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Things go swimmingly for the traveling ‘Isda’

ACTORS Cherry Pie Picache and Bembol Roco and director Adolfo Alix at the Inquirer. They suspect that the balla sharks used in the film knew how to act. RICHARD REYES

Indie director Adolfo Alix Jr.’s “Isda,” also known as “Fable of the Fish,” has been “swimming” to various festivals all over the world, making it one of the best-traveled films of last year.

Before 2011 ended, it had been screened in Busan, Toronto, Hong Kong, Kerala (India), Nantes (France) and Dubai.


The film is headed for another festival, in Goteborg, Sweden, from January 27 to February 6.

Along the way, the Cinemalaya film about Lina, a woman who gives birth to a fish (specifically, a balla shark), has earned good reviews.


Hollywood trade paper Variety said its “precisely framed, color-desaturated lensing captures the hellish landscape of the garbage dump as it swarms with activity.”

At the Hong Kong fest, Time Out called it “odd and surreal,” hailing lead actress Cherry Pie Picache (who plays Lina) as “superb [and] …

the gossipy neighborhood [as] great fun to watch.”

After it was shown in Toronto, bloggers praised the film as well.’s Danielle D’Ornellas noted: It “has a careful tone, never mocking or laughing at Lina.”’s Leslie Armstrong wrote, “The film is at once comedic and solemn, allowing a moment of incredulity … but relaying some profundity.”

“Isda” allowed one of its stars, acclaimed actor Bembol Roco, to attend his first-ever international film festival in October, in Busan. (It was also his peripatetic costar Evelyn Vargas’ first time in the Korean fest—though she went with Alix to Toronto in September.)

Picache finally got to join the “Isda” tour when it was screened in Dubai last December.


In the midst of this hectic festival rigodon, cast and crew visited the Inquirer office where the film was likewise shown.

Alix and his actors recounted the journey that was “Isda,” which is set to be shown in local cinemas next month.

Generally, what is the foreign audience’s reaction like?

Adolfo Alix Jr. (AAJ): They say they’ve always wanted to watch a Filipino film with a touch of magic realism. When some foreigners asked about the backstory, though, they were surprised that it was based on a real-life incident that was featured on Inday Badiday’s TV show, “Eye to Eye,” after the EDSA Revolution.

They seemed very interested. A New Zealand programmer told me about the fish babies phenomenon in her country. Turned out, there were similar reports there.

Do they question the plausibility, the scientific validity of the film’s premise?

AAJ: Well, there are so many questions that cannot be explained scientifically. I am fascinated by issues of faith and belief systems. Lina firmly believes that she gave birth to a fish. But we also present a character who’s a skeptic, her husband, Miguel, played by Bembol. In the end, he proves that he loves his wife so much that he is able to transcend his own biases.

There is one scene where Lina and Miguel seem to be engaged in a theological debate.

AAJ: It cannot be avoided since we live in a predominantly Catholic country.

Cherry Pie Picache (CPP): Lina is a very pious woman, a simple barrio lass. When we filmed in Catmon, Malabon, I got to meet a lot of people like Lina, who have no complicated issues in life. For Lina and people like her, life is just a matter of day-to-day survival. There was no way to go but to play it straight.

What are the common questions posed by foreigners?

AAJ: In Toronto, they asked why I called it a “fable.” Well, it has an animal in the story and it reads like a fable. There’s a lesson pa. I compare Lina to a parent who accepts and loves a child unconditionally, whether he’s a drug addict or a murderer. I also wanted to present a “fantastic” story and set it in a very real location, a dumpsite. It was exciting for me because the story encourages people to come up with their own conclusions.

Bembol Roco (BR): It can open people’s minds and spark discussions.

How many fish did you use during filming?

AAJ: Seven balla sharks.

CPP: Balla sharks are pretty ha.

AAJ: In the original (Palanca-winning) short story (by Jerry Gracio who also wrote the script), it was a dalag (mudfish). I thought a dalag doesn’t look endearing. It looks scary nga. I wanted to use a bangus, kasi nga national fish. But when we did research, we learned that a bangus would die immediately when taken out of the water. We had to look for a fish that looked closest to a bangus.

Busan was Bembol’s first festival abroad. Why did it take so long for you?

BR: I did a lot of films in the past that were also shown abroad. But in the old days, like during the time of Lino Brocka, actors didn’t have a lot of opportunities to attend festivals.

Evelyn Vargas (EV): It was also my first time there. I was impressed. I saw the newly inaugurated Busan Cinema Center. How I wish we had a similar venue for our films. Bongga talaga. The Korean government gives a lot of support to filmmakers and it starts in the local government units, which develop filmmakers from the regions.

What’s the significance of being acquired by the US firm Visit Films?

AAJ: I worked with Visit for “Adela.” Visit was the sales agent of “Manila,” too. Visit execs saw “Isda” in Toronto and decided to pick it up. That means they will take care of the distribution and its run in film festivals. That makes things easier for indie filmmakers like me.

What was the shoot like for you?

CPP: What I love about doing indie films is the process. We shot in Catmon for 15 days. It was difficult at first. It had been five years since I last worked in a place like that.

BR: It was a real dumpsite.

CPP: It took a while before I got used to it.

BR: After some time, you’d get the hang of it.

CPP: You got to meet the people.

BR: You got used to the atmosphere.

CPP: It was a beautiful encounter, something that enlightens you as a human being.

BR: On a personal level … it opens your eyes to a lot of things.

CPP: We also talked about the amount of plastic waste in that place.

BR: Tons and tons … Even after a hundred years, the plastic garbage would remain there. You can see the damage we’ve caused on the environment. Grabe!

CPP: Now, I don’t ask for plastic bags in the grocery store.

What was the toughest question asked by a foreign viewer?

EV: Why we set it in a dumpsite.

AAJ: I explained that I wanted to show the contrast: A mountain of garbage and a marine park in the same city. A magic-realist story in a gritty setting. It wasn’t poverty porn.

BR: It wasn’t just about poverty in the first place.

EV: Adolfo never delved into the people’s work as scavengers naman, di ba?

AAJ: Hardest question for me was when someone asked why I chose a fish. Why not a dog?

EV: What he said was, he had done a film about a goat (“Kadin”) and whale sharks (“Donsol”). He was simply continuing his animal series.

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