sa kanto ng ulap at lupa

by Don Jaucian

Sa Kanto ng Ulap at Lupa (2011)
D: Mes de Guzman
S: John Paul Escobeda, Jeremie Cercenia, Zanderson Vicente

Mes de Guzman is never one for cheap shocks. His subjects may be mired in abject squalor or the digging in the muddiest of holes in the world, but he never lets them crumble under the seriousness of it all. He uncovers gems in the shittiest of places, in slaughterhouses, abandoned shacks, and shady marketplaces. He lets the dirt creep up in the dankiest spaces, allowing the weather to stir and turn, brewing a strange psychological malady that infects each of the characters. But he eventually peels the paint away, chip by chip, until tragedies unravel. 

In Sa Kanto ng Ulap at Lupa, de Guzman’s ragtag bunch of kids, Yoyong, Uding, Boying, and Poklat, roam the streets and the cloud-covered mountainside of Nueva Vizcaya, taking on odd jobs just to get through the day. Yoyong and Uding eventually form a bond when Yoyong coaxes Uding to teach him how to read and write a love letter to woo a girl he likes. The two pore over a found atlas of the world, with their journey starting in Alaska, the cold, snow-infested frontier of the north. And much like the state, the mountains of Nueva Vizcaya can be an unwelcoming place to live in, especially for renegades like these four, with nights that can be unbearably chilling and the dark piercing.

Despite the gaunt promises of icy darkness, de Guzman finds light in the rhythm of their activities, sharing laughs in composing a romantic text message, finding a broken VHS player and salvaging it in the hopes of finally watching a “Chuckie Chan” film, and even chatting during a pig-gutting session. De Guzman dispels saccharine strings and swelling music to gloss out these moments and instead takes jabs and places hints at the darker things at hand.

De Guzman’s films have always been about survival. These children exist in a world that doesn’t offer kindness to the weak, throwing them crumbling morsels of hope through snuffing glue, heightening their senses as they fall further down an underworld of ladders where not even fire cuts through. They go up, they go down, shedding their innocence one rung at a time, but the place that they emerge in reeks of adhesive, paint, and thinner, a space where the abandoned and the lost dine with the crooked and the damned.

Pelikula Q&A: Sa Kanto ng Ulap at Lupa
An interview with director Mes De Guzman by Jansen Musico

How is Sa Kanto ng Ulap at Lupa different from your previous films?

Basically, the story is different, from the structuring of the script to the post production process. It’s more experimental and playful. Most of the time, the children will do their lines, and suggest blocking for their angles. All the actors here are locals. They came from different villages, and also it’s my first time to shoot in Bayombong, the capital town of Nueva Vizcaya. Nature and ambient sound played a big part in this film.

You have these four boys with four very distinct characters. Are each of them supposed to symbolize something or are they just who they are, random boys?

It just random, the characterization came first before the final script. The writing process was organic meaning, it depended on the actor’s real persona, before we went into the details of the script. For this film, I was not very conscious about symbols or semiotics. I just went with the flow. It was more on instinct in creating scenes. I just followed my creative rhythm.

A lot if not all of your films present very idyllic depictions of rural life. Why is that? What is it about that way of life that drives you to make films about it? 

I grew-up in Nueva Vizcaya, I had a wonderful childhood wandering and having adventures in the rural landscape. But for me, it is not idyllic. It is just like a coated romantic place, underneath are complexities. I encountered different kinds of stories about people living in the countryside. Ideas eventually manifest in my films later.  It is just homage to the place that I’m very attached and familiar with.

Is that why chose Nueva Vizcaya for the setting?

I already visualized the setting while developing the concept. I know the terrain, it just like going to a war that I already knew what is the locale or the battleground. And also there are many talented local actors waiting to be discovered. Interesting and compelling ideas are abundant too. There’s a vault of filmic ideas in this region.

You’ve worked a lot with kids in your previous films. This time you’re working with kids again. What is it about these first-time child actors that makes you want to work with them?

These kids are the story. Their real lives makes their characters unique and effective. They are fresh and playful in acting, in terms of depicting their roles. In my experience, it is easy for them to follow directions. It’s fun to work with kids; they don’t have attitudes and hang-ups. They are just kids playing and acting at the same time. In this film, we also develop their confidence and build camaraderie among them. 

What training or workshops do you usually let your non-actors go through? Or do you forego workshops and go straight ahead with directing and shooting them?

We auditioned them, and then we did a workshop on basic acting for film. It was a three-day workshop. These actors were really good. Actually, the script was originally written in Filipino, but they were the ones who translated it into Ilocano. It was a collaborative effort.

Did you find it difficult working with the four boys in the movie?

Sometimes… You know kids; they have their peaks and mood swings. But the whole process was fun and full of energy. It is just like a big picnic, not a film shoot.

There have been several movies about poverty that have been produced. You’re also showing a bit of poverty in this film. What do you think is unique in the way you’re presenting the problem this time?

I didn’t focus in the poverty aspect. It was just the background. [When you make films] where the story happens in a developing country, you cannot escape it, just like an endemic reality. My treatment was very different for this film. I attacked the scenarios in a light manner and added some comedic touches. I like struggles, but I don’t go for melodrama.

Your films have been recognized in International film festivals like Rotterdam. What do you think foreign programmers like about what you produce?

I think it’s the visual treatment of the rural or tropical settings, and the story of children in these areas. There are so many children’s films in these festivals, but most of the settings are in urban areas. Plus I think it also helps that I document old customs and rural practices [and use them] as devices to move the story forward.

How do foreign audiences usually react to your films? How is that reaction different to the local audience?

In International Film Festivals, many of the audiences are cineastes, meaning they have background in world cinema. Most of them, appreciate not just the sceneries but also the local mundane stories in my films. Also they are more critical, for them, your film is good if you have something new to say and your film opens new discourse. They have the tendency to react more about the mis-en-scene of your film, the film language, art film stuff, etc. Here, I think, it is the same now. Because of independent cinema, audiences have an alternative. Gone are the days that the Filipino audience just reacts to the story and the acting or actors’ performances. Indie cinema breaks that celebrity system, especially now that regional film festivals showcase local films made from the province. They highlight dialects that showcase our diverse culture. Filipino cinema is more alive and dynamic now. It’s evolving.