Marie Jamora Grows Into Her Craft
I finally got to sit down with director Marie Jamora on a late night in the middle of July. Her friends, Mikey Amistoso, Justin Sunico, and Mitch Singson of Ciudad, had just released a new album, and the launch at Route 196 was taken as an opportunity for to screen a music video and trailer, both promoting her entry to this year’s Cinemalaya Film Festival.
Jamora is as personable as she is sharp, making it easy to see her commanding the dozens on her production crew, alongside a cast of both artistas and extras. Although she is visibly tired, she enthusiastically zips through her commentary on the dozen or so topics I had written on a stack of index cards – some about music, some about making movies, and some about being young and middle class in Metro Manila. All were related to her first full-length feature, Ang Nawawala, which roughly translates to What Isn’t There. As a literary trope, it can be described as a lacuna, or a presence that is felt only in its absence. In this case the film’s lacuna is a central character, one which bears the double burden of being both savior and adversary –a lot to expect of something that doesn’t even exist.
What isn’t there is reflected by the character of Gibson Bonifacio. He doesn’t talk. He doesn’t sign either. Instead he drinks, smokes weed, and shoots videos on his camera. The obvious problem with never hearing Gibson say his own name is the recourse of character introductions to the bricolage forming his everyday life. Through his obsessive compulsion with capturing every moment on his camera, we are given a frame-by-frame recap of the things that matter to our otherwise silent protagonist: images and sequences through which he connects with the world and allows it to influence the way he thinks, feels, and eventually falls in love.
This integral element of Gibson’s character gives enough room to negotiate the differences between communicating and just talking; a distinction which is regularly tackled in Jamora’s profession as a filmmaker. A graduate of both the Ateneo de Manila University (where she now teaches part-time) and Columbia University’s film program, Jamora has entertained numerous commissions for commercial work and music videos. “What came in handy for this project that I learned in film school was directing the actors and creating proper motivations to make their actions believable,” says Jamora. “I mean I can tell an actor to cry because the scene requires it, but not only would that make me an a–hole, it would make the scene generic.”
Before Gibson, rougher renditions of the lovestruck shutterbug suffering from various degrees of impairment have appeared in Jamora’s earlier work. After more than a decade of allowing the characters of Ang Nawawala to incubate, Jamora finally had enough to build on a full-length script. “I would never have been able to do this film when I first came up with the idea,” she shares. “I was a very different person then. It would have been a very different story.”
“Much of the Gibson character was actually based on Marie,” shares Trinka Lat of Brainchild Productions, who is both Ang Nawawala’s Production Designer and a good friend with whom Jamora has worked with numerous times. The script was co-written with another good friend and Geek Fight teammate, Ramon de Veyra, who is a little less polite about the parallels between Gibson’s story and Marie’s life. “Yung shot sa ending? A basta, si Marie yon!” (“That shot in the ending? Whatever, that’s Marie!”) de Veyra half-jokingly yells into my recorder.
Thus, it’s no coincidence that many of the objects which speak for our silent protagonist are the same objects that Jamora herself identifies with. Books, records, movie posters, even names of characters all lovingly reference Jamora’s own surroundings. We see Gerry Alanguilan’s Elmer on Gibson’s shelf, Apol Sta. Maria’s Alamat ng Panget tossed casually atop a coffee table, and in an obvious reference to “what isn’t there,” a magazine on Gibson’s desk with Charlie Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind on its cover.
To complement this, every shot appears to have been colored and designed in the same manner with which we revisit our memories: wherein evocative objects come to the fore and images shift between hypersaturated and diluted color schemes. This is seen in the Bonifacio family’s carefully curated home environment, one which characterizes a desperate longing to return to a past that no longer exists, and reflects on their inability to fully inhabit the present.
Closely adapted from actual experiences of coming of age in Metro Manila, both the public and private settings written into Jamora and de Veyra’s narrative bring to mind places we can feel familiar with, whether or not we’ve actually been there. These appear to be locations mapped into the collective memory of upper middle class Filipinos, however it is difficult to place them within any specific historical moment. This poses the danger of a depoliticized, ahistorical narrative – a fairly rare occurrence in Philippine cinema, especially on the festival circuit. A single reference to GMA (the former president, not the network) is dropped, but we see many other things that reference an altogether apolitical climate.
This is not to confuse the apolitical with the politically apathetic, for Jamora instead turns her lens on the subtler hierarchies and conflicts within the Filipino family – those which are especially prevalent in the roles we assume when we choose to be there as sisters, daughters, or guides to those we are bound to by blood. “I’ve had this story on the brain since I was in school,” shares Jamora of a previous chance to get this film made while she was still at Columbia, “but there was a lot about it that wouldn’t fly. The script was in Filipino, the characters were Filipino.”
Issues not only of culture, but of class could undoubtedly arise when Metro Manila’s streets form a barely legible backdrop, as the film’s characters are shuttled from one location to the next, often by the drivers and maids who play pivotal, yet invisible, roles in the lives of both Ang Nawawala’s characters as well as its audience. “It’s possible to talk about growing up Filipino without bringing up social class, but other people will bring it up for you,” says Jamora. Through Gibson’s eyes, the streets of Metro Manila remain hidden, either in darkness or beyond the windows of parked cars, as we are transported through galleries, Korean spas, and bars – such as Route 196, the very same bar where our interview with Marie Jamora took place. “Most of the movie takes place at night because…those are my hours, baby,” she jokes. “But really, music happens at night. And love happens at night.” She smiles, “That’s the third beer talking.”
Cameos by familiar faces from the local music scene, a key element both in the film as well as in Jamora’s life, have raised comparisons between Ang Nawawala and Quark Henares’s Rakenrol (2011). While there are few parallels to be drawn between the plots of the two films, similar references are unavoidable given the appearances of the same musicians and the same venues; thus recreating a comfortable and familiar atmosphere, drawn from Jamora’s own experiences both in the audience and onstage, playing drums for Boldstar and Blast Ople (reunion gigs for both bands seem to happen randomly and rarely, but they do happen).
Like most independent filmmakers working on a budget of Nothing (even Cinemalaya and NCCA grants are no match for the actual cost of making a full-length feature), Jamora’s shots are filled with the faces of her nearest and dearest. “Everyone involved in this film grew into their craft and into better artists. There was no better time to do this project,” she says. This makes Ang Nawawala something of a family affair, in which the locations create an atmosphere that feels intimate and familiar to those who know Jamora. The youngest of five siblings Jamora grew up on the cusp of Gen X and Y, raised by a generation that notoriously equated success with serious professions like law and medicine.
The daughter of two doctors, Jamora shares that while her mother was always supportive of her choice to make films, her love for books had both parents hoping she would pursue a life in the law instead. “My dad saw that I would speed read four books a day, and, because of that, wanted me to be a lawyer,” she shares. “But both my parents LOVE MOVIES. My mom even used to sneak into the cinema in Cavite after school as a child.”
Inheriting this love of film gave Jamora a medium through which she could channel her love for the literary as well as the visual, with more than enough room for her music. Her work onscreen clearly represents her strong grasp of the all-inclusive and unbounded nature of art, translating this generation’s inundation with media and commoditized culture into something coherent and sincere. “The bottom line is the use of the imagination, and with this film, music became a voice. It became central to telling a story.”
Fully Booked magazine, September 2012