Ex-Chevening scholar has big dreams for Asean films

Ex-Chevening scholar has big dreams for Asean films
Villarama wants to bring Southeast Asian movies to the global stage. Source: Facebook/@Sunday Beauty Queen

Truth is, there aren’t many documentaries from and about Southeast Asia hitting the global stage.

Despite the region being home to more than 600 million people, only a small number of documentaries from this region hits the big screen worldwide. And from this, an even smaller number are made by locals themselves.

The Act of Killing, an Oscar-nominated film about the Indonesian mass killings of 1965 – 66, is arguably the most-known work to portray an Asean issue. Yet, its producers and director are for the most part, not from this region.

Villarama (left) speaking at the Kuala Lumpur Freedom Film Fest 2017. Source: Lee Lian Kong

It is this context of the region’s film industry that prompts Filipino filmmaker Babyruth Villarama to make conscious decision to study Film Marketing and Distribution, instead of Film Directing for her Master’s at Birmingham City University (BCU) as a Chevening scholar.

“Personally, I wanted to take up a Master’s in Fine Arts in film directing or cinematography to improve my personal craft,” Villarama, a journalism alum of University of Santo Tomas in the Philippines told Study International News after a screening at the Kuala Lumpur Freedom Film Fest.

“But then, I realised there is a need to support more independent films in terms of distributing them and promoting them.”

Her mentors agreed. If her aim is to improve only herself, there were many courses back home that could do so, they said. What was missing was a “road map” for the Philippines’ young film industry and a need to “crack the code” on how to get a bigger audience for Filipino and Asian films.

“I took it as a challenge to find out how films, especially documentaries, are being promoted and championed.”

Film marketing matters. We see this in how studios have been spending 51 to 58 cents for every dollar spent on producing a major film to release and market it in the United States and Canada, according to a Reuters report. It’s the one shot movies have to attract enough people to the cinemas so it can recoup production and domestic-releasing costs.

One film that struck Villarama was Amy, a documentary film about the life and death of British singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse, and how it was marketed. What started out as an unknown, independent film later became the highest-grossing British documentary of all time, taking home several major awards including Best Documentary at the 2016 Academy Award.

“It’s amazing how a small film like ‘Amy’ won the hearts of many people. I hope local films like Filipino or Southeast Asian documentaries can reach the global audience it deserves because I think we have such powerful local stories that are also universal and accessible to different markets and viewers. But no one has done it yet”

With Sunday Beauty Queen – Villarama’s empowering docu-drama on Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) in Hong Kong which premiered in Busan last year – that gap looks set to inch closer.

The film, which chronicles the lives of several OFWs taking part in a beauty pageant, is the first documentary to be selected for the Metro Manila Film Festival. It later won Best Picture as well.

The significance of this award is even bigger when one looks deeper into the people Villarama have succeeded in giving a voice to through her docu-drama. OFWs generally suffer from unfair employment laws in foreign countries. In Hong Kong, helpers are required by law to live with their employers, a situation that most find stressful as this leaves them with no personal space and time. Activists call this “modern-day slavery”.

They are the invisible “robot” cleaners and carers for Hong Kong’s families, but are gravely underappreciated and even discriminated against in public. Stereotypes about OFWs range from husband stealers to prostitutes, or only being good for “farm work” despite most of them holding university degrees.

But in Sunday Beauty Queen, they are given the due respect – as the mothers, daughters and wives sacrificing their freedom and dignity, so they are able to send some money to their family back home.

“It’s a big honour for us, domestic helpers, to be given a chance to be part of the [Metro] Manila Film Festival… thank you so much and you’ve given us importance, even if we’re just domestic helpers,” Mylyn Jacobo, an OFW featured in the film said at the award ceremony, as reported by Rappler.

“To Ma’am Baby Ruth, thank you for the idea to give us a voice, a story.”

Film marketing and distribution may not be the coolest-sounding thing to study out there, but as Villarama shows, it’s making a good deal of difference in the region.

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