VN: Please give us adjectives upon hearing the title of the films you edited.
MM: As part of Tikoy’s creative writing team, no title surprises me anymore. But Tikoy’s films, if I were to describe them, were novel, daring more than being sexy, relevant, sans melodrama, with soul, mirrors of our times, and definitely, not esoteric. They were all challenging works for me. Minnie Crouse’s The Case of Wilkie Duran Monte: Chemical Toxic Victim was a title I myself gave; while Stressful X, a short film which started Yul Servo was the file name I used when I edited the film. Nerissa Picadizo adopted it as her first film’s title.
VN: Why did you decide to shift to independent filmmaking?
MM: Since 1999, Tikoy had been busy with CineManila. In 2003, he temporarily stopped making films. By then, digital cameras were rising in popularity among independent filmmakers. In fact, Tikoy’s last film,www.XXX.com, was the first digital film blown up to 35mm in the history of Philippine cinema. I edited it in Manila but its post-production was fully completed in Indonesia. The film transfer was finally done in India. I decided to move on. Influenced by my brother-historian Isagani R. Medina, I got interested in the preservation of oral histories; on subjects or themes considered to be “unpalatable,” “unimportant,” and definitely, “unprofitable” to market-oriented filmmakers. I wanted to do work on something that is participatory in nature; and I wanted to share my researches to the viewers. For me, film is an effective vehicle to share knowledge. With borrowed handycams from enabling friends, I first thought of making a film on Corregidor Island, my family’s provincial origin in 2002. The documentary became Tiga-Isla/The Islanders. This film focuses on the socio-cultural life of Filipinos and Americans on prewar Corregidor. My brother Gani, a Corregidorian, who was still alive then, was one of my primary sources of information and the film’s consultant. Making that film was actually my way of keeping my bedridden brother “busy” knowing fully well how much he loved Corregidor. I wanted him to have something to look forward to. I interviewed him, recorded my other sibling’s experiences and got facts that are not recorded in any history book. Other remaining Corregidorians shared their memories. My brother was very happy when I finally finished the film in 2003, one-and-a-half years in the making. Inspired by the audience’s reaction in the first screening of Tiga-Isla at the UP Film Center in the last quarter of 2003, I decided to pursue making educational documentary films to answer the need for research-backed films on untouched and not so known subjects. Confident that I could successfully make a film on my own with tight budget, plus the affirmation that content mattered more than the latest camera equipment, I decided to pursue independent documentary filmmaking. Besides, I never really liked working with many people. Hence, documentarly filmmaking, I thought, was the right film form for me. At that time though, advocacy thoughts or causes were out of my mind.
VN: Is having an advocacy a conscious effort or an accident?
MM: I was led to advocacy filmmaking so there was no conscious effort on my part at the beginning of my journey into independent filmmaking. With the knowledge that providing informative films was a need that I could successfully contribute something to, I immediately thought of following it up with another documentary. But the question was: “On what subject?” So, I set my own criteria—a prized prerogative of an indie.
