Based in Iloilo, Philippines, Carlo Pangalangan is an indie filmmaker already making big splashes in the art community. His belief is to make honest and personal films, two qualities that cannot be measured by his budget. I caught up with Carlo to learn a bit about what it’s like to be an independent filmmaker and the effects of social media on the industry in another creative showcase episode in an ongoing interview series with creatives in a variety of different mediums.
What kind of set-up do you use? Describe your creative process?
Carlo: I guess you can say our set up and creative process go hand-in-hand. All we really need is a person or a place to unify the piece and that’s what we go with; we don’t write scripts, we just go with certain ideas. We have a very simple set up, we shoot with one camera, and oftentimes it’s just my partner, Cristine Joy Abastillas, and I as the crew. Our approach is very intuitive, so we have to able to react quickly to things as they happen, so we shoot handheld. I consider us more like creating alchemy rather than directing because we tend to bring certain elements together (like two people, or bringing a person to a place, for instance) and just observe what happens. The process requires a lot of patience and powers of observation.
We almost never know how a film is going to turn out until we’re done shooting, that’s what makes each project so interesting. There is no right or wrong way for us, it’s more like “Let try it and see if it works.”
You believe that the ‘line’ between fiction and nonfiction is really thin. Could you describe what you meant?
Carlo: Ah, OK, this is going to be a long answer (laughs). So I started out as a fiction filmmaker, making films with complete scripts, working with actors, etc.; everything was very controlled, from the way the actors said their lines to the way shots were set up. It just didn’t work for us, so I started stripping away the prescribed way of doing things, ostensibly giving up control, and I was fascinated by the results. I made one short called “The Brief Moment We Were Strangers” which represented a crossroads for me. It was the first time I realized the possibilities of incorporating reality into fiction (or vice-versa, depending on how you look at it). The line just became blurred for me, and I started just filming everyday things, little moments that would affect me. Cristine and I also collaborated our first short, “Mialo”, and she showed me these little moments that were spontaneous and so moving, I decided to try and explore it further by just shooting documentaries.
I had realized that was trying so hard to make things so “believable” and “real” in my fiction films that I didn’t even notice the real things that were going on were far more affecting. I had seen how the documentaries I shot felt more like it had more substance in a sense that people’s lives were far more complicated than anything I could have written.
After 2 years of just shooting documentaries, I suddenly felt the need to shoot fiction again. I made “Mga Banas (Paths)” and “Wala na Kahoy sa Guwa Sang San Ag (There are no more Trees Outside San Ag)”. We realized we couldn’t make it like a conventional fiction anymore. I still approached it like a documentary, I gave the “actors” free reign, there was no script, and we had no idea how it was going to turn out. The only fictional elements are that we brought them to those locations, gave them a general idea of what we wanted them to talk about (which they were able to incorporate really well into their natural conversations) or what we wanted to happen. The rest was really up to them. There were plenty of surprises and things that were going on outside of our shoot that we incorporated into the films.
It’s now impossible for me to make a completely fictional film, just as it would to make something completely “non-fiction”. I’d argue that bringing a camera already alters what would be non-fiction, people will act differently with a camera present, some people are just able to deal with it different ways. This isn’t a new idea, it’s been around since the beginning of film; you can see this in the films of the Lumiere brothers. One the greatest contributions cinema has to art is its ability to portray reality and one of the frequent dismissals of a film is when it’s not “realistic”, “believable”, or “plausible”, which means people to do expect when something looks real that it should not break that reality. Fictional films incorporate non-fictional elements to help create that reality, especially now that films feel more “real” with digital films. Every time you film on location, with people, you are inviting spontaneous, unexpected, non-fiction things to happen. I don’t know why fiction filmmakers tend to not use this in their films, even considering them “mistakes”, to me these things are the most beautiful things that you can capture on film.
I guess from a philosophical standpoint, I believe there’s a thin line between fiction and non-fiction because that what I see in art that admire. The artists are just unable to separate their lives from their work. It’s really personal work, not being afraid to show their vulnerabilities, what ultimately makes us human.
From the outside, it seems like the indie film scene is very insular and collaborative—almost a collective. Is this an accurate perception?
Carlo: Is it? I wouldn’t really know because from where I make films here in Iloilo, there is no independent “scene” or “community” to speak of. Our collaborators have no real interest in filmmaking and have lives far removed from the film world, I guess that’s what makes them more interesting to work with. I have been trying to get a community of filmmakers together in Iloilo; I started a Facebook group, and quite a few people joined, but only handful of them are actually actively making films. And to varying degrees, they’re just starting out. So it’s probably still early to really say anything about a scene in Iloilo.
