Manila diaries – First contact

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“These are a series of diaries based on my visual research of Manila in 2018 for the development of the movie project “Iphigenia in Manila”. I wanted to share in these posts my experience exploring this chaotic city filled with colours, smiles and also problems and poverty, that made me go back home full of questions and things to think deeply about” Albert Ventura, Taipei 2022

Manila diaries – First contact

After visiting the day market Legaspi we took a walk around Dennis’ house and it was an amazing experience. It really felt like I was walking through a movie set. with all the colours and textures everywhere. People there were behaving like all those small alleys were just an extension of their own house. I was stepping among them feeling like I was disturbing their daily lives, but nobody really seemed to care about it. It was really like a photographers’ paradise. I was looking at my producer Alem and his partner Dennis, and I was asking them how come they weren’t taking pictures of what we were seeing around. 

I then realised that we helplessly get used to what we have and see in our daily lives, until we totally lose the excitement, and probably that’s why a complete stranger like me was the right person to make a movie in that place. I felt bad sometimes taking pictures of people that were just living their lives openly in front of me, and I even felt like I was taking advantage of them for my aesthetic purpose, but that’s probably the dark side that art has within, and specifically of photography. We hate having problems ourselves, but we enjoy observing how others manage their own troubles in their own lives. 

Everyone was really receptive and natural. I felt that the camera helped me to have a purpose to approach those kind people, like the perfect tool to break the ice and connect with them deeper than just merely using spoken language. It’s like you can dive into their personalities faster than through a regular conversation. Sometimes I feel like their reaction tells me in few time more about them than they probably know about themselves.

The way how they accept being photographed, the way they are shy but still want to be on the camera, some women arrange their hair for a little second before I prepare… Sometimes posing for a picture is the only moment they can show affection for each other, like in this upper picture. A stranger brings them close and reminds themselves that they are not foreign to each other. 

But I am sure I am also exposing things about myself to them that I am not conscious at that moment. How I feel excited every time they accept being filmed, how I greet happily to them in Tagalog… It’s a moment where two strangers connect in a deep way for a few seconds, until that that connection is lost forever and is only alive in our memories.

In this relation between them and me there are also lessons that I take back home. These people have obviously very little to live, just the minimum. And still smile most of the time. We arrive in this place full of troubles and challenges in our minds, but I am sure they are carrying theirs, probably heavier problerms than just looking for movie location.

The purpose of these visits is two fold. One is to know the place through their people: their culture, their habits, how they react in the time that I interact with them even just for a second. From these observations I try to imagine how would it be to deal with these people if I was in the same trouble as Jie, our main character. Would they help me? Would they just observe me, would they all let me sink in my own misery, leaving me alone in this cruel online game I have been put into?

Interestingly, Alem told me that recently someone he knows shot a movie about someone who stole something in the market and ran away through the crowd. They didn’t notify to anyone in the market that they would shoot that scene, and as a result, everyone tried to chase who they thought was a real thief. That’s really interesting to know, there is a strong sense of justice in this society, and who knows if it’s more than that. Is maybe that these people just wait for a chance to punish someone, as a way to find some relief from their daily issues in this harsh society? I will try to clarify these open thoughts in the next few days. 

When we stepped into Dennis’ house I first thought about the Indian party scene at the beginning. Although these are not the stairs that we need when Jie is carrying the body, we could combine several locations in a single scene. The advantage is that the roof is quite low, enough to jump in that situation, and the streets around seem to be narrow and not too crowded. At least the good news is that this kind of location I had in mind looks quite adjusted to the reality, so it may not require to make too many plot modifications for the those chasing scenes, a priori.

Upper image is a detail from Dennis’ house roof. The distance to the floor doesn’t seem impossible for a jump. However, originally I was thinking on a third floor terrace where I can jump to a second floor’s terrace and then to the street. So a total of two jumps to the street. Will observe tomorrow the situation in the slums.

Inside Deenis house the stairs had that narrow and local feeling that we were looking for the film. With simple and straightforward structures and dark bluish tones that really put me in the mood of the scene. We must thank Dennis mother’s too for welcoming me to take a look at every corner of the house.

Originally Jie encounters several doors on the way while he is pushing the body but we will need a proper community building for that scene. We will also see tomorrow in the slums if we see something like that. These are not either like the stairs from the beginning of the movie, where he is crashing into a building and finally finds the Indian’s house. But the atmosphere of the stairs and their simplicity are just reflected in this kind of house, just as I had previously imagined.

These are details of two of the rooms, they are simple and colourful. And all have windows to the street.

The catholic motifs are really a constant everywhere I go. As Spanish I feel that weird connection with my culture although the place is extremely exotic and distant. So contradiction and conflicted feelings are all over my head. I feel like the main character, lost and confused, but at the same time feeling that everything is looking at me, and talking to the inner me, although not sure I can process all this over flow of information. This mixture of unfamiliar and familiar symbols helps for sure to transmit visually the feeling of grief that Jie has during the whole movie. The moral conflicts and constant unease. Announcing as well a tragic ending, like the main character’s announced funeral in most of the locations.


A detail of Dennis’ mother’s house. 

This first experience left me with more questions than answers about Manila. In a way it approached me to understand the desperation of my own movie character, but it also affected me emotionally and made me think beyond the plot of my movie. In other words, I took my character back home. This is definitely a hard place to live and yet people have the energy to keep struggling. We often get used to what we have and forget how privileged we are to live in the first world. However, it also made me believe deeply in the potential of the Filipino people. These people seem more prepared for the hardship of life than myself, the kids that grow up in this place will surely not forget where they come from and learn to appreciate later the value of pursuing their dreams. It may look like a dark and sad place, but people here shine by themselves like I haven’t seen nobody else do in any other part of the world. 

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Juan

    Loved your way of showing us the reality of Manila, great job.

    1. Albert Ventura

      Thank you Juan! It was a tough but fascinating environment for a moviemaker!

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