First of all, the subject should be of interest to me. Secondly, the film should be about something I have never before seen, or on a theme with an aspect that had not been touched or tackled (in Philippine film history). It should be something novel. Finally, I settled on the idea of making a docu on how the sign language was being taught by hearing teachers to Deaf students. I found the relationship quite ironic and highly interesting. I live near the Philippine School for the Deaf, and early on when I was in high school, I used to stop in front of the school to watch Deaf students sign. Even then, I thought sign language was beautiful. So, I started with my research on sign language and contacted people whom I believe could be my sources of information— until I met my niece whose third and youngest child has autism. When she came to know that I was working on another docu but with Deaf persons as my subjects, she appealed by saying: “Igawa mo rin, Auntie, ng film si Alyana.” It was in 2003 right after the premiere of Tiga-Isla, when Alyana was about 10 years old. She was having seizures so medicines had to be administered to her. My niece wanted the government to know Alyana’s condition, so that they could do something about lowering the prices of medicine for children like her who also suffers from tuberous sclerosis, another brain disorder. According to Dr, Alexis Reyes, one of the top developmental pediatricians in the country, the causes of autism are not yet really known. But tuberous sclerosis, in Alyana’s case could be pinpointed as one of the rare causes of autism. Anyway, that was eight years ago. It must be noted that it was only last May 1 that Mercury Drugstores finally yielded to the sector’s demand to implement the rules mandated by Republic Act 9442 or the Magna Carta for Persons with Disability. This law provides them 20% discount whenever they purchase any medicine. During that time, I never knew anything about autism, never even thought of making a film on it. But when I felt the weight of a mother’s responsibility; the hardships she and others like her must be going through; the financial difficulties she was encountering; the physical, emotional, psychological burdens, and the anxiety she was having towards her special child’s future, I decided right away to set aside my work on sign language. I saw all that through her eyes, the reason why I decided to make Alyana. To understand autism, I focused on the experiences of mothers, and almost all persons directly involved in the rearing and handling of persons with autism—the siblings, developmental pediatrician, sped teachers, speech therapist, and later added a segment on the role of occupational therapists. What was planned originally as a 20-minute film became a two-and-a-half hour documentary. What was meant to be only about Alyana became the documentation of people with autism in general—from low to high function people with Asperger Syndrome. Hence the title: Alyana: A Study of Autism in the Philippines. Eventually, what was intended to be made in six months was finished in two-and-a-half years due to many questions I myself wanted to find answers to, and the financial problems I had to face in making the film. In the midst of making the film, my confidence started to waver. I wasn’t sure if I could finish it. The film was taking me too long to complete it. There were times when I wanted to give up feeling so hopeless. I could not move. I had no camera of my own. Finances were insufficient, at points depleted. To be able to save something or just so I could move, I worked in different capacities: I was the director, interviewer, transcriber, encoder, cameraperson, editor and production manager. Some interviewees were elusive and difficult to make arrangements with. On top of it, the camera given to me by a relative that I was supposed to use in making the film was stolen. I had had it only for less than six months. It was totally paralyzing. But at my lowest point, when I thought I would finally drop the work, I saw something. On my way home from UP, tucked up at the entrance of a movie theater turned worship hall somewhere in Cubao, there was a big tarpaulin streamer with words shouting: YOU HAVE A MISSION. I looked up again, the bus had already passed the hall, with my head craning to reread the words: “You have a mission.” ‘Was that meant for me?” I asked myself. “I have a mission.” “I have a mission.” It echoed and repeatedly ran into my head like a mantra. Finally, I reversed my decision, and considered what I saw to be a lead.
In the course of time, my problems got solved— and unexpectedly, beyond my dreams, I got not just one, but two cameras during the same week! The stolen camera was replaced; my biggest worry solved. On top of that, I got extra jobs and a financial grant to supplement my budget. I also met people who were friends of elusive interviewees. I am not a religious person but the reversal of my faith back to Mama Mary, specifically to Our Lady of the Rosary of Manaoag while I was making Alyana, helped me finished the film. People may believe it or not, but Mama Mary provided me the final push. I’ve been hanging on to that belief since then. When Alyana was finally shown at the UP Film Center, the Cinemalibre theater was jampacked. The film had an overwhelmingly positive impact on its audience. The remarks were so encouraging. Synergy was very strong in the audience. Having witnessed viewers crying, touched and affected by the truth and information the documentary presented, and having seen the power of film, I got fully convinced to carry on with the work of making films that help change or break attitudinal barriers, if not, erases myths and false beliefs. In fact, from July 2006 when Alyana was premiered, the film continues to go around the country as part of the Autism Society Philippines’ awareness campaign. They got a five-year long Censor’s permit to show the film in cinema houses. Groups, schools and individuals in different parts of the country continue to manifest interest in showing the film. In fact, it was last shown only last month at De La Salle-Araneta University in Malabon City before regular teachers of the school. Schedules are now being arranged by ASP to show it in the Visayas in the coming months. Five years have passed but I still continue to meet people thankful I made a documentary about their children, their students or their family members. Some of them can even recall the scenes from the film that they first saw it in 2006. This, I believe, is a good and true measure of the film’s worth and impact. This month – being the National Disability Prevention and Rehabilitation Week in the Philippines from 17 to 23 July – it seems all my films become relevant again!