Bona Fajardo, director of ‘I Found My Heart in Santa Fe’, on what makes cinema and how to take criticism

Bona Fajardo talks about the real reward of filmmaking, and other thoughts on Filipino cinema.

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Will Devaughn, Roxanne Barcelo, and director Bona Fajardo smile for cameras at the media conference for ‘I Found My Heart in Santa Fe’.

As the media conference for the film I Found My Heart in Santa Fe was wrapping up, we approached the director, Bona Fajardo, only to ask for a quick word. He noticed us and remarked, “O, ‘eto mga bagets,” and motioned us to sit down with him.

It was as if he sensed what we, the bagets, were curious about—his thoughts as on old-timer in the film industry. He’s been active since the 1990s, having served as art director for the landmark films Jose Rizal and Muro Ami, both by the late Marilou Diaz-Abaya. He has since aligned himself with the pioneers of independent, digital filmmaking in the country. At the 2002 Manila Film Festival, he won Best Production Design for Jon Red’s Utang ni Tatang. His own debut feature film, 2005’s Miss Pinoy, was Judy Ann Santos’ first indie. “Lagi kong sinasabi sa mga presscon, ‘Ah, hindi ako mainstream ah’,” he says, and laughs.

Will Devaughn, director Bona Fajardo, and Roxanne Barcelo on the set of ‘I Found My Heart in Santa Fe’.
Will Devaughn, director Bona Fajardo, and Roxanne Barcelo on the set of ‘I Found My Heart in Santa Fe’.

He witnessed first-hand the transition from celluloid to digital technology, but while it has democratized film production, he laments that no similar revolution has taken place for distribution. “Maraming mga filmmakers na nabigyan ng opportunity, pero ang malungkot doon, hindi naman nasakop ‘yong distribution, ‘yong venue, ‘yong pagpapalabas sa sine.

This gap has contributed to the decline he perceives in Filipino film viewership. “Parang ligaw ang audience, sa totoo lang. Kasi, before [ng] transition ng technology, ang sinehan, pagpasok mo, [ang mga tao] nakaupo sa hagdan, sa aisle, punong-puno siya. And then ang palabas, ang artista si Jimmy Santos. ‘Diba nakakatawa, ‘yong mga comedy niya noong araw, pero ang sinehan puno… Kaya [ngayon] kailangan buhayin ‘yung sine. Mas masigla noon, compared [sa] ngayon.” His passing mention of a Jimmy Santos movie reveals a palpable nostalgia for a bygone era of Filipino film-viewing habits, for a casual audience that patronizes local films by default.

His vision of a lively local audience in fact overrides his allegiance to the independent filmmaking scene. On the controversy of the audacious 2016 Metro Manila Film Festival, which saw a variety of indies bumping the usual mainstream contenders out of the line-up, he stands firmly in opposition. He sympathizes with the ticket-buying masses, who suddenly found the familiar fares missing from the Christmastime cinema schedules. Questions of quality or creativity do not matter if the popular audience is not willing to see the movies in the first place.

We asked the director about his vision for cinema, as the product, the artwork itself. Without pausing to deliberate, he explained his take on film art, via the example of foreign masters.

Si Martin Scorsese, pansinin mo ‘yong pelikula niya. Ang pelikula niya, ‘pag pinapanood mo, hindi siya punong-puno, na maraming elements na makikita sa frame. Pero dinadaya ka noong istorya niya kasi nakikinig ka sa kaniya, pero nagco-complement ‘yong mata mo doon sa nakikita mo. Ganoon siya gumawa. Ang isang talagang magaling na gumawa niyan, si Bernardo Bertolucci, ng The Last Emperor.

So ‘yon ‘yong sine. Sinasabi nga sa akin, ‘Napaka-old school mo.’ Hindi, kasi ‘yon ang alam kong sine. Hindi ‘yong crude. Okay lang mag-handheld ng mga shots mo e, pero importante, dapat magaling na ‘yong artista mo na napapanood, na naiintindihan, tapos maganda pa dapat ‘yong backdrop mo.

The importance of the background in films may be an awfully obvious point for many, but this is often overlooked by filmmakers these days. Fajardo recounts attending an international film festival lacking in Filipino entries. He asked the foreigners about this and was told that, well, that’s because your country’s films look like TV shows.

Ang mae-experience mo, ‘pag nanonood ka ng sine, hindi siya ‘yong parang nanonood ka ng TV na malaking-malaki. Halimbawa, alam niyo ‘yong Hardcore Henry? Gumawa siya ng film using GoPro, POV lang siya. ‘Yon, para sa’kin, puno siya: may production design, magandang artista, pero POV lang ang nakikita mo. Maganda ang mga backdrop nila, pero hindi siya sine, kasi para akong nanonood ng Counter-Strike! Iba parin ‘yong ‘sine’ na sinasabi.

Every time the director pronounces sine, he imparts a compelling stress to the word. His confident voice conveys his reverence for the art, the same reverence, rooted in tradition, that tells him there are limits to experimentation in cinema, that certain points of view cannot be employed in cinematography without the product losing the right to be called sine. This is also why he never mentions streaming, the latest ‘revolution’ in film distribution, as a rightful counterpart to the digital revolution in film production. Certain elements are lost when something meant for expansive silver screens are instead viewed on pocketable devices, thereby risking a failure of appreciation.

