Only in Hollywood : The blossoming of Auraeus Solito
By Ruben V. Nepales
PARK CITY, UTAH--BECAUSE HE ALMOST missed the opening of the Sundance Film Festival--and probably also because of jet lag--Auraeus Solito, director of "Ang Pagdadalaga ni [The Blossoming of] Maximo Oliveros," was feeling a bit down on Sunday evening.
But the warmth, cheerfulness and hospitality of Filipino waiters in the Chinese restaurant where a reception for Asian Pacific filmmakers was held buoyed the spirits of Auraeus (and ours as well). Auraeus was the most applauded among the Asians introduced as members of the Sundance Class of 2006.
Wearing Mangyan jewelry and a scarf fashioned from Mindanao cloth, the director was a refreshing presence that night in this beautiful snow-covered city. The filmmaker--he will always hold the distinction of having directed the first movie from the Philippines to participate in Sundance's World Cinema Competition (Dramatic Category)--even found something spiritual in the snow blanketing the hills and rooftops.
Auraeus could have been more exhilarated had he and his companions--"Maximo" producer and screenwriter Raymond Lee and Michiko Yamamoto, respectively, and writer Jessica Zafra (who told us she was here only as a "sabit")--been allowed to attend the film's press and industry screening on Friday morning (Jan. 20). Those involved with a film's production can't attend said screenings. We guess the reason is to avoid the impression that the filmmakers' presence can influence the viewers' reaction.
What some of the folks who watched "Maximo" told me after the screening would surely warm the hearts of Auraeus' group. John Polly, managing editor of the New York-based Genre magazine, said as he came out of the Yarrow Hotel theater, "I liked the movie ... it was not done in the typical melodramatic way."
Lawrence Ferber, a freelance entertainment writer also from New York, said, "I loved the movie--it is complex but in a good way."
The strongest endorsement came from David Magdael and Winston Emano, Filipino-Americans who have come to Sundance for the past five years. David and Winston are partners in the publicity firm, TCDM and Associates, whose Sundance clients this year include "Maximo's" competition rival "Eve & the Fire Horse" and the documentary "Wordplay" (the latter is generating a lot of good buzz). For the record, these guys are not handling "Maximo" so their comments, which they e-mailed to me later, are noteworthy.
David wrote: "The way the story is told and the film's pacing, down to the long pauses, lend the film more depth. Audience reaction is positive, with a number of buyers taking in the press screening.
"It is great to see a film from the Philippines that has substance and quiet beauty in telling a very simple, yet universal story line. The scenes between Maximo and his father are tender and priceless--given that the father is the neighborhood mafia king and Maximo is a 12-year-old gay boy who wears make-up and girly outfits. The relationship between Maximo and his brothers is even more illustrative of blood being 'thicker than water.' Maximo takes care of his brothers and his father with such devout commitment--cooking, cleaning, sewing and braiding one brother's hair.
"This film is proof that there is a ... burgeoning independent film movement [in the Philippines], with directors like Auraeus Solito taking risks both technically and story-wise. It is refreshing to see a film from the Philippines that is not based on a central melodramatic story line and with actors who are not overacting or merely mugging for the camera. Also, the fact that the director shot 'Maximo' digitally promises new hope for Philippine cinema, as this makes filmmaking accessible to more Pinoy artists.
"For this to be the first selection from the Philippines at Sundance is outstanding. It is a film that all of us Filipinos can be proud of, and hopefully will support when it comes out in [US] theaters.
"Congratulations to the filmmaker, the writer and the wonderful cast! I look forward to more stories from this writer and director and more roles for the actor who played Maximo."
Winston commented: "'The Blossoming of Maximo Olivares' is such a rare treat ... It is a textbook example that, given the opportunity, resources and support, Filipino filmmakers and Filipino films can not just compete on a world class stage such as Sundance; they can shine outright.
"It made me proud that the film had been selected for competition; it made me that much prouder after I watched it alongside a full room of press and industry professionals who laughed when I laughed, and who were moved when I was moved.
"It's a mix of refreshment and relief to see in an international festival a Filipino film that does not rely on a story line about macho dancing masseurs to be selected. Director Auraeus Solito and writer Michiko Yamamoto make for dynamic creative combination and the performance of young Nathan Lopez is a tear-inducing revelation."
Winston added: "Four Filipino filmmakers have preceded Auraeus in receiving a prestigious Sundance invite. They are: Q. Alan Brocka, Rod Pulido, Mark Decena and Ramona Diaz (Pinays Christina DeHaven and Maricel Pagulayan were producers of Sundance entries). But 'Maximo' is the first one originating from the Philippines."
"Maximo" was glowingly described in the festival's film guide. N. Bird Runningwater, one of Sundance's Native American Initiatives programmers, wrote: "Just like the flower in the opening scenes, 12-year-old Maxi is a beautiful accent in the gritty underworld on the outskirts of Manila, where he lives. Living with his outlaw father and two older brothers, Maxi dutifully infuses with love everything he does for them--from cooking and sewing to braiding his brother's hair.
"As part of an impressive ensemble cast, newcomers Nathan Lopez and JR Valentin exuberantly inhabit their roles as Maxi and Victor. With its vibrant cinematography, simple scoring, and vast emotional scope, Auraeus Solito's directorial debut as a dramatic filmmaker seems itself like a flower amid the grit of most contemporary cinema."
N. Bird was also quoted in Variety as saying, "Be sure to see 'The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros' in World Cinema Competition."
After the reception at the China Panda, we braved the wintry chill and walked to the nearby Yarrow Hotel for a chat with Auraeus. As we shivered even in the short walk, Auraeus, Golden Zenith awardee at the Montreal World Film Festival gushed, "This is my first winter. Napakaganda pala ng snow dito. Parang spiritual."
In the hotel lobby, he reflected on his making it to the Sundance Class of 2006.
"I am spiritually strengthened and humbled," said Auraeus, who is proud of his Palawan tribal roots. "I felt the love of all the Filipinos at the restaurant where we had the Asian party. That is the reason I do films. We may be a poor country but we are not poor in spirit."
At Redford's table
Auraeus was thrilled to share a table with Robert Redford at the latter's brunch reception for the filmmakers. (Robert's 25-year-old Sundance Institute is behind the festival.) Still, meeting the Pinoy waiters was a bigger thrill for him. "When they gathered around me," he said, "I could feel their positive energy. I was down and depressed because I was tired. I just arrived from Okinawa. My flight was delayed and would have taken another day, but I insisted that I had to be here on the 19th, no matter what. Hindi ko tuloy nakita si Jennifer Aniston (whose movie 'Friends with Money' opened the festival).
"At the restaurant, nakakita ako sa wakas ng kanin!"
This Asian Public Intellectual Fellow of Japan's Nippon Foundation revealed, "This is such a blessing. My friends from the Philippine Science High School who are living in the US helped [bring me here]. I don't even have a credit card. I was really touched by that."
Who would have thought that "Maxi" could take Auraeus this far? After Sundance, he said, "I am attending the Rotterdam festival and then the Berlin Festival."
As we write this column, four more screenings of "Maximo" have been scheduled. It is competing against 15 other films, including "Solo Dios Sabe (Only God Knows)," which stars Diego Luna of "Y Tu Mama Tambien." The awards night will be on Saturday, Jan. 28 (Sunday in Manila).
What are his thoughts on the awards night? In his typical simple way, Auraeus replied, "Kahit ano ang ibigay sa akin ng Lord, masaya na ako."