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“Filipino Culture is Just Not in the Media”: Martin Edralin on the SXSW 2021 Premiering Islands

Islands

Fifty-year-old Joshua (Rogelio Balagtas) still lives in the ease of his parents’ home. He probably hasn’t dated anyone seriously in years — if ever. His mom still cooks for him and tends to his father, whose health is declining and needs help getting around. Joshua’s dependent lifestyle is untenable. When his mother very suddenly passes away and his father’s condition worsens, Joshua can hardly take care of himself, let alone his father. The days are lonely and even grimmer since his dad can’t seem to remember that his mom passed away. This is the initial set up of writer/director Martin Edralin’s feature film debut, Islands, which he describes as being comparatively “lighter” than his shorts.

Perhaps that lightness arrives in the form of Joshua’s cousin, Marisol (Sheila Lotuaco), who is in between countries and needs to send money back to her family in the Philippines. She eventually agrees to take care of Joshua’s father in exchange for staying at their house rent-free. She cooks better than Joshua, and the home finally regains warmth and routine. Then the long chaste Joshua confuses these new good feelings for a romantic interest in his cousin, again muddling the routine he depends on. Edralin handles this taboo dynamic and the entirety of his feature-film debut with utmost restraint.

This is the only time I’ve personally seen a Filipino film of any sort in the SXSW lineup. As well as Edralin’s Filipino Canadian Islands, playing in Narrative Competition, there are two Fil-Am films: The Fabulous Filipino Brothers (Narrative Spotlight) and Learning Tagalog with Kayla (a fun and brisk four-minute short in Texas Shorts). SXSW’s Director of Film, Janet Pierson, said Islands is “one of the first-ever Filipino Language narrative features to premiere at the festival.” All three films appeal to a refreshing array of audiences within the Filipino community. But it’s a shame that SXSW’s $399 badge-only option (eschewing single tickets) makes it harder for those films to find their communities.

I talked with Edralin about casting and working with a Filipino Canadian cast for the first time, the film’s taboo subject matter, how he adjusted his typical aesthetic to better reach the communities he wanted to, and the impact of the festival’s format this year on building an audience for his work.

Filmmaker: This is your first film with a Filipino cast, what all does that mean to you?

Edralin: This was originally going to be made in the Philippines. I guess I watched so much world cinema that I thought, if I was going to make a Filipino movie, I had to do it in the Philippines. Because of some funding that opened up, I had to relocate the film to Canada. It was a little bit strange, at first, to think of the film in that way. But as I kept going, I realized this is actually what I’ve lived, and how far away I’ve been from that in my shorts. When I made my shorts I wasn’t necessarily writing or trying to cast white characters, that’s just who comes in the room 99% of the time and you cast the best person you can find. But thanks to the discourse we’re having about representation, I wanted to be very intentional about making this a Filipino movie.

Filmmaker: Canada only offers funding to French-, English- and Indigenous-language films, but is recently, ostensibly opening up. Is that how you acquired funding?

Edralin: I never really qualified for funds from our big funding body up here. There is a microbudget program, but I didn’t qualify for that because I didn’t go to film school. Then they changed it, and there was like a festival stream, where, because of the success of my shorts, I was able to sort of get fast tracked in. I was already planning to make this with some other funds in the Philippines, so it was already Filipino language. When I got in, I think that there was a miscommunication, and they didn’t realize right away that it was a Filipino-language film. The guidelines say French, English, or Indigenous. So we had to make a case that this was a Canadian movie. Everyone working on it is Candian, we’re shooting in Canada, etc. They didn’t really push back, but the guidelines still have those language restrictions, so I hope to see that change. Toronto really celebrates its diversity, is one of the most multicultural cities in the world, and yet it’s hard for me to make a movie about how I grew up here. 

Filmmaker: Excepting film school, do you have any classical training directing actors or is your process self-taught?

Edralin: I’ve mostly worked with first-time actors or actors with very little experience. I really think casting is key. I just kind of let them do their thing after that. You’re directing a little bit, I adjust the script for them. Sometimes you find that they can’t do a scene or a line and you shift. You either take the dialogue away or change the scene. The main thing is knowing that actors without a lot of experience aren’t going to have a lot of range, so you work within what they can do. 

Filmmaker: What was it like casting an all Filipino Canadian cast?

