“Birdshot,” Filipino independent filmmaker Mikhail Red’s second full-length film feature, is on a roll in the filmfest circuit.
Last year, the film triumphed at the Tokyo Film Festival and gave Red the Asian Future Award. This year, it went back to Japan for the Osaka Asian Film Festival as part of its new New Action! Southeast Asia Special Program.
So far, “Birdshot” has been screened in about 15 film festivals across the globe.
The film, screened last week at the Film Society of Lincoln Center as the Centerpiece Film of the 16th New York Asian Film Festival, is a thriller that centers around two violent events that found an unlikely intersection as the film progressed. It stars veteran actors John Arcilla, Ku Aquino and Arnold Reyes, along with a young teen actress Mary Joy Apostol making her film screen debut.
NYAFF’s Sweet 16
The NYAFF, North America’s leading festival of Asian cinema, showcased 57 feature films, and featured appearances by more than 20 international filmmakers and celebrity guests from mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, and Southeast Asia.
New to NYAFF in 2017 is the Main Competition section, featuring seven diverse works by first or second-time directors that are all having their North American premieres at the festival. Competing are “Bad Genius” (Thailand), “Birdshot” (Philippines), “A Double Life” (Japan), “The Gangster’s Daughter” (Taiwan), “Kfc” (Vietnam), “Jane” (South Korea), and “With Prisoners” (Hong Kong).
“We were seeking a range of original films from young, first-time directors, films that represent the diversity of filmmaking from Asia, stories that say something both very local and specific to their countries of origin and something very universal: we hope we achieved at least some of this with our inaugural competition selection, which includes films from seven countries/cities in the region in a broad variety of genres,” NYAFF executive director Samuel Jamier said.
Two other films from the Philippines made it to the lineup this year, “Saving Sally” and “Matangtubig (Town in a Lake)”.
“It’s important for us to champion new filmmaking from Asia, and the diversity of film made there at a time when other festivals in North America seem to be reducing the size of their Asian lineups,” Jamier added.
The young director, Mikhail Red started writing and directing short films when he was 15. At the age of 21, he made his first full-length feature film, Rekorder, which went around the world to get screened in more than 10 film festivals. His first venture won him the Best New Director award at the 2014 Vancouver International Film Festival along with other awards and accolades in Barcelona and Gwangju.
“I’m really proud and thankful that New York Asian Film Festival invited our movie and has given us this platform to finally share this film with North American audiences. I hope people like our film,” Red told the Asian Journal a few hours before the screening.
Red said that the idea of the film started when he saw a news article years ago about a father and son who shot and accidently killed an eagle. The man was eventually jailed for that but he insisted he was unaware that it was a crime.
“It was tragic for the eagle, for the conservationists, even for the uneducated community members who live in the fringes of wilderness,” he shared.
Mikhail came up with the script, which he co-wrote with his cousin in late 2014 when they won a grant from Doha, Qatar. TBA, the production company behind the successful film Heneral Luna, came on board when they saw that we had funding and the script had potential.
The crew took their time since there were no deadlines or premiere requirements. It took them 23 days to shoot and six months for post-production. And when they were ready, they premiered at Tokyo Film Festival.
“Every time you’re in a film festival you are given a platform to share your story, your hard work with an international audience,” Mikhail said. “Just completing the film, it was a difficult film to make as it was almost ten times bigger than my first film, I had to parang jump off a cliff like bahala na, build your wings on the way down.”
“Birdshot” tells two parallel stories of two characters who start out very naïve and innocent and their characters progress and develop as they journey through in the film. Then there are a couple of senior characters, who tell them that in order to survive the pecking order, they have to grow fangs and learn to become the predators.
“I like morally ambiguous characters like that where the lines between the protagonists and antagonists are blurred. The film is like that, the characters are all victims in a way and are pitted against each other to survive this food chain of society and they have to navigate through a lot of moral decisions in almost like this minefield,” Red shared.
Peppered throughout that whole script is a lot of references to other true stories that happened in the Philippines, including his take on the infamous Maguindanao massacre.
