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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

entry arrow10:54 PM | A Colorful Town and Its Artists

Carmen Singson del Prado’s debut documentary Dumaguete: An Artist’s Haven, which had its local premiere last May 18 at Gabby’s Bistro, manages to do several things at once—all of which I can more or less summarize to two basic points.

First, the film makes for a surprisingly comprehensive survey, given its two-week shoot, of the state of art and culture in Dumaguete (which includes people in painting, photography and design, literature, and even a little bit of film, theater, and music).

Second, it makes Dumaguete look like the coolest, most colorful, most-happening art haven in the whole country. The city bounces with such joy in this film, which is already a delight in itself to behold. If Dumaguete should make one form of achievement in at least one possible avenue, it succeeds as an unintentional, wholly accidental tourism come-on. It does in one quick half-an-hour what a thousand generic but official tourism videos about Dumaguete accomplish in the entire span of their shelf-lives.

Thank God then that the whole project also succeeds as documentary cinema.

But first, to contextualize the effort. Because one must make a case for the enterprise known as documentary filmmaking—an often infuriating undertaking that takes into consideration the mostly accidental of things. The documentarian captures what she can, and constructs a narrative from what she has—a situation that is a far cry from fictional filmmaking where everything is fabricated, woven out of thin air. True, while the documentary filmmaker may have a general story to pursue at the outset—let’s say, for example, Michael Moore waking one day to tell himself, “I am going to start a film about the American health care system today”— for the most part, it is a voyage into the “formless.” The ultimate goal is eventually wringing out an interesting story—with a dramatic arch—out of the endless hours of footage one has taken. The documentary filmmaker’s best friend is really luck—about being there at the right time to capture the right scene just as it unfolds—and his best tool is an unsurpassed skill in editing that puts together into coherence all those footage taken from the chaos.

It is not an easy thing to do, this kind of filmmaking.

So I can imagine Ms. Del Prado seizing one day this idea to make a film about artists in Dumaguete—and then to contrast it with the matter of actually doing it. “The primary reason,” she would admit later on, “was that this was my hometown.” What she wanted to do was to put Dumaguete on the map of art and culture of the Philippines, at least in terms of cinematic documentation

“This place,” she told me once, “is crawling with artists.” Which is true. All cities and towns, of course, have their fair share of artists—but Dumaguete, like Baguio its spiritual cousin, seems to have more than its fair share; its atmosphere, in fact, drips with bohemian romance. And she would know that very well, coming as she does from a family of artists: her father—a farmer—is also a photographer, her mother is a painter, one brother is a chef, another is an animator, and still another is into hilot. The youngest of them is showing some interest in the visual arts. That Carmen has gone into a very specific kind of filmmaking seems both pre-ordained and brave. For who does documentaries these days in the Philippines beyond the newsy stuff we get on television? Perhaps only Nick Deocampo and Ramona S. Diaz?

I remember Ms. Del Prado emailing me not too long ago asking for suggestions about whom to interview in Dumaguete. What she had initially in mind was a project focusing on five local artists—but I emailed back a long list that included not just visual artists, but also theater people, writers, filmmakers, graphic designers, photographers, dancers, and musicians. When she finally came around to shooting, with five subjects quickly turning to twenty, it soon became a project that needed a center of gravity: there were many talking heads speaking at length about art in the city—but what would the film be ultimately about?

The finished film, I can finally say, has that story, that center—although it is not easily palpable. It is not a story about the process of art-making. You don’t see here select people being followed into the hidden corners of their personal lives as they grapple and agonize about making art. The film is not about that at all. It is a mapping of sorts, a geographically-specific project that tries to define a place through the prism of one peculiarity. That peculiarity is Dumaguete’s attraction for the artistic type—how they come here, how the place nurtures them, how it is a haven. Hence, the title.

Watching the film, one becomes amazed by the color and vibrancy captured by Ms. Del Prado’s camera as it roams the city streets, capturing minutiae and what-not, traveling the city’s lengths to chronicle, in comfortable snippets, the passions of Dumaguete’s many art-makers.

There’s Jutze Pamate talking about local art history, there’s Kitty Taniguchi talking about the literary foregrounding of her famous paintings, there’s Yvette Malahay-Kim talking about setting up a fine arts program in the academe. There’s National Artist for Literature Edith Tiempo talking about the inspiration Dumaguete has brought to many writers, there’s Elizabeth Susan Vista-Suarez talking about local music, there’s Dessa Quesada-Palm talking about the advocacy ingrained in community theater. Then there’s Hersley Ven Casero, there’s Greg Morales, there’s Karl Aguila. There’s Ramon del Prado, there’s Phil Calumpang, there’s JM Aguilar. All of them coming to terms with the place and what it means in their pursuit of their individual craft. And, weaving through the film as its inspired soundtrack, there’s the music of Enchi, perhaps the most well-known of Dumaguete’s alternative music bands. It’s really a merry motley crew of the city’s denizens of creative expression, all gathered to make one story—that of the city and its relationship with its artists: how it opens itself as a comfortable haven for the budding painter, the searching filmmaker, the promising writer.

A full disclosure is in order: I’m part of the whole thing, my talking head punctuating space in the film here and there. My voice, in fact, opens the film, making some pronouncement about “the place of Art in our lives” over the title sequence. (That was one strange sensation, settling down to enjoy a film, and then begin it by hearing your own voice.)

But my enthusiasm goes beyond my small participation.

For a novice filmmaker, Ms. Del Prado, who is only 19, impresses by simply managing to make a film with such steady control of her cinematic aesthetics. Her sense of storytelling is laudable, gathering what could have been merely a filmed catalogue of artistic profiles into a narrative point that ends with the Big Event, in this case, the holding of Dumaguete’s Arts Month celebration. Her eye for cinematography also does something magical: it virtually opens up the small city, and makes it wide, colorful, accessible, fun. Her editing is impeccable—the pacing is just right, and it weaves its various threads together into what could easily pass for solid entertainment. She also takes on an unwieldy subject—all these artists and their colorful eccentricities—and tempers it to make a grand narrative about a town and its unique relationship with art-making.

Congratulations, Carmen. Here’s all of us hoping to see more films from you.

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