Ang Babae sa Septic Tank (The Woman in a Septic Tank) post-screening Q & A @ Vancity Theatre, Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF) Oct. 3, 2011, Monday with Marlon Rivera (Director), Eugene Domingo (Actress), Josabeth Alonso (Producer) and Tony Rayns (VIFF Dragons and Tiger Programmer)
“Ang Babae sa Septic Tank” is Marlon Rivera’s first feature film. It is about 2 aspiring young filmmakers who are dead set into making their masterpiece and have already started counting the awards that will roll in without having yet recorded anything on a memory card. The movie is a satire on Philippine Cinema and how the world sees the Philippines through its cinema.
The theatre was sold out for the 7PM screening. The Q & A was a riot, with Eugene Domingo bringing the house down. Afterwards, it was crazy in the lobby, there were people trying to get pictures with the filmmakers. But mostly they wanted a picture with Ms. Domingo.
Transcript of the post-screening Q & A.
Tony Rayns: How did this project come together? How did you team up with Chirs Martinez to make this film?
Marlon Rivera: Chris Martinez made a screenplay and we produced a film in 2008 called “100”. It was an independent film. He was the director and screenplay writer and I was the producer and it went around the festivals and when we were doing the festivals because we realized how wonderful it is to go to festivals, you get a ticket, you get to stay in nice hotels and people actually asks you about your thoughts on film. For the first time and there are a lot of Filipinos here, you are usually asked, “Who is your star dating right now?” That’s what they ask filmmakers. But in the festivals it is very, very different. So we said, “Hey, why don’t we make a film about this experience.” And it was 2008, since then we have nursed the idea and Chris and I worked on the script together. Then last year with the deadline for Cinemalaya and we said, “Let’s do it again.” And this is what happened.
TR: It is not that quite simple, your account is as persuasive as far as it goes. I detect and maybe it’s just me, I don’t want to think I am reading into the film, I detect a little hint of cynicism about the films, the motive of the filmmakers and the festivals. Do you think that I’m right to believe this?
MR: Yes, you are very correct. I said to Chris, “If I made this film when I was 22, this film would be different.” I think the filmmaker would be much stronger. He’d be more passionate. He’d argue his case against Eugene. Even in the presence of a star like that, which has three big portraits around the house, how can you argue with a woman like that? If I were younger, I’d make this film more differently. I’m 45. I have been around the block. This is my first film but I’m a copywriter and I do a lot of other things. So yes in the Philippines, independent cinema in the Philippines was supposed to provide an alternative view on cinema because we only have 4 studios and they do the same things day in, day out. But instead of building an alternative language for film, we built our own cliché and this is the cliché of that cinema, of independent cinema.
This has become our identity in the festival circuit, poverty, poverty porn, poor people and prostitution, poor prostitutes and so on and so forth. It’s so sad that cliché has become an identity and instead of building an alternative, it became the established idea and we have this dark, no focus, no extra lights, by the way we use P2s in those scenes and that’s the cynicism. Even the established cinema in the Philippines, we have our own clichés. This is all about having a laugh about ourselves because this are all the things we do, these are the things we reward and therefore this is what we see all the time and this has become us.
TR: Do you have a specific target in mind or is it more in general?
MR: It is really in general. But you do get a lot of films in the Philippines who are recognized winning the big, big festivals of that sort. So if you reward those things, the kids think this is the way to do cinema. A lot of our kids do this kind of stuff.
TR: Now I do have to ask Eugene, please, please come forward. Is this the worst thing you’ve ever done? On that last scene…
Eugene Domingo: Which one, swimming in the septic tank?
ED: You have to guess, is it a real septic tank? Well it’s not. It’s a mixture of oil, coffee, chocolate, vegetables, biscuits, it’s almost like a septic tank. It’s not a septic tank. It’s not the worst actually. I’m sorry if there is no Vancouver film festival in the dialogue, only Toronto. We’ll try to dub it.
TR: Don’t worry. We’re fine with you making fun of Toronto.
ED: When we were watching, “Oh, Marlon there’s Toronto. This is Vancouver.”
TR: We don’t mind, we don’t mind. It’s quite ok.
ED: That’s good.
TR: So, is your home really like that?
ED: That’s something I’d like to clear. Eugene Domingo doesn’t live in a place like that. I just live in a condo, very small.
ED: The pictures though, that’s me. Why?
TR: Do you have those pictures at home?
ED: No, I don’t have enough space. No, I don’t know where to keep them. I might sell them.
ED: Any buyers? Well, that’s not really Eugene Domingo. It’s Eugene Domingo on a larger scale. But the dialogue of Eugene Domingo is somehow 70% true.
ED: Yeah, I don’t eat meat. Yeah, so I’m thinner now.
(Audience laughs and the claps)
ED: I really need balance as an actress. I need to be more dangerous. That’s why I joined independent films for my sake.
TR: It’s a good policy.
ED: It’s not enough that I am rich.
(Audience laughs and claps)
Audience Member: Why don’t you tell us the struggles the movie faced?
TR: Why don’t we let Joji answer this one.
Josabeth Alonso: It participated in the Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival and in that festival there is a cap where you can only spend 3 million pesos.
MR: $70,000 US
JA: Yes, if you exceed that you get disqualified. Like Marlon didn’t get paid, Chis didn’t get paid, Eugene didn’t get paid…
ED: WHAT!!! (Eugene hugs the wall in despair)
JA: But after we screened in the Philippines, where it grossed more than 38 million. We finally have sufficient funds to pay her when it comes. But it hasn’t come yet.