Edralin: We just went as deep as we could into the community. We knew we wouldn’t find professional actors, the pool is so small. Besides ethnicity, the age: middle age and seniors. Even if you’re casting white, age is difficult. So we started on social media and then we went to Filipino stores and restaurants with casting posters or handed out flyers. But eventually almost everyone came through social media. Rogelio [Balagtas], who played Joshua, someone actually pointed out that he was in a Filipino short made in Winnipeg. We watched it and there was something interesting about him. We asked him for a self tape and did a Skype audition. Sheila [Lotuaco], who plays Marisol, actually saw my cousin in the Philippines repost my casting call. They had gone to High School together. We asked her for a self tape and it was amazing, so we just sort of lucked out. 

Filmmaker: You navigate Joshua’s misplaced attraction for his cousin, Marisol, very carefully. Is that something you had to calibrate in the edit?

Edralin: Not really. I was interested in someone who’s never been in love or had a relationship. When you’ve lived alone for a long time sometimes you have misplaced feelings. They’re probably not normally for your cousin, [laughs] but you know, it could be your best female friend or your friend’s partner. There’s a feeling of, “I kind of like you but this feels wrong.” I think that happens between people you get close with, especially if you’ve been alone for a long time. I never wanted it to go far. I was just interested in how our emotions can fool with us sometimes. I’ve talked with people who kind of wanted them to get together. [laughs] 

Filmmaker: In both your short film Hole (about a disabled man’s yearning for intimacy) and Islands, there is this throughline of men with very specific needs and a caretaker character who is understanding and accepting of those needs.

Edralin: I didn’t realize it when I started writing the film, but part way through I realized these were very similar characters with very similar needs. Maybe it was my own empathy for these characters, and these people who take care of strangers—when we often have trouble taking care of the people we actually love. We especially need those people now.

Filmmaker: You mentioned that you wanted to step back from your arthouse leanings so that Islands appealed to the communities it was meant for. Can you talk about that?

Edralin: I lean towards arthouse and dark; I’ll watch Bela Tarr all day. But I was looking at a lot of first features and they’re all pretty depressing. I love those movies, but I don’t know, maybe there was something going on in my life that made me want to make something a little bit lighter. I say that, and I think that because the things I watch or have made have been so dark that I don’t actually realize that Islands is as dark as it is—because there are moments of dry humor and color. So it was wanting to get away from that, but also researching and having fun with Filipino culture. Filipino culture is quite bright, fun and sometimes campy. There’s a lot for us to play with. I’d actually love for my next narrative film to keep going with this, because Filipino culture is just not in the media. Everybody knows Filipinos, but nobody knows who we really are. Especially when you compare us to other Asian cultures. People have some understanding of Chinese culture, or Japanese, or Korean. There are obviously Filipino filmmakers, but most of them are from the Philippines and they’re always very arthouse. 

Filmmaker: Watching Islands, I kept thinking about how the shots of the Jesus figurines and paintings in the house would feel like heavy handed religious symbols in a non-Filipino film. But because they’re so ubiquitous and common in Filipino households they don’t come across that way here. 

Edralin: I think you’re right. It’s funny how much more comfortable I am doing these interviews with other Filipinos because we sort of get these little things. These images in another movie, their symbols would mean something. There are some themes of morality related to the religious images, maybe, but that’s not really what the movie’s about. Like you said, these are just things in a Filipino household. When Joshua covers the statues before masturbating in his bedroom—we have these altars in the bedroom where we have sex! They really are almost just decoration.

Filmmaker: What did shot listing look like for you in this mostly one-location film?

Edralin: Because the film is mostly shot in the house we didn’t want every scene to look the same. We did try to be intentional about when we shoot the house a certain way or from which part of the house. We had that in the back of our head, where we want to be, the size of the lens or our distance. But we really just shot listed day by day. We wanted it to be mostly static, but because the house is so small sometimes we did have to move the camera. We wanted a lot of the dialogue to be delivered without edits, but it’s hard when you don’t have professional or experienced actors. Sometimes we would do a ton of takes, and finally decide that we had to break the scene up and shoot over the shoulder. 

Filmmaker: Did you adjust your approach in other ways for the cast?

