and their religion. These are the three most important aspects that every Filipino way of life relies on.

Ma'Rosa

Ma’Rosa

MM: Talk about your relationship with Jaclyn Jose. What made her right for this role?

BM: We started our careers almost at the same time, she as an actress and I as a production designer. We started together in show business; that was many years ago. In 2005 and when I did my first feature, The Masseur, she was part of the film. I got most of my friends to work on my first feature. She also worked with me on the film Service, which was in competition at Cannes in 2008. Other than the fact that she is my friend, I know that she is a good actress. She has also been through a tough life before she became an actress. She knows this kind of situation.

MM: How difficult is it to make films in the Philippines? What was the reception of Ma’Rosa in your native country?

BM: The difficult part is neither filming, the locations, nor getting actors, but the funding. I make art-house, or “alternative,” film. I don’t make commercial films. All of my films are non-commercial. Finding funds is always a problem. Finding an audience is also another thing. We don’t yet have an audience for this type of cinema. Most audiences in the Philippines watch commercial films and films from Hollywood. Ma’ Rosa did OK in the Philippines, but it wasn’t a blockbuster. But I must say that everyone who watched the film was [a part of] the “right” audience. They were mostly students, film enthusiasts and people who understood cinema. This is important because these are the people who can actually influence change in the country. Other people who live the experiences in the film might see it as too much of a reflection of their situation and probably wouldn’t like to see their life on the big screen; they can’t do anything to change it, just like Ma’ Rosa. The people who watched the film are the ones who can somehow do something about the situation.

Why am I saying that? Because my film actually lasted for more than four weeks in some cinemas, and these are cinemas in upper-class neighborhoods. This is the first time one of my films is submitted to the Oscars by the Filipino government and the Film Academy of the Philippines, so I’m happy they considered me.

Tech Box

Camera:

BM: We used the then newly released A7s Mirrorless camera by Sony. Our director of photography wanted to experiment with the camera to try to test the limits of its advertised low-light capabilities and cinema log profile. It worked very well for the film, especially in the night scenes in Ma’Rosa’s neighborhood, which were lit mostly by existing tungsten streetlights. It kept the look of the film naturally low-key and gritty, which sticks to the authenticity of the environment.

Jose in Ma'Rosa

Jose in Ma’Rosa

Lenses: 

BM: We used the Sigma 18-35 art lenses coupled with speedboosters. This gave us the latitude to shoot wide open with an additional stop for our night scenes and the ability to change focal lengths for our more complicated sequences, like the drug raid sequence. This involved three cameras, multiple characters and a considerable amount of ground to be covered, so having the varifocal lenses helped a lot where coverage was key.

Lighting:

BM: Our DOP tried to stick to as much natural light as was workable. In a few sequences where there was virtually no light, we used joker bugs and a single HMI to paint the streets and shanty houses.

Color Grading:

BM: Overall warm, despite the rainy season to show the humid environment and the organized chaos.

Shooting Days:

BM: The script was in development for four years, but we shot for 12 days. Post took three to four months of editing, including re-shoots.

Budget:

BM: The cost of the film was around $300,000 and it was all financed with my own funds. MM

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