JA: So it was difficult. Like the condo scene was done everything in one day and there’s this story where Eugene called up her best friend, the writer of the film and she was dying, complaining a bit that she was really tired, if she could have another day. But Chris told her, “Sorry, we don’t have the budget. We just have to finish it in one day. We can’t afford it.” She said, “I’m so dizzy, I’m tired”. [Chris] “Oh it’s ok. It’s the scene where you’re supposed look lost and it’s just perfect.”
JA: Yeah, it was not easy.
MR: I have to say this is of course, you beg, you borrow, you steal, this is independent cinema. In fact 70,000 US is our budget, it’s what we spent, it’s actually higher than most films done for much, much less – 500,000 pesos, that is the state of independent cinema in the Philippines.
Audience Member: How did filmmakers in the Philippines took to how you lampoon them?
MR: If you get mad, that’s you, right? No one would admit that it’s them. We have been de-friended from facebook because of that.
MR: I’m honest, we were. You know if you get hurt, then maybe it’s you. We are not friends anyway. We’ll see them again next year.
Audience Member: This question is for the director, after making this film, what kind of message you want to give to future filmmakers, especially from the Philippines? Is there any message you want to convey after this or is it just a parody of what it is?
MR: Well first I would like to say it is never too late. I did my first film, I’m 45, so it’s never too late to do anything for the first time, I guess. Second is, yes, 8 out of 10 Filipinos are poor. I mean they fall into the poverty line but it is not the only story there is. I think the Philippines is full of valid stories and a lot of stories don’t have to be predicated about hunger, about poverty, about you know, bad things going on in those places and they do happen; those things happen. The problem with Philippine cinema to begin with; we don’t have diversity. It’s like a diet, if you eat the same thing over and over again for a long time, you get sick. So I guess you have to find stories that you really, really like. You don’t have to win in festivals like this and though it’s nice, I don’t think it’s should be the reward at the end of making films.
(Some audience members clap)
Audience Member: It is a question for the director as well; outside of the main cast, did you cast in the slums? And the second question, how did they react when you were filming there?
MR: All of them were casted outside of the slums, except for the crowd. You can’t get rid of the crowd. You have to get in, you have to blend. It is very, very stressful actually because a lot of the people in the area would like to join. If they join, you have to pay them, right? They have to get something. They all lined up to get into the film because they know they will get paid. But all of them where taken outside of the slum. The people who were dancing were actually from the Philippine Educational Theatre and I told them this is an honor and a slap because I’m getting you because you look like you belong.
MR: They said, “Sure, sure.” They’re great actors and they all moved in. We spent around 6 days in that area. It was very stressful because the thing is you complain about the smell and the heat but you realize at the end of the day you go home but this people will stay and this is the most depressing thing for me because I know I worry about my hot shower at the end of the day and I go home but these people live here. It was mind blowing for me and I don’t want to do it again. It is not because I am not concern about the plight of these people but because all these stories they create all these clichés and when you create clichés you lose the truth about this people. Of those treatment we used, which one puts out the real truth about this people? You don’t know. You laugh in the musical part, there’s some truth in the drama part but what’s the truth, right? I’d rather go in and give them something than do a film with these people.
Audience Member: Where do you think Philippine independent cinema go from here?
MR: This is a tipping point. I’m really proud of that. More than anything else the biggest thing this film did is this is a tipping point in the Philippines because it went on a commercial run. It was shown in 50 screens. It had a limited run. But 50 screens for an independent film is huge and it made more than a thousand percent of its capital. So now all the film studios are looking into independent film directors and producers and writers. They are raiding the whole independent film treasure chest and looking for talents. I don’t know what will come out of it but definitely the wind has changed. This and another film made it and the last big studio film didn’t make it. So something has happened. I hope that we won’t become again the next cliché.
Audience Member: Working with the writer, can you illuminate how you guys came up with the concept? Did you just look at what you don’t like about indie cinema and just put as much as we can into it?
MR: “100” was the story of a woman who has a bucket list of 100 things she wants to do before she dies. She’s middle class and can afford the treatment but she opts not to because she just wants to die because she knows it’s hopeless. When we went to Osaka, we showed the film, an old gentleman actually stood up and said, “Why are you showing this? This is not the Philippines. This is not the truth about your people.” What is the truth about my people? I am my people. And he said its poverty and he started talking about all the films he has seen about the Philippines. Everywhere we go people found it so surprising that there are people in the Philippines that are not poor. This disturbed us for a while because it said that how they see us from our cinema. I mean that’s how the foreign film festival circuit sees us as a people. We said this has to change. Of course it was a joke. At first it was a musical, then it mutated into so many things, Asian horror film and so on and so forth. In the end we said, “How do we put a structure around this kind of sentiment?” Why don’t we make this about kids, they are not bad people, they are just clueless and just young and why don’t we make them make a film to get awards. It has a very thin plot, it’s just the desire to get to the Oscars and to make a film and just divide it into 3 different portions.
Arthur Pongbato traumatized them, the actress traumatized them and of course the subject matter, that they ignored to be sensitive towards which is poverty. How stupid can you be to park your car [in the slums]? It is very irresponsible, right? They went there, they left it there and so they got robbed. So they are finally faced with the real face of the subject matter. This old man in Osaka said, “Why are you not showing the stories of your people?” Unfortunately that’s how they see us.
* The Q & A was on Oct. 3, 2011 but most of the pictures were taken the next day, during the Oct. 4, 2011 Q & A