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Programmers of A-List Film Festivals Reveal What They Look for in a Film

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By Rica Arevalo

It was a casting coup at the Film Industry Conference at QCinema held at Novotel Araneta Center last month when Venice International Film Festival’s Paolo Bertolin, Berlinale’s John Badalu, and Cannes Directors’ Fortnight’s Benjamin Illos sat down with Hong Kong International Film Festival Society’s Roger Garcia to talk about how Filipino films could enter these A-list film festivals.

These programmers travel all over the world, looking for worthy films for world premieres that have launched many brilliant careers in international cinema.

Film Internationale Championing the Filipino directors in world cinema Roger Garcia, Benjamin Illos, John Badalu, and Paolo Bertolin

John’s job is to scout films from Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, and the Philippines.

“It is important enough to know the programmers,” says Berlin’s Southeast Asia delegate. “At least the filmmakers can talk more about the film rather than just sending the link or their films. We get to know a little bit of information with the project itself, how it was made, how it was funded.”

Filipino auteurs Lino Brocka, Mike de Leon, Brillante Mendoza, Erik Matti, Raya Martin,  and Auraeus Solito (Kanakan Balintagos) premiered their films in Cannes Directors’ Fortnight years ago. “I have to make a confession,” reveals Benjamin.  “I can’t tell you who will make it to an A-Festival.  If I could, I would be rich by today.”

Founded in 1932, the Venice International Film Festival is the oldest film festival in the world.  What is Paolo looking for in a film?  “Surprise. One way or another, it is difficult to express,” he muses.  “It should give us something new or something unexpected. That can even come from a director whose work we already know. Sometimes directors whose work we admire can come up with something different.”

Venice has a new rule that films to be submitted and selected should not have been screened before anywhere, including the Philippines. This means that films that competed in Cinemalaya, CinemaOne, QCinema, and To Farm film festivals are ineligible.

Roger Garcia of HKIFF moderating with Benjamin Illos of Cannes, John Badalu of Berlin and Paolo Bertolin of Venice

Roger Garcia of HKIFF moderating with Benjamin Illos of Cannes, John Badalu of Berlin and Paolo Bertolin of Venice

“Venice doubled its registration fee two or three years ago,” elaborates Paolo. “I’ve seen countries disappearing from the short film (category). We really need to make sure that these filmmakers are given the opportunity, to ask for a free waiver.”

Roger has been championing Filipino films in the world market.  He produced The Big Hit (1998) starring Mark Wahlberg and Lou Diamond Phillips.  “Asia has grown as a film-producing place.  China has also started to produce interesting movies,” he says. “The competition among Asian films and filmmakers has become much more intense. That puts pressure in all of you (programmers) in choosing films.”

“The number is vastly increasing,” discloses Benjamin.

“If there are four strong Filipino films that may be worthy to go in main competition in Berlin, they have to fight for one or two slots,” confesses John. “The competition is becoming more competitive. especially for the Philippines which produces so many films in a year.  For Southeast Asia, the most entries are coming from the Philippines.”

If a film is rejected in Cannes, will the other festivals look into it? “Of course, we all know Cannes has a limited number of slots,” says Paolo. “It doesn’t necessarily mean all and only the good films will go to Cannes.  There were many films that Venice took and that did well both in Venice and afterward that were not taken by Cannes.”

Last year, Lav Diaz’s Ang Babaeng Humayo won the Golden Lion at the 73rd Venice Film Festival in Italy.

Do you really watch the whole film?  John confidently answers, “99 percent, yes! I watch all the films.  Maybe one percent, if it is really unbearable then I will stop watching it.  If I fall asleep before finishing the film, I will replay it and watch it again.”

So what does a film programmer do? “It’s starting early, ending very, very late,” says Benjamin who majored in literature at Sorbonne University. “All year long, we watch films.”

Looks like these A-list festivals are not considering the usual poverty porn flicks produced in the country.  “Most of the interesting films produced in the Philippines were from Cinemalaya, QCinema, CinemaOne, splendid films.  I hope one day we will have a Gagamboy in Venice,” reveals Paolo.

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