Interview with the Los Angeles Asia-Pacific Film Festival: Martin Edralin, “Islands”

This week, I focused on the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival (LAAPFF) 2021, which runs until October 2. he is is the first feature film by Martin Edralin, a Toronto filmmaker who has served as a director, screenwriter and producer. His film focuses on Joshua (Rogelio Balagtas), a shy Filipino who turns 50. Joshua takes care of his elderly parents and holds a successful job until a personal tragedy arises.

Edralin joined me on Zoom to discuss cultural and social issues in he is, how the set design came together and the reactions he’s noticed during screenings so far.

There is a lot of Filipino food in your movie. What’s your favorite Filipino dish?

Sinagan. It’s easy ! What is your?

Pansit and Filipino barbecue! What creative freedom did you appreciate when you went from the short film format to your first feature film today?

There has been a lot of learning. The hardest thing for me has been following the story: how something happens in one part of the story and how it affects something else that happened before or after. Make sure that an audience will understand what is going on. It’s a straightforward movie, but there are a lot of subtle things that are going to impact how the story is received.

I felt like I had more space and room to play with things… to sit on shots or moments and not have to constantly move the story forward because of a short duration . At the same time, it felt like a lot of time to fill in and make sure an audience is engaged and can follow the story.

I love the scene where they have the family reunion and Esteban Comilang the father is wearing an Elvis outfit. Was it already in the script before you chose it?

I knew he was an Elvis impersonator. I don’t remember where in the process the Elvis thing happened. With this movie, we really wanted to have a Spanish or Latin flavor and also an American flavor. This is what Filipino culture is. I think we had other American influences[s] in the movie, but once we started to consider Steve to play Reynaldo, it was an obvious choice to do so. I also thought it was interesting to have this character as someone who had flair, dancing and singing. [Then] we see him at this stage of his life and his health. It’s such a contrast to Joshua’s character.

I was struck by the character of Marisol and the perspective she brought to caregivers. What do you like about Sheila Lotuaco brought to this aspect of the role?

She is a caregiver and knows the job. She didn’t have the same experience as the character. I think she only worked in Canada and has no experience in the Middle East or other places where a lot of caregivers are abused. I was doing research for another movie that I was writing. When I make a movie, I start to throw away everything I think, feel or experience. All the research I have done on [what] that caregivers live in other parts of the world really struck me. I wanted to find a way to comment on it, which was quite small, but I felt it had to be in the movie.

Rogelio Balagtas as Joshua in a line dance scene (Courtesy Martin Edralin)

How would you describe your approach as a director, especially filming Joshua as a shy person? Even in the quiet moments, there was a lot to remember about him.

It’s something that I think has kind of evolved in my cinema. It was never something that I had really planned. My shorts were like that too. It probably comes from the kind of movies that I like to watch. I also think that at the beginning I mostly worked with non-professional actors. [Their] the range is generally limited compared to professional players. Sometimes I’ve found that to get a scene or a moment it’s easier to do it by framing or camera movement and just observing the characters. Sometimes it says more than the dialogue, as you said. I prefer a sort of meditative feeling.

What aspect of Filipino culture did you like to revisit?

It was probably the house. It’s the core and a lot of that was our production designer who has a Greek background, but she did a lot of research and spoke with a lot of people. She went through my family photo albums and a lot of things in the house were taken from my parents and the parents of the producer who is also Filipino-Canadian. It was really fun to put all of these things together. The head decorator took everything and forbade us to enter the house.

when we [finally] walked in, it looked a lot like the house I lived in when I was younger, or my grandparents’ house. Seeing it on screen, I’m glad a lot of Filipinos who saw the movie say the same. It was so authentic, even for the actors. We brought the actors in a day or two before the shoot so they could understand the layout of the house. The head decorator was very clear in wanting to show them where the spoons, forks and patisse were.

Tell us more about the line dancing parties.

Line dancing can be [another] of my favorite thing[s]. I was going to a senior dance class. My mom does them too. There is a lot going on in Toronto or the greater Toronto area. I was trying to email them because I wanted to find older actors [members]. No one would answer me. They weren’t responding to my messages or answering the phone. I’ll just jump in.

This particular class in the movie is a real class; they are the real dancers, with the exception of our actors. The first time I went there I was in tears. I always cry when I see a group of old people dancing. I filmed corporate videos for a ballet school here that has dance activities with seniors. I find that comforting. Right away, I needed to convince these people to be in the movie.

We couldn’t find any casting from there, but we got them to agree to be in the movie. [as themselves]. They were really into it. I provided the music and someone choreographed the music. The national anthem was something they really did too. I thought it was important. Having the Canadian anthem with the elders, for me, it was [about] trying to make the case that these immigrants are also Canadians.

Photo of Rogelio Balagtas as Joshua on the phone
Rogelio Balagtas as Joshua, Crying for Help (Courtesy Martin Edralin)

What was the most important to take away from this film as you prepare for your next projects?

It takes me a long time to write and plan a shoot. At some point something clicks and then everything goes really fast and becomes clear to me in this process; maybe it’s because I’m still learning, or maybe it’s my way of making films. I think having a feature that has [been] this well received made me more confident in my process. This is something I’m finding right now as I write two features. I just feel like I understand the plot better. I wouldn’t say that the plot was never my strong point.

As a director, my strength was probably to frame and find these moments in the shots on which my stories hang. I think in making this movie I seem to understand how to make a plot dynamic. I also learned how humor can be used in theater both to intensify the drama, but also to make a story more fun to write, shoot, and watch. My shorts were pretty heavy and there wasn’t a drop of humor in it.

Where do you see your film in contemporary Asian cinema?

I haven’t seen a lot of movies like this: it’s from an older generation. Our main character is 50 years old. It’s about him and his older parents. The only thing I think about is the [Yasujirō] Ozu films where there are a lot of family and generational stories. I don’t see anything more contemporary. Seems like a vast majority of movies are aimed at young adults or younger, at least in North America. It doesn’t seem like there are a lot of movies made especially for older people, which is probably different in Europe or other parts of the world.

What I [found] interesting at the premiere of SXSW [was] it’s a lot of young, second generation or later Filipino immigrant families who seem to gravitate towards her. Not that we’ve tapped an older Filipino audience yet – as they don’t really come to film festivals – but it seems young people are thirsty for our culture or something that reminds us of our youth and families. Older Filipinos or Filipino immigrants might not feel the connection the same because they have experienced it. I have the impression that as I get older, I am more and more curious to see Filipino films or art in general. As older generations go by, these are the things that connect us to who we are and who we remember to be.

For more information on the islands, visit the LAAPFF website.

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About Monty S. Maynard

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