By Terence Repelente
Director Kip Oebanda never really studied film—at least not initially. He has an economics degree from San Beda College and a Master’s degree in economics and management from the Asian Institute Management, all of which don’t really have much contribution to what he does now (except maybe in the marketing aspect of his films). One thing’s for sure, he has always loved watching films—all kinds and genres, “Even random horror films,” he says. “Even the ones nobody watches. I think I’ve seen thousands? Everything that comes out at SM Cinemas, film festivals like Cinemalaya, or indie (independent) films, I watch them all.”
Kip was working full time in a non-profit organization on cases of human trafficking when one day, while walking around Ortigas, he saw a banner for a film school, Asia Pacific Film Institute (APFI). The rest is history.
The first film he directed was Tumbang Preso, which he wrote supposedly for class. Tumbang Preso makes a bold stand against child trafficking. It got an A rating from the Cinema Evaluation Board. While doing it, he was also writing the script for his next big project, Bar Boys, which he finished in one day, 17 hours of continuous writing, to be exact. The reason the first draft of Bar Boys poured naturally was because it was about his barkada (friends). It was one of the highest grossing films of the Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino last year. It won Best Supporting Actress and was nominated for Best Screenplay by the prestigious Gawad Urian Awards. His other film Nay, a gripping horror that was also an allegory on the state’s controversial war on drugs, competed at the Cinema One Originals. He has also worked as an assistant director for his teacher Jet Leyco’s film Bukas Na Lang Sapagkat Gabi Na and production designer for his classmate Siege Ledesma’s film Shift.
But when he was starting in the industry as a director, people always asked him one question: When will he tell the story of his mother and his childhood? “If I were to write about it, I told myself it would be at a time when I’m quite confident na as a filmmaker,” he says.
Years later, he finally decided that it was time to tell the story in the form of the film Liway, a finalist in the full length category in this year’s Cinemalaya. The film, which mirrors Kip’s real life, is about a young boy named Dakip who lives with his parents Day and Ric inside a prison camp for rebels and criminals. Dakip’s mother, Day, tries her best to hide him from the harsh realities of their current predicament. She sings him songs and tells him stories and tales about an enchantress named Liway to protect him from trauma. The film is set during the near end of Martial Law, a time most difficult for detainees and political prisoners. Day is haunted by her past as Kumander Liway (a rebel fighting for national democracy and the fall of the dictator), and in the end confronted with the possibility of letting go of her child in order to give him a better future.
As one could imagine, it was hard for Kip to create the film, let alone begin writing it. “Ayoko talaga siyang gawin noong una, honestly (I was having second thoughts about it at first). Why would I put myself in a dangerous position. Liway will inevitably have a political slant,” he says. “But it’s as simple as saying that the film is about Martial Law, a specter of what’s happening in society now, (which) seeps into the fabric of every social institution including the family, how it tears people apart, how it destroys lives. But I do think there was a reason why I decided to finally make it. The time is right.”
A few years ago, when the “Marcos burial at the Libingan Ng Mga Bayani” happened, Kip spoke in a mobilization at EDSA. And when the issue broke out, he wrote a note on Facebook, narrating the story of what happened to him and his family during Martial Law. “I didn’t judge any political figure, I did not praise or insult anyone in politics, I didn’t pin the blame on anyone, I just said ‘these are the facts, this is what happened.’ It got massively shared, and what surprised me was, no one bashed me for it, I didn’t get trolled or hated, not even by those who do not necessarily agree with my political leanings,” he says. “And so I thought maybe this is the way to start the discourse with people who don’t necessarily subscribe to your political views: Just give them facts, give them the stories of what really happened. Even some people who supported the regime were okay with it. They were willing to listen.”
So the question becomes, according to Kip, “If you’re a filmmaker, and you know that this is important in starting a discourse, don’t you then have the responsibility to say it or put it in the form of a film?”
“I’m not going to deny it, I feel the fear in sharing the story, but so does every protester, every person speaking out. For me it was just really a matter of telling myself that I have to do this. It’s not the time for cowardly filmmaking,” Kip says. “In the film, Dominic Roco’s character says: ‘Malaki ang kasalanan ng mga taong nananahimik sa ganitong panahon (It’s a sin to be quiet at times like this)’—I think that reflects what I feel. Especially at a time when some people invalidate our history, our struggle, and dismiss activists during that time as mere nuisance or, in the words of someone I know, panggulo o nanggugulo lang, when really the lifeblood of democracy is protest and speaking out. When people say things like that, and try to erase not just our history, but the history of all the victims, I find it unacceptable. You can make your own narratives but don’t discredit the narratives of others.”
