By Charisse Garcia
When we talk about Filipino identity in Australia in the current pandemic mode, there is always a strong link to resilience and courage. But Filipino identity is more than that; we are more than our struggles and hardships. We have an abundance of creativity and ingenuity. In the absence of social connections globally amidst the pandemic, a Melbourne-based Filipino-Australian independent filmmaker, Matthew Victor Pastor, is a step closer to showcasing more Filipino talents without borders. He is not afraid to tell his stories and his heritage. With Melbourne as backdrop, the lives of young migrants crossed paths in Pastor’s second instalment of his 2020 trilogy, ‘A Pencil to the Jugular’.
Some scenes from A Pencil to the Jugular:
The Filipino Diaspora: the different narratives of Pinoys engendering our Filipino culture through the arts is an unfamiliar context in the Australian film industry and perhaps in the world. There is a handful of Filipino films that portray authentic stories of Filipinos and their unique journey in their new home. Pastor’s poetic and elaborate filmmaking addresses the unseen realities of living. Over the years, he has created films that challenged linear Filipino film viewing perception. These films include ‘In Heaven They Sing Karaoke’, ‘Fun Times’ and ‘MAGANDA! PINOY BOY VS MILK MAN’. Pastor continues to sustain Filipino-Australian culture through his filmography.
An interview with Matthew Victor Pastor
Q: Congratulations on the success of ‘Neon Across the Ocean’, I’ve watched the film, and I must say there’s a sense of yearning from the characters and the music, how Melbourne and the Philippines are portrayed, with the camera display treatment and with the overall silent aesthetic of the film, can you explain to us the idea behind this 2020 trilogy and what can we expect from the upcoming movie ‘A Pencil to the Jugular’?
A: Future, present and past are the themes of the trilogy. The ‘Neon Across the Ocean’ is set in the future about a young Filipino, Mandy (Waiyee Rivera) who has grown up in a post-pandemic society. This drives the whole audio-visual aesthetic of the story. Like the pandemic which is a set of constantly changing constraints, the coming of age story mirrors our own experiences due to these unstoppable circumstances.
Mandy being caught between cultures, coming to terms that she is gay, going through her parents’ divorce all while completing her final year of high school, could be played for melodrama, but to express it through silence shows our universal struggle—an open wound we have to all sit with in silence. A Pencil to the Jugular is about the present, and was literally filmed just before and after the world changed, February – March 2020. This story shows the wound opening, and how we can use art to take a pencil to the jugular of our persecutors. In the third film, we show the past, and that the scar was always there, just stitched up with sutures.
Q: Can you talk about this film and what the title symbolises in connection to two things: the impact of COVID-19 and the struggle of Filipinos and other Asian communities in facing the pandemic and the social issues your film shows?
A: I’m interested in Neon because it’s beautiful but wrapped in darkness. My films are about my mother’s struggle and what she escaped when coming to Australia. Due to borders, the Neon is all just a memory with an ocean separating us.
I think for Filipinos; we have a deep connection to returning home, and this vast ocean separating us is a very painful burden. In the pandemic being stuck in Australia while people die in the motherland, our families and friends, are suffering and we can’t do anything about it. This feeling of dread is shown in the subtext of every frame of the film.
In the absence of Mandy’s Filipino mother (played by Rachel E. Zuasola), we face out the back window of a tram going forward. We never see Mandy having the phone conversation about a dying relative in the Philippines, but instead just the world passing. That’s our struggle as Filipinos abroad. Its perpetual forward motion hurdles us into an uncertain future we can’t control while we watch helplessly. This is a shared universal feeling that many Asian Diaspora communities with family abroad can relate to.
Q: Can you tell us something about the 43rd Moscow International Film Fest? Where is your film premiering?
A: The 43rd Moscow International is premiering our film in the Lockdown Special Program which highlights some of the most interesting films made through the pandemic.
The festival is very prestigious and one of the top tiered FIAPF (Fédération Internationale des Associations de Producteurs de Films)-accredited film festivals. I’m so lucky to be the only Australian film selected in the whole line-up. They also happen to be the first major film festival this year to hold a physical edition in cinemas.
