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June 05, 2006

REINERIO A. ALBA

Auraeus Solito has won many awards for his short films, documentaries and music videos. He is working on a multi-part film on the myths and rituals of the Palawan . It was during a hiatus in the filming of his documentary that he was asked to direct Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros . After some hesitation, (He wanted the Palawan film to be his first feature) he agreed. Maximo Oliveros was shot in his old neighborhood, which is a perfect example of the socio-economic disparities in the Philippines .

“I wanted to make a film in which the gay character is happy for being who he is, and accepted for who he is. His being gay is just incidental to the story, or part of the film’s main theme,” he said.

Auraeus is currently in Okinawa , Japan on an Asian Public Intellectual Fellowship.

You mentioned in a previous interview that it was the film that chose you as its director, but why did you decide to direct the film? What drew you to it?

I have always wanted to direct a progressive gay film where the main character’s gayness was incidental to the story. But I originally wanted to direct as a first feature film myths and stories from my roots in southern Palawan , but no producer wanted to produce an “ethnic film.”

While I was screening my documentary “Basal Banar” (Sacred ritual of truth) about my indigenous roots in ImagineNATIVE film festival in Toronto , I got to see some progressive queer-themed films from native filmmakers. I wished that I would get to direct a gay film there.

Serendipity took place when I returned to Manila and was asked by Raymond Lee to direct Michiko’s script, which got funding from the first Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival.

There is a comment that what was presented in the film is merely an ideal picture of a young gay life and does not reflect the reality which most young poor gays experience in their lives, especially in the Philippines. What’s your reaction to that?

Perhaps people who commented this way belong to a past generation who don’t accept themselves or their gayness or rich people who live in their ivory tower and refuse to accept poverty in the Philippines . Is it not possible that a gay boy can be loved by his family?

I say it is very much possible. Especially in poorer communities who have nothing but their spirit of love and resilience to keep them going. I observe that it is harder to be accepted as queer in richer families.

In fact, in Sampaloc, where I shot my film (and where I live) there is a gang of gay queens who play volleyball in the afternoon against straight boys. They have shorts even shorter than Maxi’s short shorts. Yet they are not ridiculed, and accepted by their families. One of them, the leader of the gang, was the third choice for the Maximo role and who plays Leslie in the film. He has a straight brother who accepts him for who he is.

How did you come up with the cast? Were the actors all your personal choices?

Only Soliman Cruz as the father Paco was pre-cast. I have always wanted to direct Sol since I watched him in the theatre. His performances always made me cry for its brilliance and depth.

Everybody auditioned. Ping Medina was brilliant. I definitely wanted to cast him as one of the brothers. I worked with Neil Ryan Sese in the theatre and remember promising him a role in my debut film as a film director (I started directing in theater). He was considered for the policeman role and was eventually cast as Boy, the brother who murders a student for a mobile phone, which starts the conflict of the film.

When I felt that we didn’t have the perfect policeman, I contacted JR Valentin. Two years back I was asked by director Jeffrey Jeturian to give an acting workshop for the new actors for Seiko films production Bridal Shower . Among the new actors, JR had the rare subtlety and sensitivity that beginning actors had. He touched me in one acting exercise where he returns to the room of his childhood. He was what I called “my male Meryll Streep.”

We have cast everyone except Maxi. I looked and searched around my neighborhood and depressed areas in Manila for real gay boys to audition. But most of them were overacting, telenovela style, or were under-acting since they were unsure yet of their gayness.

When Raymond showed me a footage of two twin boys who were auditioning for another film, and they were asked to act like girls. Gamy was more masculine. Perhaps in every twin one has the more animus (male) archetype. Nathan had the anima (female) spirit in him. That was when I found my Maxi.

How did you prepare Nathan Lopez for his role? Are you in touch with Nathan up to now? Is he comfortable with his popularity now as Maximo Oliveros? Did it affect him positively or negatively?

The whole process of the film was done ala Theatre . I had a series of readings and acting workshops. We read the script together and asked the motivations and meanings of each line. We created animal metaphors of each character, their textures and colors, which I learned in theatre, to create a more real characterization. We discovered and breathed life to the characters together.

At first Nathan was hesitant in accepting his role (his brother Gammy was the one who wanted it more). His parents were also hesitant since his mom is a pastor. But when they read the script, they realized how good the role was and accepted our offer. His family supported him all the way during the shoot.

I specifically planted a real gay boy among Maxi’s friends (Leslie) and asked Nathan to mirror him. I even asked his sister to teach him how to put make-up and required him to mirror her movements in their house. I even asked him to play volleyball with the gay gang in my street. His final test was when I asked him to walk down the street like a gay boy. When I asked my neighbors what they thought of the boy who just walked by, they thought he was a real gay boy!