I noticed you film in the United States as well as other countries. With films like “Kanto [The Corner]” and among other shorts, you choose to shoot in worldly locations like the Philippines. Would it be easier to make your movies somewhere else? What draws you to production in these areas?
Carlo: I’m not really sure what you mean by “worldly”, because I am originally from the Philippines. To me, to call the Philippines a “worldly” location would be to look at from an outsider’s point of view. But, I am one those Filipinos who finds himself stuck between two worlds. The majority of my family has immigrated to the United States, and they took me along with them. I wanted to make films that related to my experience being in the US, but it was hard to find collaborators who shared the same viewpoint, especially in a city like Los Angeles.
Yes, there are certain advantages, like not having to get permits to shoot, but that’s not the reason why I shoot in the Philippines. People and places that interest me are my subjects, it just so happens that most them are in the Philippines. I don’t think it really matters where I shoot, it depends more on my specific interest in a person or place. I recently visited Taiwan and would definitely love to make a film there someday.
I’m not sure I can really say what draws me to a place or to a person, I don’t really think about it. I can’t really put it into words; maybe that’s why I try to realize it visually in my films instead.
How do you feel the online outlets for independent new work have affected the audience you reach and how you reach them?
Carlo: Well, I’m not sure I would have the audience that have now without my work being online. There are no other outlets for me, as non-mainstream films aren’t screened in Iloilo. My films have been screened publicly in Los Angeles and Manila, but they’re usually grouped together with other shorts, so I can forgive the audience for not remembering which one was my film.
Online outlets have allowed me to show my films on my own terms, without having to conform to any of the standards of the gatekeepers (films having to be a certain format, genre, or running time). Well, almost, I guess the running time is still a standard I have to conform to as there are there are upload limits when it comes to file size or an actual time limit. Sometimes I have to upload my work in several parts, but I never made a shorter cut of a film just so it could fit the file size or time limit. I’m not an aggressive self-promoter, I don’t try to market my work or look at it as a product I’m trying to sell, so people seem to discover my work just by stumbling upon it. I’ve been able to meet a lot of my audience with my work online, and some have actually become really good friends. Online outlets have just taken out the whole barrier between the filmmaker and the audience, people who like my work become friends with me on Facebook, they comment on my work on Vimeo and I engage in discussions with them. I want people to be honest with my work, that’s why I have a hard time accepting compliments or praise, because I know none of my films are still attempts at something, experiments and the flaws still very apparent to me.
That being said, nothing beats actually attending a screening and talking with the audience after, whether it be in a Q&A or just over tea. I still don’t think the computer is really the best place to watch films, but until people getting internet through TVs become more of a standard, it will have to do. As a joke, I once put a fan page of myself on Facebook, and I never told anyone about it, yet as of now, 45 people “like” it. Where did these people come from? And how did they come across my work? Those things still fascinate me.
You have a bunch of short films screening in the Metropolis Film Screening Series “Levels of Reality”. Any advice for any filmmakers out there who want to reach an audience and to be recognized by such organizations as the Asia Pacific Film Institute?
Carlo: I’m probably to worst person to ask, because it’s not really my goal to reach an audience and be recognized. Probably when I first starting out, yes, it’s human nature to want to be well-liked or get others’ approval, but you can get caught up in all of that and lose focus on your work. The work becomes less personal and you end up pandering to the expectations of those who you want to recognize you. I’ve learned to just focus on the work and the rest will take care of itself. People tend to just look at the results and they forget about the effort required to get results. The work should be the reward in itself; everything else, like recognitions, awards, money, or whatever, should only be viewed as additional blessings. I’ve had work screened at the Directors Guild of America in Los Angeles and even in a mall theater, and they were all great experiences, but it was all icing for me.
I just make films that are personal, about things that mean something to me, and if people like it, then great, and if they don’t, it’s all right. At the end of the day it comes down to being true to myself and the work that I made and I’m happy that I’ve never had to make compromises I didn’t want to make. After you’re long gone, along with the recognitions, etc., the work will still remain: just ask your self, do want to leave behind a work that went for the recognitions or actually make something that matters to you?
Many thanks to Carlo for sharing his life’s work and allowing me to pick his brain. If you would like to see more of his work check out his cookie crumb trail:
Film work page
Film work page 2
Facebook Filmmaker page
Facebook Fan Page