The online Cinecabalen Festival that streamed online last month courtesy of the Film Development Council came and went like a wayward summer wind, but not without its small revelations of short films that ran the gamut from culinary section to your usual exhibition and competition showcases. The festival itself showed a richness and diversity with features running anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes, at times even shorter, no surprise for a region well known for its culinary delights that make the mouth water and heart grow fonder.
Of course, best known among the cabalens that ever held a camera is Brillante Ma. Mendoza, who may be said to have put Kapampangan cinema on the world stage with such films as Masahista, Kaleldo and Serbis. Subtitles and handheld were the norm here, and not to be traditionally dismissed as poverty porn (or poverty forn as one colleague punned, perhaps making light of the pronunciation of a Pampango), which the good director had written extensively about in another paper, not a shade defensively.
But gleaming from the shorts from the streaming central plains and their respective flood of images, cabalen filmmaking has come a long way, although in this manner it might be said to have taken the short way home.
Easily a standout is Time to Forget Mother’s Cooking, which later we heard was the big winner of the filmfest. Director EJ Gagui, in something like a quarter of an hour, tells the story of an orphaned daughter who on the approaching first death anniversary of her mom is asked by an aunt to cook bringhe at a reunion, the paella-like dish being her late mother’s specialty. Then, there is the objective co-relative of the horse left behind by an earlier departed kin, and the lead protagonist wonders if the dead watch over them through the horse.
Excellent use of available light and shadow, sparse dialogue make time to forget an auteur’s delight, and one might be tempted to mention Tarkovsky, specially in the last lingering shot of a countryside stream leading into a thick grove of indecipherable green, you almost hear the crickets (camaru) calling in the heights amid the sound of running water.
The daughter talking with her absent mother at the cemetery to say she doesn’t know how the bringhe turned out, but she cooked it anyway in her memory though well-aware the dish will never taste the same again, leaves us wondering how the Kapampangan paella measures up to the Spanish one, both likely of Iberian origin. There’s taste of the cigarette puffed on by the daughter, as she leaves the tomb with a lone candle burning and walks the narrow paths between graves.
A notable documentary is The Kiingin Project, which chronicles the making of this highland smoked meat, steeped as much in ritual as the mountain tribes can only deem fit partaking of a much-prized viand that can last for weeks if kept in the refrigerator. The meat itself has a distinct flavor, and just a slice of it can be used to perk up stir fried vegetables, or as piece de resistance of any soup dish whether nilagang baka or pinikpikan, the same way chorizo does in other households.
The smoked meat, too, has come a long way, as millennial entrepreneurs have found ways to market a product of their hometown and piece of childhood to the urban sprawl of the lowlands without losing flavor, intact as comfort food or plain jerky.
Noontime Drama features Susan Africa as mom with her daughter trying to cook kare-kare as a radio drama plays in the background at noon, and tension ensues between the two leads over the right peanut butter to put in. The domestic drama between generations is largely rooted in perceived feminine roles in the kitchen, and the radio provides humorous if ironic counterpoint of a love triangle with the third party being a mechanic trying to get a couple’s stalled car restarted. A kind of détente or rapprochement is achieved at end despite all the spilled peanut butter, and kare-kare may never taste the same way at noon.
As sidetrack from the gastronomic fare is the semi-documentary short on Binibining Inmate, about gay prisoners in the Pampanga provincial jail and how life goes on out of the closet but behind bars. And since most of them wear the customary orange, the lead gay inmate desperately searches for a white T-shirt so he can play a role in a special skit. The search for white in a sea of orange takes on tragicomic if not absurd proportions, and gives us a sense of cinema from the central plains, however short and sweet.
For all Cinecabalen’s dissimulation, there’s no easy way out of grief or cinema, and we carry our scars like medals of survivors’ guilt streaming.
(In memory of Ricardo F. Lo)
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