Brilliant: "Slingshot" director Brillante Mendoze speaks to a fan before a screening at the SF International Asian American Film Festival. (Photo by Laura Irvine)

Q&A: Brillante Mendoza

Sean Uyehara March 18, 2008

It is clear from the very first interaction with Brillante Mendoza that he is an extremely gracious man. This, even after the substantial acclaim he had been garnering for three feature films he unveiled this past year. In the most obvious ways, the two of his films playing at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, Foster Child and Slingshot, couldn’t be more different. The first of these films centers on the adoption day of Jon-Jon, a darling 3-year old, from a loving foster family. The latter examines the criminal underworld and its corrupt government counterpart in a dark and labyrinthine Manila. Still, as Mendoza makes clear, these films share a basic approach to the world, one that engenders respectful understanding through a desire to depict and see things as they really are. In part, because of filmmakers like him, Filipino independent cinema has enjoyed a renaissance in this first decade of the 2000s. Mendoza was in San Francisco for the first time recently for his screenings, when he took time to speak with

SF360: You were 45 when you directed your first feature length film. Relatively speaking you are starting your film directing career later than many.

Brillante Mendoza: It’s true that I have only recently started directing, but I have done a lot of film work in advertising and other commercial areas, primarily as a production designer. I have been working with several different Filipino directors in the film industry, since the ’80s.

SF360: Would you say that some of these directors were mentors?

Mendoza: Not really. When I was doing this work, I didn’t really think that I would become a director. Sometimes I would think to myself, ‘I would do this or that differently.’ Or my approach would be something other than the director chose, but I didn’t think this through so much, because I was happy to be a production designer at the time. I only became a director when I realized there were stories that I wanted to tell and in a specific way.

SF360: To that end, the style and aesthetic of your films are striking, and it clearly comes out of a very different tradition than the advertising world. Do you pose your aesthetic sense against that world at all?

Mendoza: Yes, definitely. When I was in advertising, I was very much aware of the fact that I am selling products. I had to design and art direct to get products to sell! With my films, I am telling a story. I don’t want to put up a façade. I don’t want to be pretentious. There is a very strict division. Here is a story. Here is selling. When telling as story, I want to be as truthful as possible. In advertising I know this isn’t possible. (Laughs.)

This is what I am really after: I want to present the story I am telling as closely as possible to what is real. I don’t want to intervene. I just want people to see it and decide for themselves. I don’t want to push my view.

SF360: There is a definite objectivity to your films. Still, that’s how they are generally described in reviews or criticism—as a ‘Brillante Mendoza film.’ What’s exciting about them is the freshness of them, but that is attributed to you personally, and accordingly you are generally compared to other directors. For instance, a refrain seems to be comparisons to Paul Greengrass’ style. Have you read these reviews? Does that fit in with what you are trying to do?

Mendoza: I have been told about the comparisons, and I understand them. It’s because of the visual qualities of ‘Slingshot.’ That visual style is the first thing you see; the content comes next. That’s when you see that we are completely different. My films are closer to neorealism. They are almost documentary. It’s an honor to be compared with master filmmakers like Paul Greengrass or Fernando Meirelles. I am just getting started with directing. But, I am not too concerned with these comparisons. My concern is to tell a story objectively.

SF360: Would you say that you are working within the legacy of Third Cinema?

Mendoza: Yes. I am looking for a way to express very specific situations. The approach I am working in, I would call ‘real-time.’ It is in the pace of real life. I shoot where is, as is. The border between documentary and fiction in this style is very thin. The only thing that divides the audience from real life is the screen, because they are watching life already.

SF360: So the style of your films is contextual and comes out of a general approach rather than being similar across works?

Mendoza: Definitely. If you see some of my other films—*Kaleldo, Masahista*— you will see that the style is dictated by the kind of story I am trying to tell. I want to be objective and truthful. To be too concentrated on a certain directorial style, because the audience begins to recognize or expect it or there is pressure to keep working in a similar way, will become too predictable. For me, it is much more workable to develop different styles for each film I work on in order to be as truthful as possible about the story I am telling.

SF360: Your work tends to focus on a somewhat specific milieu. Will this continue?

Mendoza: Yes, I think so. I have to be very interested in the subject matter. If there’s something I don’t know about the subject, I need to inform myself. I am always researching and heavily invested in all phases of production. I am involved in the preproduction, design, camerawork, editing, sound, acting—everything really—in my films. You have to immerse yourself in the subject matter and in the process. If you do that, really immerse yourself and know the subject, you won’t get lost. I think it’s very important, and I make sure I am in the middle of everything I am doing.

SF360: Do you consider yourself part of a Filipino cinema project? We have been lucky enough to have filmmakers like Raya Martin and Auraeus Solito come through San Francisco in recent years.

Mendoza: Not really. I am really simply concentrated on telling stories about a specific social context. Still, I think it is great that these and other Filipino filmmakers are getting international attention. Ten or fifteen years ago, there was not much Filipino cinema on people’s minds, but if you look today there are a number of films out there on the international circuit.

SF360: Anything else you would like to add?

Mendoza: This is my first time in San Francisco and I love it. It has such a diverse Asian community, and SFIAFF has been great. I am just glad I can be here.