Nathan was invited to Berlin , all expense paid, with his mother but there were problems in getting his visa. He could have been a hit with the children of Berlin since our film was shown in the Kindefest division.

We are very much in touch. I always bring him a pasalubong every time I arrive from a festival. The boy has not changed a bit, thanks to his family’s a strong spiritual foundation. I intend to cast him in more films in the future, if a role fits him.

How were you able to motivate Nathan Lopez in key scenes like the one where he took care of the policeman in his home when he suffered from the beatings? What was the very first scene you chose to shoot in this film? Why?

I directed the film almost cronologically, starting with the very first scene where he picks up the flower from the estero . I divided the script in three stages: the exposition, complication and resolution. Easy, medium and hard. And these groupings were filmed right after the other, to have a natural growth in character for all the actors.

I also asked Soliman Cruz to be his final acting couch for the crucial scenes. This created a natural mentor relationship, which helped in their father and son roles.

Nathan’s comparison to the policeman Victor was he was like an angel. So motivations where done using the metaphors they created. So in the crucial “blood punas ” sequence, I asked Nathan to imagine as if his angel has fallen. He was so good in the scene that I was so inspired I whispered to him to wipe his tears, which he did, unknowing that blood and tears have combined in his cheek. His father was behind me in this scene, giving me a thumbs-up for that moment. This for me is one of the most beautiful moments in the film.

What was the scene that proved to be the hardest to shoot? Why? How was that experience for you and the crew?

The shooting scene was the hardest since I really don’t like guns. I filmed it early morning so that it would be totally silent since we used live sound. It was my first time with explosives, and I was a little bit wary about my actors’ safety. But the team was a pro, and the shooting scene was done in one take with two cameras. (First time I had two cameras on the set)

What was that scene that took seventeen takes? What happened there?

The last scene with the brothers where Maxi goes to school. I noticed something was wrong with Nathan’s acting. I reviewed the footage, asked the cast to watch with me and realized he was acting straight. And I remembered, one of the ways his father convinced him to accept the role was that he becomes straight in the end.

I talked to him and told him a gay boy does not become straight. He tones down, yes, but a gay boy remains gay. He still resisted. Eventually I just commented, “How can you get invited abroad if you act that way?” Suddenly in the seventeenth take, he was brilliant.

Berlin almost realized my promise to Natahn of going abroad. I really felt bad that I was the only director there without my child actor. But our European distributor (Wide Management), told me that they will fly him in to Europe when promo starts.

What was shooting days like for Ang Pagdadalaga ? Did you all have fun doing it?

For me, filming is not for fun. It is an art, and I take my art seriously. I make it a point that the set is light, yes, but focused in the intentions of the sequences filmed per day.

What was the shooting like considering that you did all of it in thirteen days? How was that experience for you? Was that the shortest production you did for a film?

Filming was easy with a brilliant cast and a cooperative neighborhood. My house (which is Victor’s house in the film) was the waiting area. So there was this relaxed atmosphere.

This is the fourth film, which I shot in my neighborhood. (The Eraserheads music video “Ang Huling El Bimbo,” which won the best music video award in the first NU Rock Awards and the Asian Viewers Choice award in the MTV Video Music Awards in 1997 was shot in my house with a cast of neighborhood kids. My short film “Impeng Negro” was shot in looban , and the ABS-CBN summer station ID of 2005 was shot in the street with the children of the neighbors playing street games with artistas and major figures of the station) By the time I directed Maximo everybody was used to my style of “directing without directing” or naturalness in acting like in everyday life for the background cast.

Were there bad days between you and the crew during the filming? Were there fun days? How big was your crew for this film?

Of course, like in real life, there would be bad days and good days. As the scenes were getting heavier and harder, naturally the atmosphere transformed with the mood of this film.

In lighter days, we had at least thirty in cast and crew. In heavier scenes, we had 40, especially in scenes that needed much rigging or equipment.

Did you handpick all your crew? How were you like as a director? Do you have the so-called director’s temper?

Most of my crew was my choice, except for the production design team, which was chosen by Raymond. My only pet peeve is mediocrity. I only got really angry once when Nathan’s costume was totally wrong in the last crucial scene, the long walk sequence. We asked everybody to come early morning so we could have a natural dawn for the last scene. His uniform was oversized. His Powerpuff Girls bag was missing, and he was walking weird. When I saw that he didn’t have socks on, and his pants were pinned and not even sewed, I blew my top. Raymond asked the production design team to apologize to the cast and crew who woke up so early. We had to re-shoot this scene because of the negligence in the costume.

What was the hardest part in doing Ang Pagdadalaga…? What other problems did you encounter during the shooting of the film? How was your working relationship with writer Michiko Yamamoto?

The hardest part was admitting to myself that I was letting go of an earlier dream of making a Palawan movie as my first feature film. I cried moments before I started filming the first shot. I let go, and everything was easy.