Q: Can you tell us about your Filipino heritage? Who are the Filipino directors and artists you look up to? How has it challenged and surprised you as a film director to depict our Filipino culture in your film making?
A: In Australia, I am dubbed a prolific director, but by Philippines standards, I think that title doesn’t cut it. The Filipino directors have a work flow off the charts. Khavn, for example, who makes many films (or as he says ‘not a film by Khavn’).
I look up to filmmakers who are singular. There is so much noise out there. As a young person with a special set of skill, it is my responsibility to try to keep the art of cinema alive because it literally saved my life. Depicting our culture from my perspective has always been a challenge.
As a filmmaker who makes film predominately in Australia, my stories are seen through a more conservative lens. The main challenge is contextualising us in the Australian landscape. I’m here to change that expectation, that depiction, and I do it in real life and film.
I have a whole scene deconstructing this in my new film where an Asian filmmaker is grilled for his depiction of Asian culture in Australia. There is a lot to unpack here as a Filipino-Australian director but I feel we should tell all sorts of stories, even the uncomfortable ones. I knew going into this when making subversive work that if I focused on one feature film a year, I would be dismissed, so I chose to direct three or so a year consistently so that it wouldn’t be an anomaly as opposed to a body of work. If there is no context for Filipino Australian filmmakers, I aim to change that through a filmography which rivals the hard-working Filipinos back home who I am so inspired by.
Q: You collaborated with a diverse group of people including, Filipino-Australian artists. Why is it important for you to be working with people of the same heritage? What are your future plans and how is the third installment going?
A: In Australia there is a lack of Asian stories, in general. I feel that we deserve to be written into history. In a place that’s spent so much time minimising our pain, I’m just taking the story and making it visible. Filipinos are so creative and expressive, so I feel we should follow those impulses.
My films and my lifestyle give agency to that. The third instalment is a documentary co-directed by Malaysian Evangeline Lee titled ‘Plans That They’ve Made’. We follow Evangeline as she wanders through a vast empty city. It was important for us to lens up the migrant experience. I showed an Asian friend a rough cut and they cried, so I know despite its minimal aesthetic, the feelings are all there. It’s a very different film to ‘A Pencil to the Jugular’, more like a poem about how it feels to be between worlds. I think after all the lockdowns and the ongoing pandemic, we all can relate to this feeling.
Q: With social media and other platforms, what can you say to aspiring Filipino-Australians who would like to become a filmmaker or an artist, but are struggling to continue especially with the challenges we are all facing?
A: I think there’s a real chance to free ourselves from the rules. The pandemic is terrible and I’ve been lucky enough to be able to be in a place which reacted quickly to the pandemic. I managed to finish many films despite changing rules and lockdowns, but that is only because as an artist, I’m flexible. I work outside of systems and constantly subvert them because the honest truth is, in Australia, I’ve never fitted in.
For people in the Diaspora (mostly Australia), my advice is to stop trying to fit in. For people globally stuck in lockdowns, if you are not starving and struggling to keep the lights on, just create (and of course, keep COVID safe). Family and survival are number one, but if that stabilises, work hard and take pride in telling your story.
I’m blessed enough to have a roof over my head, and the Internet. I learnt all the skills needed to make films knowing that a crew would be harder to come by in a pandemic. I spent hours online watching tutorials, then saved money to buy gear and then practiced every single day in my tiny apartment. Audio, camera, gimbals, editing and marketing and I’m still learning. It’s a new world and we have to adapt and there is no shame in learning everything.
I remember the feeling, the four walls around me training for the moment the world would open up again, and fortunately for us in Melbourne, the day came. I went straight into a film with pride, and then another snap lockdown ruined the new plans. Despite that, another pivot and I can proudly say, we nearly finished that film. Everything now will take longer, so I think the key is to persevere.
A Pencil to the Jugular is premiering on 25 April in the Moscow International Film Festival.