Hindi siya basta framing lang. Kabuuan ‘yon…para sa’kin ‘yon ang pag-gawa ng pelikula. ‘Yong ‘sine’ ‘wag nating alisin. Maappreciate mo ‘to, sa big screen [lang].

And here we are, with his latest film I Found My Heart in Santa Fe. The title embodies Fajardo’s sensibilities: there is a strong sense of locality in the movie’s premise—always an intriguing point—and its setting’s natural attractions fit the director’s demands for picturesque backgrounds. It is an approach also seen in his last film, 2009’s Iliw, which employed the historical and colonial flavor of Vigan City in its historical romance-drama story.

I Found My Heart in Santa Fe is about Jennifer, a spunky and pretty Santa Fe (Cebu) native, and Viktor, an adventurous German-Filipino entrepreneur searching for his roots in the country. The pair is played by real-life couple Roxanne Barcelo and Will Devaughn, an aspect that is both a curse and a boon: real partners playing the part of on-screen couples do not generate as much excitement as other love teams, but at the same time there is no denying the chemistry between the actors. All that is needed is for the filmmaker to capture and translate this spark well for the screen.

Roxanne Barcelo at the beach on Santa Fe.

The film is the tale of a foreigner enchanted by the natural beauty of islands and its locals. In weaving its story, Fajardo himself went through an experience of discovery. His idea for the film had been brewing for four years already, and when he discovered Santa Fe, he found the right one—the right backdrop, the perfect setting for his heartfelt story.

The film does lay its eyes solely on Santa Fe, but the director remarks that the entirety of Cebu is a filmmaker’s paradise. There is a nearly mystic quality in how the island flaunts its seas, beaches and mountains; there is versatility in how travellers could go from the depths of its surrounding waters to the heights of Cebu’s ranges without travelling far, something that could not be done in Luzon. As he toured with his crew around the province, Fajardo was particularly astonished when they ran into fog in Tuburan. He muses that the location would make for a good horror film.

For I Found My Heart in Santa Fe, they brought in Roxanne and Will to star, but the director proudly shares that they filled the rest of the cast with locals. “Nag-decide kami na magdala ng artista sa Santa Fe, pero the rest, puro locals na. May pagka-cinéma vérité, kasi kung sino ‘yong dinatnan namin doon, na puwedeng umarte, kayang umarte, may experience sa pag-arte, school man ‘yan, teatro man ‘yan, o kahit sa sarswela man ‘yan, tinanggap namin ‘yon, nag-audition kami for five days… Nakakatuwa naman kasi magagaling sila, mukha silang mga pro talaga.

Will Devaughn and the children of Santa Fe.

A paradise island is a pleasant location for any artist to work in, and in talking about the film, both the actors and the director spoke with an enthusiasm that could only be leftover good vibes, from a film shoot that was part work and part vacation. This glow could still be heard as Fajardo, after convincing us of the technical virtues of single-camera setups over multi-camera ones, spoke of what he enjoys in his craft:

Mas masarap ‘yong nahihirapan ka, nag-iisip ka papaano gagawin ‘yong sa next frame mo. Para sa akin ganoon, [kung ano ang] mas challenging sa pag-gawa. Para sa akin naman, ang beauty niyan ‘yong pag-gawa, hindi ‘yong pinanonood mo. So once na natapos ‘yan, hindi na amin ‘yan e, sa audience na ‘yan. Hindi ko na aangkinin ‘yan, na ipaglalaban ko, hindi na, bahala na kayo diyan. Kung anong sabihin niyo diyan, bahala kayo. Basta ang sa’kin, ‘yong beauty para sa’kin, ‘yong sarap ng pelikula, ay ‘yong pag-gawa, mula pre-prod hanggang post-prod. Once na-DCP ko na ‘yan, take-off na ‘yan.

We commented that it’s an excellent attitude, to seek the reward in the process, because it lends them grace when facing criticisms. He laughs, and continues: “[‘Yan ang sinasabi ko] sa ibang filmmakers. Hindi gano’n ‘yan e, ang task mo is gumawa, hindi mag-criticize… ‘wag niyong awayin [ang nagki-criticize], ‘diba hindi naman lahat ‘yan mapi-please e, hindi lahat ‘yan magugustuhan ‘yong pelikula mo, e pelikula nga ‘yan e… Noong ginawa ni Scorsese ‘yong The Last Temptation of Christ, ang sabi niya, ‘Relax, it’s only a movie.’

We could only wish all filmmakers shared his attitude. Despite his conviction in what counts as sine, his concerns end where the audience’s begin. He takes pleasure in his artistic freedom and he creates according to his vision; likewise, he respects the audience’s freedom in responding to his product, be it welcoming or harsh.

He may say that the audience is ligaw, lost, but this is not out of condescension or an imposition. It comes from a true concern for the art and the industry. Indeed, he never claimed that what he considers as proper cinema is for everyone. All that he wishes is for the audience to cultivate their love of film, wherever it takes them.

Sa audience ngayon, ang masasabi ko sa kanila, ‘pag nagustuhan mo ang sine ituloy-tuloy mo na ‘yan, idire-diretso mo lang ‘yan. Ngayon, kung ano ‘yong hinahanap mong ganda, kung anong istorya, nandiyan naman lahat ‘yan, makikita mo ‘yan.

I Found My Heart in Santa Fe opens in selected SM Cinema branches (Cine Lokal theaters) on Friday, September 15.

The featured image is by the author. The rest of the photos are courtesy of BluArt Productions.

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