From viral video stars, the world-famous Cebu Dancing Inmates are crossing over to the big screen.
After more than three years of production work, Marnie Manicad and Cesar Apolinario are ready to unveil “Dance of the Steel Bars,” which stars Irish actor Patrick Bergin (who costarred with Julia Roberts in “Sleeping with the Enemy”), along with Filipino actors Dingdong Dantes, Joey Paras, Ricky Davao, Kathleen Hermosa and Mon Confiado.
Manicad, a documentarian, told the Inquirer that she and Apolinario, a GMA 7 news reporter, thought of making a feature film on the Cebu Dancing Inmates in 2007, after working on “Banal.” Apolinario won best director for “Banal” at the Metro Manila Film Festival that year.
“At that time, the inmates’ ‘Thriller’ dance video was the most viewed on YouTube,” recounted Manicad.
At press time, the original video posted in 2007 has generated 52,380,348 hits.
The Cebu inmates were also featured in the short documentary, “Dancing for Discipline,” directed by Pepe Diokno.
Manicad and Apolinario chose to take the cinematic route. “Our film is fictional, but inspired by the real stories of
inmates at Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center,” Manicad said.
It was important to tell this YouTube story as a feature film, she explained. “It’s amazing that the inmates are famous worldwide, yet very little is known about them [as individuals]. Their struggles have to be told … stories that reflect the Filipino culture and character. We find the best things in the worst situations. The whole world should witness that.”
Apolinario and Manicad collaborated with an international production company, Portfolio Films, in making “Steel Bars,” which was filmed on location in the penitentiary where the viral video was shot.
“It’s a live prison movie,” Manicad noted. “We shot most scenes inside a detention center among criminals who may or may not be guilty, but all charged with heinous crimes.”
She has nothing but praise for them, though. “They helped us overcome the challenges of filming. They were disciplined. It felt like working in an ordinary location. The next hurdle was leaving them afterwards. I cannot do much more than to tell their story through this.”
They only had seven days to shoot. Confronted by this and other limitations, her TV and documentary experience—“budgeting time, focusing on essentials”—came in handy. (Manicad’s most popular work is the National Geographic docu “Inside Malacañang,” aired last year.)
Working with professionals like Bergin, Dantes and Paras made the process easier, too, she said. “Patrick was awesome. He always came to the set prepared. He kept his character, a charity worker, close to his heart.” In spite of the language barrier, she added, the actor “blended in very well.”
Dantes, whom she worked with in the GMA 7 series “Atlantika” in 2006, had so much faith in the material that “he managed to squeeze it into his busy schedule.” Manicad added, “Dong is a sensitive actor. He gave so much of himself to the role.”
Playing the film’s gay choreographer, Paras was a standout, she said. “Joey was very enthusiastic and delivered every line straight from the heart.”
“Steel Bars” opens nationwide in SM Cinemas on June 12. “We plan to enter it in film festivals around the world,” Manicad said. “We are also working on screenings in major cities like Los Angeles, Vancouver, Singapore, Hong Kong, Doha, Dubai and New York.”
Meanwhile, Manicad is working on a new National Geographic documentary, “Asian Innovation Knoxout,” to be aired this month. She produces and directs two shows on GMA News TV, “Home Base” and “Turbo Zone.” Also on her drawing board are another NatGeo docu and a full-length film with a well-known international production company.
Photos Courtesy of Portfolio Films