Festivals, Reviews

QCinema 2019: ‘For My Alien Friend’ – An ode to existence and companionship

Cinema in its purest form, they say, is just an artistic arrangement of sights and sounds. The filmmaker manipulates every aspect of the film: color, saturation, hue, framing, score, and sound effects–to create a symphony of images in perfect harmony with its auditory elements. But a good film relishes not only in its technical merits but also pushes them to tell a story relevant to the human psychosocial experience. Both form and content must work together to create a film that is both a feast to the eyes and for the soul. Such is the case in Jet Leyco’s newest experimental-documentary hybrid.

Dubbed as a “documentary of brief encounters,” For My Alien Friend is as much a culmination of Leyco’s work as a filmmaker for the last ten years as it is a grand philosophical musing on the nature of being. Leyco uses footage from the mundane everyday experience to create an honest depiction of humanity, using an (imaginary) alien friend as a filmic device that serves as the main driving force of the documentary’s narrative. This idea is further reinforced when the film is experienced in a theater setting where the audience, seated comfortably in a dimly lit room, are forced to detach themselves from the reality of the outside world. The viewers, who are strangers to each other and to the filmmakers, are then made into the “alien” (to each other and to the film) to whom the planet Earth is reintroduced from a fresh perspective. Thus, the alienation that the title pertains to connotes a new meaning: the insatiable quest for human connection.

For what is life without companionship? Since childhood, I’ve always heard the saying that “no man is an island” but perhaps it was not until watching For My Alien Friend that I truly understood what it meant. Not only are we unable to survive alone in this world, we also cannot survive thinking we are alone. And this not only applies to other human beings. To not be alone is to also recognize the existence of our cultural landscapes and natural environments even to their most minute details, understanding that we are part of one global collective of things both living and non-living. It is this humbling, somewhat ethereal reassessment of one’s role in the grander scheme of things that makes the film more special, transcending into the metaphysical realm and providing a magical bliss of renewed purpose and reaffirmation of existence.

At times, however, the film may seem pretentious or too gimmicky. I think the best way to go past this uncomfortable feeling is to see the film as a home movie but with the concept of “home” expanded to encompass the entire planet. There is a strong sense of belongingness despite the magnitude that the film captures that it is almost impossible not to relate or at least feel a bit of connection to the world that it presents. For My Alien Friend reminds me of a similar movie called Sans Soleil (1983, dir. Chris Marker) which also exhibits the same observational perspective from someone who has just been recently introduced to the Earth. But while the latter achieves this sense of belongingness by exploring the various cultures that comprise humanity, For My Alien Friend remains distinctly Filipino. Leyco’s approach is more inductive, inspecting what makes us unique as a nation and from it look for patterns of universality.

It also helps that the entire film finds balance between intensity and sublimity, knowing when to attack the senses with relentless images and sounds and when to let the audience ponder the messages it is saying. This I think requires a certain level of maturity in filmmaking, and Leyco holds back whenever the documentary calls for it. Thus, the film is not only a technical or a philosophical exercise for Leyco, it is a project that he is serious and passionate about. Despite all its macroscopic elements, Leyco grounds the film in authenticity, inserting some personal anecdotes from his family and you can just feel the heart that he poured onto the film.

Overall, For My Alien Friend is a film that captures big themes through small occurrences. It is a refreshing path for Filipino documentary cinema, one filled with great potentials for discovery and experimentation. With this film, Leyco cements his place as one of the most exciting voices in contemporary Philippine cinema and if this film is really just the first volume of a series of documentaries as the ending suggests, I just hope people continue to watch and listen to possibly the most profound film series that will ever arise from our cinema.

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