In essence, the film is a microcosm of what’s going on in the Philippine society.
“I like making fictional plots more imaginative plots. I want the surface story to be something engaging even for a general audience. On the surface, “Birdshot” is a coming of age thriller with suspense elements but I’d like to smuggle in these extra layers that in a way, you earn as a viewer. Look closer and you get to see the sub-texts,” he said.
When Mikhail was planning “Birdshot,” he wanted a western set in the Philippine environment. In that case, he succeeded in doing so because they have been getting feedbacks and reactions that the film is not the typical indie film from the Philippines.
To complete the western look that he wanted, the team went to the Department of Agriculture and they explained their vision and pegs. The officials pointed to a map, which turned out to be Isabela, which is quite an interesting coincidence because as they found out later, the last of the Philippine eagle colonies in Luzon are found up there, in the Sierra Madre mountain range.
“When you think of Filipino film, you imagine rice fields so we decided to use corn fields instead to get that almost western look, that this is a place in the Philippines hidden from most of us. It’s almost like this Garden of Eden in a way, somewhere in the mountains where there is still a colony of eagles left,” he said.
The slow-burning thriller moves at a more dynamic pace as the characters go through their evolution. Mary Joy Apostol, the teen girls who plays Maya, delivers in a big way. Not quite a small feat considering that this is her first feature film.
“We wanted a fresh face surrounded by a lot of skilled, veteran actors. We made an open call and we got about a hundred submissions. Nag shortlist kami and she landed the role because of the combination of her grace and ferocity,” he said.
Arnold Reyes, who plays the role of Domingo, the rookie cop, is just thankful to be included in this film.
“Mik is very young. When I finished watching the film, I said, ‘Gawa ba ito ng isang batang director? This is only his second feature but for me, ang lalim ng pinanggalingan niya,” he shared. “For us actors to be working with a director like Mik, who knows what he wants, is a blessing for us. That makes our jobs easier.”
Reyes explained that he attacks each role from scratch and with his role as Domingo, he wanted to show where his character was coming from, his inner struggles and how he faces his dilemmas to survive in the world that the director has created for them.
“It’s a great experience to give justice to the role of Domingo. Working with Mik is one big learning process for me because his vision is something and he really knows what he’s doing. Masarap katrabaho ang mga young directors kasi ang fresh ng mga ideas nila,” he said.
Listening to that, Mikhail added, “What’s interesting and impressive in what Arnold and the rest of the cast did was that they had this character arc that they transformed to someone else in the ending and you see the contrast there compared to their roots. We had to shoot the film not in sequence so I don’t know how they pulled that off emotionally where we shift from one scene to another and where they are on their arc.”
At a young age, Mikhail has written, edited and directed six short films, all of which have been in competition and won awards at international film festivals. He has also participated in numerous film workshops and has been involved in several commercial and motion picture productions.
Despite his credentials and pedigree, he still gets nervous sometimes specially when he is working with industry veterans such as actor John Arcilla.
“It is very intimidating for a young filmmaker like me to be working with a lot of experienced and seasoned actors and crew members such as our cinematographer and production designer who have been in the industry longer than me so they know a lot more,” he shared.
As a young kid, Mikhail used to tag along his father, Cannes award-winning director Raymond Red during production shoots. Now, he is a man of his own character, travelling the world and telling the stories through his own films.
Among his tips to young ones who may want to venture into filmmaking as a career? Listen to the elders in the industry, learn from them and use that knowledge to share and tell your stories.
“It is also important that you are confident of your own voice and you know what you are doing. As long as you believe in your vision, they will see it and they will strike that balance of respect and knowing what you want,” he shared.
He is now working on his third feature film entitled Neo Manila slated for QCinema this October. For the long-term, Red is working on funding and resources for an ambitious period project about Black Dahlia and its Philippine connection.
And finally, next month, “Birdshot” – after screening in close to 20 film festivals by then, will be coming home to be shown nationwide in the Philippines.