Edralin: Both of the leads were from Winnipeg, which is the middle of Canada. They did heavy scenes in the audition, and Sheila would start crying. When we cast both of them we had them do a rehearsal together in Winnipeg over Skype and there was just a real connection between them. Then I flew out there to do a rehearsal with them and it was the same thing. In an emotional scene they would cry, and we’d take it a different direction and they would keep crying. So they were actually quite comfortable when we got on set and I was also amazed how they could perform and hit their marks for the camera. They could take adjustments, change lines of dialogue, and still land where they had to. It was weird for me to see how proficient they were without having any training at all. 

Filmmaker: This is almost entirely composed of static shots, which mimic the film’s idea of “Islands,” because the unmoving frame divides the spaces up so much.

Edralin: And also just the idea that the three main characters are sort of stuck in their respective situations. Reynaldo’s old and lost his wife and is now dependent on his son who is incapable of taking care of him. Joshua, now alone, has to learn to take care of his father and himself. Marisol is in between countries, wanting to help her family, but at the same time not wanting to go through the hell she went through in her time in the Middle East. I think there was a little more movement when Marisol came into the house.

Filmmaker: Did the film change a lot in the edit?

Edralin: I wouldn’t say it changed a ton. I’ve worked with the same editor, Bryan Atkinson, for a very long time, and I actually asked him not to give me an assembly. I want to see the rough cut. For the shorts he would actually give me a rough cut without any of the scenes that he didn’t think we needed. For Islands he gave me more of an assembly. I think that was partly because he was really busy and I don’t think he wanted to go too deep into a longer movie and have to pull back when I came in. I think the first assembly was two-and-a-half hours; we cut it to two hours and felt it was what it needed to be. Overall the plot didn’t change a lot. We did rearrange some scenes to help it along, but overall it was always what it is now.

Filmmaker: Did you cut any scenes that you were particularly attached to?

Edralin: I can’t think of any full scenes, but I loved everything in that community center, like the national anthem and the dancing. In the first edit, the anthem was about where it was in the movie now. But I came in and was like, “No. We need the entire National Anthem!” And after the Canadian National Anthem they do the Filipino National Anthem. The class does this for real, I didn’t make this up! And I wanted both anthems in there. I think the dancing scenes were also longer, and I loved to watch them. But because of some of the feedback, we cut that down. Sometimes I regret cutting it down. But everyone knows the anthem in Canada and it’s probably more boring to other people.

Filmmaker: You use Leopoldo Silos’ “Take 13” throughout the film. The song really binds the film together. Why did you choose it?

Edralin: Very early on I was looking into all kinds of Filipino music, mostly guitar folk music. Somewhere along the way I came across this Filipino Cha Cha album where “Take 13” is from. The film wasn’t supposed to have these light, funny moments, so I loved the music but thought it wasn’t going to work. I would listen to all this Filipino music as I was writing. There’s also another Cha Cha song from this album in the final credits. When we got to the edit I started listening to it as we were looking at scenes and felt that it had to be in it. I love that it reminds people that there’s this Spanish part of our culture, this Latin influence. 

Filmmaker: There has been a little backlash about SXSW not paying filmmakers screening fees and also going pass only—not selling individual tickets. How do you feel as a filmmaker bringing your feature debut to the festival while also being at the mercy of how the festival handles and shows your film?

Edralin: I didn’t know it was going to be pass-only. I don’t know if they had mentioned that somewhere early on and I just didn’t notice. I’m pretty sure at the time that I applied that they were considering maybe having a hybrid, physical and online festival. That was probably late last year, so I doubt it was in any of their communications at that point. But when we were accepted they didn’t say.

I didn’t know there was backlash about not paying the filmmakers screening fees. But you never get screening fees from film festivals, as far as I know. I’ve never made a feature, so I don’t know. I’ve gotten some for shorts, but it’s rare, and the big festivals especially don’t give screening fees. It’s funny, because the ones that usually do are the smaller festivals.

But I do wish they told me it was pass only. I don’t know, and this is fine to be on record, if it would have changed my mind. There were a lot of festivals we were considering. But with the unpredictability of the pandemic, I don’t know if we would have postponed it. SXSW is a great festival. But it is a bummer, because I don’t know how much the Filipino community is going to watch this. They’re a hard market. But if they do want to watch it, most of them—none of them—are going to buy a pass unless they work in the industry. We’re going to have to wait until the next festival…I think Sundance had single tickets right? And I think TIFF did too.

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