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PARK CITY ’06: Auraeus Solito: “…It was almost like going back and remembering how I grew up, like

PARK CITY '06: Auraeus Solito: "...It was almost like going back and remembering how I grew up, like

Every day through the end of the Sundance Film Festival, including weekends, indieWIRE will be publishing two interviews with Sundance ’06 competition filmmakers. Sixty filmmakers were given the opportunity to participate in an e-mail interview, and each was sent the same questions.

Filipino filmmaker Auraeus Solito directed “The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros,” screening in the World Cinema Competition: Dramatic section. In the film, 12-year-old Maximo dutifully performs tasks like cooking and sewing for his family, while his father and two brothers all involved in criminal activities. He becomes conflicted when he falls for a cop. Solito’s films have received awards at a number of festivals worldwide.

“The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros” director Auraeus Solito. Image courtesy of the Sundance Film Festival.

Please tell us about yourself. How old are you? Where are you from?

I’m ageless. Our tribe originally didn’t measure time so I have stopped counting my age.

I never had a day job, [but I] used to be a theater director in college and became a full-time indie filmmaker after.

I grew up in the heart of Manila [Philippines], in Sampaloc, where I filmed “The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros”. After college I returned to my indigenous roots in the beautiful pristine islands of Palawan, south of the Philippines, [and] went back to Manila and made “The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros.” I am now in Okinawa, Japan, [on] an Asian Public Intellectual Fellowship, where I will be making a documentary on Okinawan rituals. I am a man of two worlds — the ancient universe of my tribal ancestors and the modern concrete civilization of Manila.

What were the circumstances that led you to become a filmmaker?

Since I used to direct theater and started out as a playwright, [I] wrote a play about the myths of my tribe, the Palawanon, for my thesis production. After graduation, I searched for the roots of these myths, and when I met my tribal relatives and experienced our culture and our rituals, this profound epiphany led to my realization that theater was not enough to express these visions, so I shifted to film.

How did you learn about filmmaking? How did you finance your own film?

I took a basic filmmaking workshop at the Mowelfund Film Institute in metropolitan Manila. After my long hiatus in Palawan, where I made a documentary about my tribe, I returned to Manila where I was asked to direct this script, which won a film fund (about $10,000) [in] the First Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival.

At first, I was not sure [about] making this film since I really dreamt of making a Palawan tribal film as my first feature. But I guess it’s destiny, and serendipity took place. I decided to film “Maximo” in the neighborhood where I grew up in Manila, the Sampaloc slums. I really didn’t grow up in the slums, don’t get me wrong. The Philippines is an example of extremes. Since my parents were successful government employees, we had a nice house amidst the slums. And we have always had a beautiful relationship with our neighbors. We are poor but not in spirit.

Where did the idea for your film come from?

My producer, Raymond Lee, decided to form [a] production group, ufo Pictures, of the best young writers [in] mainstream Philippine cinema. They conceptualized this movie about a gay boy in the slums and asked one of their writers, Michiko Yamamoto, to write the script.

I have always wanted to direct a progressive gay film. For in the history of Philippine cinema, gay people have always been portrayed as oppressed or as the oppressors. Philippine gay cinema in the ’70s always had this theme of guilt [for] being homosexual while in the ’80s gay people were always portrayed as the exploiters of handsome Filipinos who become macho dancers or call boys. And even worse, most of the time, queer folks are used as a butt of jokes in movies and [on] TV.

I always thought that I wanted to make a film where the gay character was happy for being who he is, accepted for who he is, and his being gay is just incidental or just part of the main theme of the film.

I even wished, while I was in the imagineNATIVE Film Festival (an Aboriginal film festival where my documentary “Basal Banar,” about my tribe, was shown) last year [2004] in Toronto, to one day make this liberating gay film. Magically, when I arrived in Manila after the festival, I was offered [the chance] to direct this script.

I injected a lot of insights in[to] the script, especially being a gay boy growing up in Manila.

And the reactions in Manila and other international film festivals (Montreal World Film Festival, imagineNATIVE again, Asian Festival of First Films in Singapore) has been indeed liberating to a lot of people who have seen the film. I have never seen a Filipino audience react this way. It was really overwhelming (I [am] showing [the film] now in movie houses in the Philippines).

What are your biggest creative influences?

When I saw “The 400 Blows” by Truffaut, I knew I wanted to make a coming-of-age film someday. I also love the cultural epic scope of Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa and the political cinema of Philippine director Lino Brocka (his films were shown [at] Cannes, and he was even a jury [member] once). Also, the original and indigenous inspired cinema of Philippine indie filmmaker Kidlat Tahimik (who won a prize in Berlin in the ’70s) plus the magical and mind-opening images of Okinawan filmmaker Takamine Go.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making the movie?

Perhaps the most difficult part was the transition from my Palawan universe to the world of Manila. For almost seven years, I immersed myself in my indigenous culture, almost rejecting what the modern world had to offer. So when I started filming Maximo Oliveros’ made-up life, I made it truer to myself by filming it in the familiar areas of my neighborhood. It was almost like going back and remembering how I grew up, like being in a documentary myself.

Tell us about the moment you found out that you were accepted into Sundance.

I just got my visa from the Japanese embassy, went straight to my PC in my house in Sampaloc, and there it was … the email that made me so happy. A dream come true. To think in my younger days I used to watch the E! Channel’s coverage of Sundance on TV. And now… I’m actually going.

What do you hope to get out of the festival and what are your own goals for the experience?

I am already content that I’m the first Filipino filmmaker in the World Cinema Competition. Big news in my country, the Philippines.

I guess I expect a sharing of ideas and experiences [with] indie filmmakers [from] the U.S. and worldwide… to forge brotherhoods and deep friendships with different filmmakers. For in the end we’re here for the same reasons, creating cinema.

What is your definition of “independent film”?

Independent film is when you are free to realize your visions.

What films are you hoping to see at Sundance?

As many films as I can watch since I realized I am really an “audience,” I love watching films. That’s why I do my best to make films that I would love to watch.

Who are a few people that you would most like to meet at Sundance?

I want to meet Michel Gondry since I love his films, also Wim Wenders. And hopefully, Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna (since I noticed that they are part of some films [at] Sundance), and I loved them in “Y tu mama tambien” and especially Gael in “The Motorcycle Diaries.” Perhaps Sam Shepard, one of my favorite playwrights, and Jessica Lange, one of my favorite actresses.

If you were given $10 million to be used for moviemaking, how would you spend it?

WOW! That’s a lot for our country! I [would] make 10 big-budget Filipino films in all genres! Since the biggest budget Filipino film ever made [cost] roughly $1 million.

What is your top 10 list for 2005?

I hardly saw any films this year — been busy making “Maximo” and another one after, for a big studio in the Philippines, entitled “Tuli” (roughly translated as “The Circumcision”).

What are one or two of your New Year’s resolutions?

Exceed myself, make more films…

If you took President Bush’s job, who would you hire/fire and why?

I would hire all Native American elders so that we will learn from them… the essence of sharing, strength in spirit and the humanist point of view.

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