“My actors are real scavengers”

18 May

The Mountain Thief director Gerry Balasta. Photo by Fritz Anthony Magistrado of Barcelona Exposure Club

The Mountain Thief, winner of the Special Jury Prize at the 2010 San Francisco International Asian-American Film Festival, was one of the Filipino films shown at the recently concluded 2010 Barcelona Asian Film festival.  Its director Gerry Balasta flew in from New York to present the film.  The film had two screenings and both had successful runs. The audience turn out, comprised mostly of Spaniards, was surprisingly impressive and a lot of them stayed during the Q & A portion.  On the second screening, a group of Pinoys came to show their support to their fellow kababayan.

The day after the first screening of the movie, Ang Bagong Filipino had the opportunity to interview the director where he shared his thoughts and insights of his first feature film.  Here is the whole text of the interview:

ABF:         It took the film to be finished in seven years.  Was there a point where you were about to give up?   Did the thought that “I would not finish the film anyway” occur to you?

GB:       Yeah, it was hard. I had to use my personal funds, my credit card and look for possible producers to invest on the film. It was like dreaming the impossible.

ABF:        Didn’t you think of approaching big production companies to finance it?

GB:       No.  I don’t think they would be interested.  It’s a depressing film and my actors are not  big stars.

ABF:       Finding investors was already a big problem. So what kept you connected with the film?

GB:      The story has to be told.  I want to show the world that there are people who live this way.   It was depressing how they lived.  I saw it with my own eyes. I smelled poverty everywhere I went. In the end, it was a responsibility on my part to tell the story.

ABF:       There have been films that delve on poverty, hardships and struggles. What do you think makes your film different from the others?

GB:       For one, the actors.  My actors are real scavengers.  This is their life.   Also, the soul of the movie is the story itself.

ABF:       How did you motivate your actors knowing that they are not professional  actors? How were you able to squeeze the cinematic juice in them?

GB:       The casting was really memorable for me.   I talked to them one by one, asking about their lives,  their dreams.  After finding my actors for the film, I conducted a one-month  acting workshop with my 20 actors.  Initially, they’re shy, nervous and very conscious in front of the camera. I had this one actor who couldn’t stop blinking. But surprisingly, they were really professional.  Actually, it was easy to motivate them. This is where they live. Their home, where they sleep, where they eat.  They didn’t have to act. They reacted to the situation just like they usually would in real life.

ABF:       And them to you?   Were you motivated by them? Learnings,  perhaps?

GB:      Yes! Honestly,  they taught me about HOPE.  I thought I had a lot of that already. But when I was with them, seeing them, how they live.  They really inspired me.  It was a learning experience. A great learning experience.

ABF:        Now that your film is finished and has been touring around the globe, can you say that it was worth it?

GB:       Oh definitely yes.  You see, the movie is all about the reality of trash.  When we see trash, some of us will avoid it. But to them, it’s the source of life–money, medicine, food, clothes, a home and a reason  to live. I am glad and proud that I did this movie. It was worth all the troubles. If I were to do a film debut again, I would still do the same film.

ABF:        You ended the film on a hanging note. Why is that?

GB:       It is because I want to leave it open for the audience to decide for themselves how they want to end the film.  If you are optimistic, then you will end it on a happy note.  But if otherwise, then you will end it on a sad note.

ABF:       As a filmmaker, who do you think have influenced  your style in making a film?

GB:      Two.  Fernando Meirelles  and Akira Korusawa .

ABF:      I noticed  that you presented your story in a non-linear style, a  touch of Rashomon in some  ways, am I right?

GB:      Well  yes, I want it to be interesting where the storytelling dwells on the different points of view of each character.  That is why, I presented all the angles of the persons involved, the way the mountain thief saw what happened. Or through the eyes of the child, Inggo or through Ato.

ABF:      There are scenes in the film where you mentioned a lot  about religion, the bible and God. Are you religious?

GB:       I used to be. Now, I think I am more spiritual than religious.  Just like in reality, we are religious people.  We go to mass, we pray, we leave everything to God. The character of Ato, the one who always  reads the bible but at the same time  is a mean person.  He might be a bad person but then he is searching.  He is confused.  He is looking for something.  It is a fact based on reality. A lot of us are like Ato in some way or the other.

ABF:      What can you say about  the reaction of your audience after watching the film?

GB:      It was really great.  I didn’t  expect this.  I was expecting only a few people to watch my film.  And I’m very happy because they stayed until the closing credits. It was a good sign.

ABF:      After Barcelona, where next?

GB:      I plan to show my film throughout Europe first. I am giving myself one year to do this. Joining more film festivals abroad, in Europe, the US or Asia.  And hopefully, I can show this to my countrymen in the Philippines.

ABF:      Do you think the Filipino audience is ready for your movie?

GB:     I don’t know. But I am very hopeful.  They need to be reminded of the story. They are aware of it. My film will just serve as a reminder.  I want to show them the power of kindness. I hope they also see it.  Maybe yes, the Filipino audience is  ready to see my film.

ABF:      After The Mountain Thief, what’s next?

GB:     Another film is on the drawing board. This time it’s a suspense thriller and the story resolves around Ninoy Aquino.  Its title is “The Silence of Manila.”

ABF:      Any message to new filmmakers dreaming of making a film just like yours?

GB:     I always believe in the goodness of men.  When I did this film, I trusted my actors and my actors trusted me as well.  I also believe that one can be good in his field  if he really works hard on it.  Same with making this film.  I worked hard, my actors did the same too. I am very thankful.  As long as you always consider everything that you do as a labor of love, it will come out just like that.

The Mountain thief is a story about the lives of scavengers living on the mountains of trash in Payatas, Quezon City.  It took seven years for The Mountain Thief  to be made and  real scavengers living in the dumpsite were hired as actors.  The director was also the writer and editor of the said film.  You can also check out the official website of The Mountain Thief

(L-R) Kay Abaño, Lea Baduria, Director Gerry Balasta and Nathaniel Sisma Villaluna during the screening of The Mountain Thief at the 2010 Barcelona Asian Film Festival. Photo by Fritz Anthony Magistrado of BEC

Nathaniel Sisma Villaluna

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