Two unlikely hits this year have thrust independent Philippine cinema into the global spotlight and shown, filmmakers say, that freedom of expression remains in the country despite the shadow of martial law that’s currently hanging over it.

Jun Robles Lana’s “dramedy” Die Beautiful was a surprise commercial success following its general release during the Metro Manila film festival in December. A five-week run in cinemas was, says the director, unprecedented for an independent film that explores the life of a transgender character.

“People came back to see it again and again,” says Lana. “I think it was not so much that the character at the middle was transgender but that she was a mother, she was a friend. For it to make it as a mainstream movie, and to be exploring a topic that is extremely sensitive, for me that is already an achievement. There is a slow acceptance for the gay community and the lesbian community but the transgender community is taboo.”

Lana’s film has won over audiences and critics abroad, too, ever since its world premiere at the Tokyo International Film Festival in November.

Paolo Ballesteros – who starts in the role of a transgender character whose life struggles are reflected upon in flashbacks during a wake – picked up the best actor award at TIFF, while the film won the festival’s audience award. Ballesteros was also named best actor at the International Film Festival of Kerala, in India, and then at the Metro Manila event at the end of last year – and the film has since been on the global festival circuit.

“We wanted to show the dimensions of the humanity, of the person,” says the film’s producer Perci Intalan. “People – especially in the Philippines – become obsessed with physical appearance, and that’s it. It is very superficial. [People] don’t dive deeper. That’s something that Jun wanted to show in Die Beautiful, that the humanity of the person is universal. It’s the same struggles.”

Director Jun Robles Lana speaks at the Far East Film Festival. Photo: FEFF
Director Jun Robles Lana speaks at the Far East Film Festival. Photo: FEFF

Die Beautiful’s success comes as Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte threatens to extend martial law countrywide, after imposing it across the troubled island of Mindanao. This has brought back memories of the reign of Ferdinand Marcos, when martial law was imposed from 1972 to 1981 and the Philippine film industry found itself heavily censored.

“Censorship was a big issue for us during martial law so that is something that we are allergic to,” says Lana.

The filmmaker says that to date independent Philippine filmmakers have been able to explore society at will – a notion supported by Liza Dino, chairperson of the Film Development Council of the Philippines.

“Freedom of expression is very much [still] about in the Philippines,” says Dino. “The government doesn’t get in the way. I’m from the government and we really don’t get involved in content.”

Dino says Duterte recently put the onus on the filmmaking community during a speech at the opening of an arthouse cinema. According to Dino, he said to filmmakers: “You have the responsibility of using your art, your craft, to create a discussion and a discourse.”

A still from Baby Ruth Villarama’s Sunday Beauty Queen. Photo: FEFF
A still from Baby Ruth Villarama’s Sunday Beauty Queen. Photo: FEFF

Lana’s film struck a special resonance for Dino, who is married to a transgender man. She believes Die Beautiful is a “landmark film” and its success has opened up issues of sexuality in her country.

Dino and the Die Beautiful filmmakers travelled to the Far East Film Festival in Udine, Italy, in April. There, director Baby Ruth Villarama’s documentary Sunday Beauty Queen also screened after being named a surprise winner of the best film award at the Metro Manila festival – a first for a documentary. Like Die Beautiful, it continues to make its way to festivals over the world after a world premiere at the Busan International Film Festival in South Korea last October.

Back then, Villarama explained her desire to tell stories about “ordinary Philippine people” and in the case of Sunday Beauty Queen that means the Filipina maids who live in Hong Kong and gather each weekend to prepare for a beauty pageant.

“I wanted to show them living their daily lives, with their own hopes and dreams, and hopefully that will open up a dialogue about who these people are and the role they play in the world today,” she said.

Lana – who hopes to take his film to schools – says independent filmmakers have long been aware of the role they play in domestic society, and in sharing the stories about Philippine people with the world. “We want to help start the dialogue,” says Lana. “It is important that we help to get people talking.”