Kip doesn’t, and never will, deny that his mother was a member of a rebellious movement—“That’s part of history, and that’s the story that I will tell.” To him, the film is not necessarily about the birth of the New People’s Army (NPA), it’s not about the rebellion per se, “Because there are many other films that have tackled that in great detail and in quite excellent fashion. Liway is really more of a personal story of a family,” Kip says. “But here’s the thing, where you get your political awakening is very important. Most of the people who joined the movement didn’t initially start as believers of communism or socialism, they were just trying to live out their lives quietly, and then the system encroached on their rights. So, where do you go in a time of dictatorship? Kapag walang civil society, wala kang mapuntahang tao? Mamumundok ka kesa mamatay or ma-torture (You go to the mountains, to the countryside, instead of getting killed or tortured)—that’s exactly what happened to a lot of people that I wrote about in Liway. There, they find camaraderie, they find brotherhood, they find a sense of purpose, and they find awakening to the inequalities of society and the system. If you would look at who were targeted and victimized by the Martial Law, and also by a lot of strongmen in Asia, they were the intellectuals, the academics, the writers, the artists, the directors. They were swept away. And where do you want them to go? The movement became a refuge for a lot of people, and that’s a fact.”
‘If you’re a filmmaker, and you know that this is important in starting a discourse, don’t you then have the responsibility to say it or put it in the form of a film?’
What’s interesting, Kip says, is that even before the beginning of the festival, a lot of people, especially activists, are already embracing the film. And he likes that they do. He wants the film to be a tool for greater class awareness among people. “Let’s not kid ourselves. There is a massive class disparity in the Philippines pa rin. The removal of Martial Law did not fix that,” he says. “I don’t have full control of how the message will be perceived by the public.”
But, Kip says, it’s about being resilient, keeping the family intact during a difficult period, when rights were violated, when exercising democratic rights were not permitted. How do you find hope? That’s what Liway offers.
Because the film was based on real events and real people, one of the hardest parts of creating it was writing the characters. “Hindi sila puwedeng (they can’t be) perfect,” Kip says. “You don’t lionize characters, they become boring. I had to be honest and truthful about their personalities, their strengths and weaknesses, their vulnerabilities.”
For the lead role, Kumander Liway, his mom, Kip needed someone who could balance both the necessary courage and the gentleness of the character. “Liway is a softspoken, gentle woman until she needed to fight. And when she needs to fight, she fight,” he says. “I think Glaiza De Castro has that range, she can balance it out quite nicely, both vulnerability and strength. In many ways, Liway is a strong female character, and Glaiza is a good fit because she’s an empowered, strong woman. Also, she sings well! She sings two songs in the film—‘Himig ng Pag-ibig’ and ‘Pagbabalik’”
Glaiza plays the character of Day/Liway, who was a catechist teaching farmers about liberation theology in Negros. One day, amid the state-sponsored killings and crackdown against religious groups, the hut where Liway stayed with farmers was burned down and ransacked, so she fled to the mountains. “Her real goal was to get home, have a complete family. But then, when she gets captured, that changes. Her goal now is to protect her kid, make sure to shelter him from the trauma of this era,” Kip says.
At first, Kip recalls, Glaiza was nervous about the role, doubting if she could give justice to the character of Liway. Kip’s solution was to get the cast to meet the people (or their friends) they portrayed in the film. This method really helped the cast get into their characters, especially Glaiza. “Some of the things these people experienced are not experienced by ordinary people. Just living in prison is hard to approximate,” he says. “But I’m very happy and satisfied with both their performances, Glaiza and Dominic. On the last day of shooting with Glaiza, we had this very sad scene, and she was frustrated and had a hard time because she said she was emotionally exhausted. She gave the film her all. Same with Dominic. When you see your actors giving it all they have and it’s authentic and real, coming from a place deep inside of them, as a director, you should be grateful.”
Ultimately, Kip promises that the film ends in a hopeful mood. “It’s really about resilience, love, and hope more than anything else.” And if there’s one emotion Kip doesn’t want his audience to feel after watching Liway, it’s despair. Instead, he wants everyone to feel a strong sense of hope for the country and a love for freedom. That is why, in the film, the baby, Dakip’s sister, is named Malaya, which is what the family has always was wanted—Freedom. “In fact, even the song choice carefully talks about that. The ‘Himig ng Pag-ibig’ line literally says: ‘Tulad ng ibong malaya, ang pag-ibig natin / Tulad ng langit na kay sarap marating.’ That sums up the film quite well.”
Liway will be shown at this year’s Cinemalaya Film Festival, which will run from Aug. 3 to 12 at the Cultural Center of the Philippines and selected Ayala Cinemas.