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Filming the North: The Yogad Film Festival

THIS is perfect for a quiz show: Who are the Yogad? Where can you find them? We can even make this into a million-dollar question: What has the Yogad got to do with a film festival?

A week before Holy Week, we were in Echague, Isabela. “We” was composed of  Teddy Co, cinema-trivia master, film archivist and curator and presently chairman of the Executive Committee for Cinema of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA); Baby Ruth Villarama, award-winning documentarian and film scholar; Elvert Bañares, filmmaker and multi-awarded artist, and this writer. Other than Teddy Co, we are all members of the Executive Committee of Cinema under NCCA.

We were there to sit as jury for a film festival that’s labeled the North Luzon Film Festival and, aptly enough, subtitled “The Yogad Film Festival.” Lost in the popularity and the more byword names, like the Ilonggo, Kalinga, Kankanay and other ethnic minorities, the Yogad populated the present-day municipality of Echague as way back from its pre-colonial days. Described always as one of the smallest minority groups in the North, the Yogad were also in the other towns of Isabela and even in the area that’s now part of Quirino.

“Yogad” was an appropriate term—and was thus appropriated—for the film festival under the helm of Jerome Dulin. It was a film festival for short films opened to the filmmakers from this label “North.”

The films from the North and, for that matter, those films from the South, East and West of a country that sees and sits itself from the center, are marginalized, ignored even. The fact of naming a film competition after an ethnic community that used to be the source of identities for many people in this country is a great political move. “These are stories from the North and these stories are our stories, and they are different” seem to be the battlecry of the organizers and the filmmakers themselves.

If the battlecry has to be heard, then they should be loud enough. Loudness can be helped if the films are the types of films that cannot be ignored.

The films didn’t let us down.

There was Langi, which got the Best Experimental Film prize. The title literally means “to look back.” It showed a young girl navigating an area which was only familiar because we knew the vegetations and the surrounding, but other than that, the images are incongruent. It was the girl entering a portal, made possible by a very effective and affecting use of a blue screen, and coming out to a domain where the unexpected is made to look as regular.

A film written and directed by Daryl Yap looks at how people can be related to each other by the very opposite of their life, which is death. After the Beep is an in-your face confrontation with grief and loss—and this from a young filmmaker and a cast showing how maturity doesn’t have anything to do with age. We awarded the film Best Ensemble, to pay tribute to its actors who went through the scenes that would have been predictable had they not been so savage to make them truthful.

Best Sound Design was given to Glenn Barit for Kasama ng Paglisan ang Pag-alaala. Best Production Design was awarded to Austin Tan for Penitensya, a masterful story about a flagellant embedded in the present-day crisis of extrajudicial killings, the tyranny of religion and state a troubling concern for all Filipino filmmakers. Best Documentary went to Heinrich Domingo’s Ludong, a search for a vanishing fish species, which could be a distress signal for the vanishing ethnic communities in the country and the dissipating function of tourism. Barit, Tan and Domingo are all products of the University of the Philippines Film Institute.

The Best Actress plum was handed to Johanna Mutya Gonzales in Piko, for a searing portrayal of a mother losing a child and finding him murdered senselessly. It’s personally endearing for a critic like this writer to witness a performance that is refreshing and devoid of bad acting habits.

These young actors in the periphery are benefiting from less exposure to so-called drama coaches in the center. Perhaps they are even better because they have never gone to acting classes.

For the Best Actor prize, the proceeding was the most interesting and beguiling. There were two strong performances and both of them from children. One of the actors was in two films, with one film showing him in better stead than the other.

Eventually, we opted for a tie: Arvin Valdez for Niños Inocentes and Justin Valdez for Baon.

Arvin appeared in the film directed by his brother, Arnie. We volunteer the trivia, unfounded perhaps, that Arvin acted with such ease in the film where his brother was at the helm, behind the camera.

Justin Valdez was part of Baon, which was declared Best Film.

Again, as always, the choice for the Best Film was a minor headache and heartache for us in the jury. For those who have judged in many film concourses, you always get to this point where you want to just award everyone. Jurors have even developed an expression for that quandary: “Spread the sunshine.” Of course, jurors being jurors, meaning we want to declare excellence from our heart and mind, we opted to give the Best Film prize to Noel Escondo’s Baon.

Simplicity, which is the hallmark of engaging films, is the thread that puts together the stories in Baon. The film opens with a teacher, new and substituting for another teacher. As she declares a break, and as her pupils rush out for lunch, she notices one remaining behind, and looking down, with nothing to eat. The teacher goes near the pupil and offers him food. The teacher gets sick and the pupil seeks her out and brings her food, and even takes care of  her. Then one day, the teacher leaves and is gone. The next scene shows a young man looking at a boy who is still in the classroom even as his classmates have already gone out for lunch. The young teacher does what his teacher, his good teacher, did many years ago: He goes to the poor boy and shares with him his lunch.

The film appears to be merely feel-good at the surface. Deep within, the film offers something more: a decision to depict an action that, in its smallness, grows bigger. There is in Baon a gesture that, in its ordinariness, becomes a treasure in lives that are often neglected.

The Second North Luzon Film Festival was held under the auspices of the NCCA, the North Luzon Cinema Guild Inc., the Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP), and the local government of Echague in Isabela.

Jerome Dulin served as the festival director, and was assisted by Joseph Arcegono. Louie Simbe, the executive assistant and municipal cultural and tourism officer of the municipality of Echague, coordinated on behalf of the local government. Between these three individuals and the young filmmakers was the sprawling North Luzon, whatever and wherever that geography may lead them. There were mishaps and miscalculations; there were minor problems in coordination but in the end, the team of Jerome, Joseph and Louie (for they will be all on first-name basis from now on) proved to be a solid one, threatening the South and other directions—physically and metaphorically—for the holding of more film festivals from the periphery, as they promise to tell more stories from the North.

As of this writing, the North Luzon Cinema Guild Inc., with Jerome Dulin and his team, is holding a Basic Filmmaking Workshop in Tuguegarao City, on April 20 to 30. The workshop is an ongoing project of the FDCP.

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