Coming-of-age story explores complex family dynamics between a single mother and her eldest son
The coming-of-age story has become a staple in independent cinema, beautifully and artistically told from filmmakers spanning the globe. Typically geared towards young adults, these stories explore the growth of a protagonist, pulling from often-comedic experiences that have strengthened our hero.
The first feature film by Philippine writer-directors Allan Ibanez and Dexter Hemedez “1st Sem” tells the story of the eldest son of a widow who sets off to study at a prestigious university in Manila only to return home the next day. The son, 16-year-old Maru (played by newcomer Darwin Yu), tells his mother, Precy (Lotlot De Leon), that he felt lonely and missed his family.
Angry that her son disobeyed her wishes to receive a college education, Precy orders Maru to help around the house. Their relationship begins to deteriorate as they face challenges that further divide the family. The story explores the dynamic between the hard-working but crass mother and a well-meaning, trepidatious son.
“1st Sem” is a modern coming-of-age story, but rather than building experiences out in the world, he learns them in his own household. The film also discusses the very relatable experiences of being young and curious, and negotiating that precociousness with a demanding parent who only wants what’s best for her children.
But what comes out of the woodwork is the relentless love between a mother and son who overcome pride and allow love and resilience to win. The story is charmingly funny, but deals with very serious, but common familial disputes.
“I think whether you’re a Filipino or a person of a different nationality, the themes that the movie explored are universal and there’s a way you can relate to the characters and the experiences,” co-director and co-writer Ibanez told the Asian Journalafter the film’s premiere at the American Film Institute in Los Feliz.
Hemedez and Ibanez met in 2014 when they were both writers for soap operas on ABS-CBN. Both made short films in college and knew they would eventually want to create feature films.
As writers for the teleserye “Nasaan Ka Nang Kailangan Kita,” they had gotten close, often co-writing episodes together and pondered the idea of creating a feature length film together. Somewhere in that collective brainstorming came the idea of “1st Sem.”
“Our strongest asset going into filmmaking was that we had experience writing and we know how to tell the stories that are character-centered,” Ibanez said. “That was our strength. But when it comes to creating, directing and producing a feature-length film, that’s a totally different game.”
As an independent film with a very tight budget, the filmmakers faced a slew of commonly-experienced problems on set. But one of the biggest obstacles came in the form of an unnamed producer who stopped showing up to the set and had stolen money from an already meager production budget.
This matter lost them two very crucial filming days and delayed the pay of many of the film’s production crew and equipment. Stressed out and nervous for the film’s future, Hemedez and Ibanez did everything they can to, at the very least, get the film completed.
“I couldn’t get up for two months because of it. I got really depressed,” Ibanez said. “We really needed those two shooting days. We went to the bank to inquire if they would give us a loan. That’s how desperate we were in making this film.”
“No matter how big the problems we really tried to finish it in the best possible way because without the finished product it will be a lot worse. Thank God there are people in the Philippines who championed our film and posted about it on social media. It’s the start, it’s the little buzz that started everything for us.”
The buzz then got people talking about the film, which led to its release. Then a miracle happened. After one of their first screenings, an investor approached them after the screening to tell them he loved the film. He proceeded to pay off all their debts, which have allowed them to bring the film to the international stage and has been noticed by many film festivals.
Despite that period of chaos, the filmmakers said they feel lucky to have experienced the harsh reality of filmmaking and are working on another project together. Throughout the struggles, they remain smiling and proud of the finished product. In a way, the creation of this film was the filmmakers’ very own coming-of-age journey.
“This film, in a way, was like our first semester in filmmaking,” Hemedez remarked. “I feel like we grew a lot throughout this. We learned a lot and we were able to push through despite all the hardship.”
Since opening last year, the “1st Sem” has enjoyed great success, screening around the world and garnering several international cinema accolades including the Grand Jury Prize at the San Diego International Kids Film Festival, Special Jury Award at Festival Angaelica and Best Debut Feature at the All Lights India International Film Festival among several others.
Receiving awards for a first feature film is not uncommon, but on the international stage, it’s a totally different game, Hemedez said. But in a world that’s becoming more accepting of films from a wider variety of nations, the filmmakers knew the story — “a small film with a big heart,” fans have told them — would be universally relatable.
“The awards surprise us, but at the same time we knew from the beginning it was a story that is necessary to be told,” Ibanez said. “So when people approach us saying they loved the film, we are very thankful, and we’re very proud that we’re bringing a Filipino movie to these festivals. In a way, Filipino cinema is being appreciated abroad and that’s something we’re very proud and thankful for.”