Since I started out as a playwright, I make it a point that I respect fellow writers. I always consulted with Michiko on the scenes and asked her to make additional scenes (like the Miss Universe sequence) or rewrite some dialogues to adapt to the movement of the scene. As much as possible, I asked her to be on the set most of the time, so she could see what I was creating from her script.

Were there changes that both of you agreed or disagreed on during filming?

There were agreements and if there was a disagreement, Raymond was the tie-breaker.

What were your experiences in Sampaloc? Did you see some of your experiences reflected in Yamamoto’s story? Would you say that these Sampaloc experiences helped you to successfully recreate Maximo’s world?

Guipit Street in Sampaloc, Manila , is where I grew up and still stay when I am in Manila.

Funny that I only realized after directing the film that I was actually very much like Maxi when I was twelve years old. Like him, I started acting queenly when I was tweleve., and only when I fell in love in high school that I started being more butch since my first love was an officer in our military training (High school kids were required to take CAT or citizen’s army training ) I even wrote a one-act play about it. It’s called “Esprit de Corps.” It was staged in the Cultural Center of the Philippines in 1986 and was published in the first

Philippine gay anthology Ladlad .

If there is one character in the film that is closest to your heart, who would that be, and why?

Maxi, of course. Like I’ve mentioned, I only realized how my life was so similar to his after watching the film in international film festivals. That’s why it was actually easy directing the script.

How was the Sundance experience like? From pooling resources to getting out of the country to actually getting there, hobnobbing with other directors?

I was lucky that Sundance paid for my flight and accommodation as director. International festivals have great respect for directors. I felt so honored being invited in the Director’s Brunch with Robert Redford. I was actually star-struck when I saw beside our table Gwyneth Paltrow, who was there since she directed a short film.

But one thing, reporters do not write about Sundance since most of the time they are focused on films or celebrities.

Park City , Utah , was breathtaking. It must be one of the most beautiful natural landscapes I have ever seen in my life. The snow was powdery. The coldness was mild. They say it must be one of the most beautiful Sundance ever with the sun out most of the time amidst a landscape of snow.

That is why I am so happy that I just got invited to join the Sundance Labs, which will make me stay in Park City for two months next year. The Sundance programmers liked the film very much stating that it was the best in the world competition. Too bad they

Weren’t in the jury.

What did you learn from all of it?

Every time a Filipino approaches me after a screening, they tell me they are proud to be Filipinos. I realized the importance of my duty as a filmmaker, which is to show the realities of Filipinos in our country. To think the film is about poverty, yet through the subtleties of my neighborhood, they once again remember the Philippine spirit they thought they left behind but never lost.

One Filipino publicist talked to me after one screening and told me that whether we win or lose, ten years from now or a hundred, my film will still be and always will be the first Philippine-made film that was in the World Cinema Competition of the 25 th Anniversary of Sundance.

What was the most memorable feedback for you from all the screenings?

Perhaps the triple victory in Berlinale was a fitting finale in this three festival journey (Sundance, Rotterdam , Berlin . The three festivals happened right after the other).

The Second Prize for the Kinder (Children’s Jury) was very dear because of the fact that it came from a children’s jury. I was so unsure how the children of Berlin would react to my film. I was almost expecting a mass walkout but the children stayed till the end, and the applause was overwhelming.

In one open forum, someone from the past generation had a violent reaction stating that she was shocked my film was shown to children. I asked the audience, “Children are you shocked?” And one boy answered, “No, it was cool!” And all the children applauded. And I said, “If one gay boy in the audience, after watching my film realized it was beautiful to be himself, then I am fulfilled as a filmmaker.”

It is great that the future generation is open.

The International Jury Grand Prize is also important to me, especially the cash prize (7,500 euros, which was given to the director of the film). At least, I can realize an erotic gay film that I have always wanted to make.

And of course, the Teddy Award was a dream come true. The Teddy Awards turned twenty thisyear. It felt good being included in the league of winners, in which the great Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar was the first winner.

Pedro Almadovar is one of my favorite filmmakers. Ironically, his film Law of Desire (I’m not sure if this was the film that won the Teddy twenty years ago) is one of my greatest inspirations in pursuing my love for cinema.

What’s you message to the Filipino gay community who appreciated and supported Ang Pagdadalaga … in the Philippines ? Would they be expecting more gay-themed movies from you in the future? Would you consider working on another gay-themed movie? What would be your considerations in doing another one?

I just did a film for Viva Films titled Tuli (Circumcision), which depicted a lesbian affair amidst folk Christian rituals. I intend to make more progressive gay films that will celebrate gay people for who they are, normal people living normal lives in Philippine society.

My message to the gay community: Be who you are for it is beautiful to be gay.