Just like the film’s long trekking scene that was shot in the mountains of Davao, the journey has been long, bumpy and circuitous for Sari and Kiri Dalena—the sisters team behind “The Guerrilla is a Poet,” one of eight entries in the week-long CineFilipino Film Festival that opens Wednesday.
The Dalena sisters were mindful that their choice of subject matter—the early years of Jose Ma. Sison, a controversial figure in Philippine history and politics—partly explained why some financiers were reluctant to touch their film.
“It took three years presenting this proposal to several film grant programs locally and abroad,” Sari recalled. “Securing financing was difficult.”
But Sari and Kiri were determined to see the project through.
Joma, as Sison is known, remained a staunch comrade throughout the process.
The way Sari put it, this collaboration seemed “fated to happen.”
Sari and her husband, fellow filmmaker Keith Sicat, attended the 2009 Rotterdam International Film Festival for a screening of her historical documentary, “Memories of a Forgotten War.”
While in the Netherlands, they received an invitation to meet with Filipinos based in Utrecht.
A familiar face greeted them at the train station. It was Joma himself.
“He recognized Keith immediately. Joma later explained that he had seen Keith’s picture on Facebook,” Sari recounted.
That initial meeting led to an all-nighter, at the end of which, Joma, who had seen “Memories of a Forgotten War,” “offered his life story to us,” Sari related. “We were surprised, but accepted the opportunity and, for three years, we communicated via e-mail, developing the script.”
Sari teamed up with her sister Kiri, interviewing the various personalities involved in the story. Kiri traveled to Utrecht to interview Joma and his wife, Julieta de Lima-Sison. Sari sought out Bernabe “Kumander Dante” Buscayno in Tarlac.
They visited the “original locations” where the Communist Party of the Philippines and the New People’s Army were founded in Pangasinan and Tarlac.
Kiri owned up: “The stories we gathered [in making this film] were filled with myriad contradictions—beautiful, terrifying, simple, complicated, heartrending, heartwarming, confining, liberating.”
Sari admitted she had always been fascinated with the lives of revolutionary figures throughout the country’s history, “from the Philippine-American War to the martial law era.” But she constantly made it a point to view the past from a “female perspective.”
In chronicling this story, Sari was struck by “the interesting dynamics between Joma and his wife Julie … they are a power couple.”
Kiri pointed out: “This film begins with Joma and Julie, but our intention is to make the story go over and beyond them. This film is a window to a people’s war that others prefer to keep in the dark. Our wish is that this film will show that [the revolution] has a human face.”
A childhood memory sparked Sari’s interest in revolutionary movements. “I was 8 years old and sick, with a high fever, when my dad and uncles started banging pots and pans like mad men one night … for the noise barrage of April 1978.”
Acts of civil disobedience and mass protests led this filmmaker to ask pressing questions. “What drove my dad and relatives to join the protest? What inspired young men and women to sacrifice their dreams and join the underground movement?”
Shooting in a small community in Mindanao, ravaged by Typhoon “Pablo” in December 2012, proved to be an eye-opening experience for the Dalenas. “We chose this village as a backdrop and metaphor for the political upheavals in our country in the 1970s,” Sari explained.
“The shoot in the communities where we staged the guerrilla zone scenes … was difficult,” Kiri said. “Difficult is an understatement but for me to complain doesn’t sound right because lack of access to water and electricity is a condition that many of our countrymen have lived with all their lives. We were humbled, and we learned to value what we have taken for granted.”
Joining the Dalenas in this odyssey are young actors Karl Medina and Angeli Bayani as Joma and Julie, along with RK Bagatsing, Anthony Falcon, Bong Cabrera and Chanel Latorre as their comrades. Master mimic Willie Nepomuceno plays it straight as Ferdinand Marcos. Former teen star Jao Mapa portrays Benigno Aquino Jr. The only actor that Joma had suggested was Lui Quiambao-Manansala as his mother. “She looks like his mom,” Sari explained.
The CineFilipino Film Festival runs until Sept. 24 at Newport Cinemas of Resorts World Manila, Lucky Chinatown Mall and Gateway Cineplex. There will also be weekend screenings at the Shangri-La Plaza mall on Sept. 21 and 22. Apart from eight feature films, 10 short films will also be screened during the fest.
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