SAN SEBASTIAN — Brillante Mendoza, Cannes’ 2009 best director for “Kinatay,” will be premiering a new film at this year’s San Sebastian Film Festival – only this time he will be acting as executive producer. The Philippines most respected filmmaker, Mendoza and his company Center Stage Productions, are backing first-time feature director Daniel R. Palacio’s drama, “Underground.”
In the Philippines, cemeteries are built above-ground, where the graves are stacked on top of each other which form walls that create a labyrinth-like effect. Within those grim walls, the countries homeless often co-habit alongside their deceased counterparts inside unvisited mausoleums. It is in just such a setting that Palacio first was inspired to write the script for “Underground.”
The film starts as a family drama, then quickly turns into a heist movie, all the while making religious and political commentary. The film focuses on a family of three, father Bangis, Mother Barbie and sickly daughter Ningning, who live in a mausoleum, when they aren’t temporarily forced back onto the streets by the Action Line, a group of red-shirted officials who occasionally come in and clear the living out from the graveyard.
More than just their home, the cemetery is the means by which Bangis provides for his family. A gravedigger and mason by trade, occasionally, under the cover of darkness, Bangis breaks into the coffins and remove valuables he finds for resale at local pawn shops.
The plot turns when daughter Ningning becomes increasingly ill, and her parents are forced to seek medical attention. Bangis realizes that the only way to get his daughter the help she needs is to execute a daring, late-night heist of a recently-deceased body in hopes of raising enough money to afford one of the cities few-and-far between doctors.
The roles of the two parents were played by fellow Mendoza alums Joem Bascon as Bangis, and Mara Lopez as Barbie. The two were supported along the way by the real life couple who inspired their roles, both of whom were often on set and helped choreograph scenes.
Until joining a Brillante Mendoza film workshop in 2016, Palacio was a completely self-taught filmmaker. In that same year the fledgling director also attended the screenwriting workshop of Armando Lao, one of the Philippine’s top talents in the field. “Underground,” marks a remarkable turn-around time for a director who, only a year ago, started his formal training. After its world premiere at San Sebastian, the film and its director will tour the international festival circuit before a domestic release in the homeland. Palacio talked with Variety about his feature debut, the story that inspired it and advocating for his country’s voiceless.
Why the title “Underground,” when the graves are all in fact above ground?
Two reasons. First is all the things done in secrecy, and illegally, in that place. Second is the indifference of the government. They are completely aware of the situation these people are in, yet they look past them, as if they’re already dead.
How did you find out about this family and their story?
Since 2010, I have wanted to write about people living inside cemeteries. I see them every time I visit departed loved ones. I made a number of visits to different cemeteries, but most of them just led me to common tales of poverty. I just had to find the right story. It was my house help who suggested I go to a certain public cemetery and there, I met Bangis’ father and he was my first interviewee. Bangis himself, and his wife Barbie, followed. Right off the bat, I found their story compelling enough and my empty notebook ran out of pages in just few minutes.
To what degree was the family involved in making the film?
From start to finish I let Julius, the real Bangis, share his thoughts. Since no one was allowed to read the script, I would let him act out certain scenes like the unexpected Action Line arrival, and the actors would take it from there. In the daughter’s funeral scene, we were caught off guard when it suddenly rained. I did not stop the shoot even if the cameras were getting wet because everything was just perfect. The actors were having a hard time sealing the tomb so I asked Julius to finish the job. He did it effortlessly. One brand new camera was non-functional after that.
The film looks and sounds like a documentary. Was that intentional?
Yes, to make it as real and as raw as possible. It’s also an effective way to engage the audience quicker. There were actual funerals that occurred during the shoot, and we made it part of the film. Those were the precious moments that capture truth. Another example was in the heist scene. The actors had no idea where the guard and other people were positioned before stealing the “corpse.” It created real tension, even for the crew.
It seems that each act had a different color pallette. How important were the color schemes to you?
Good question. The colors were very important to set tone, to let audience see life as the characters see it. We wanted the skin tone to resemble lifeless colors like rust and bronze. The blues were lessened to make it a dejected surrounding. The colors inside the cemetery were naturally bright so we had to tone it down, especially the “apartments” or stacked tombs. In the violent scenes, we highlighted the reds to symbolize power and aggression.
How did you get access to the cemeteries for filming?
Since it is a public cemetery, I had to write to the mayor of the municipality to get access to shoot. We stated the duration of the shoot and paid the necessary fees.
What’s next for you and the film?
After the international festivals, we will be focusing on Underground’s Philippine premiere. The film needs to be seen by the people it represents, especially in a developing country like ours. It barely scratches the surface of the poverty situation here. There are families living under bridges, living in the streets, sleeping on cardboard. They all have stories to tell. It would be an honor to be their voice.