Festivals, Interview

Cinemalaya 2021: Filmmaker Shiri de Leon on trauma, autonomy, and ‘Ang Pagdadalaga ni Lola Mayumi’

Editor’s note: Spoilers for Ang Pagdadalaga ni Lola Mayumi ahead.

A personal standout in this year’s Cinemalaya Main Competition is Ang Pagdadalaga ni Lola Mayumi, where an old woman recognized as the “Town Virgin” (played brilliantly by Ruby Ruiz) books a motel room and hires a callboy (Julian Roxas). Women-directed films about sex and sexual politics are what got me into film criticism in the first place, and it was cathartic to see Lola Mayumi in a festival like Cinemalaya. Our writer JT, in his review of Shorts A, put it succinctly: “There is magic and care when women capture their own struggles in cinema. It isn’t appropriation. It is authentic and honest.”

I spoke with Shiri de Leon, the 19-year-old filmmaker behind the well-loved entry, about the process of writing and shooting the film amidst lockdown, her influences, directing sex scenes and scenes about trauma, and what pagdadalaga really means. 

SINE LIWANAG: When did you first get the idea for Ang Pagdadalaga ni Lola Mayumi?

SHIRI DE LEON: So you’re not gonna believe this, but I had a dream about it. I had a dream that there was an old lady who went to a motel. That’s it; I woke up. And I was like, huh, is this a sign from the Lord Jesus Christ, or something? 

So I reflected on that, and I’ve always wanted to make my first film about this topic, but I just didn’t know how to make it into a character. That dream inspired me; why not make it an old virgin. I thought that would be an interesting point of view, because whenever we see a sexual awakening type of [film], it’s usually someone young; a coming-of-age kind of thing. 

Because I took a gap year last school year, I took the time talaga to write this script. This topic really means a lot to me personally. I wrote the script out of anger, so I was like, typing full of emotions. I wasn’t actually done by the time Cinemalaya posted the deadline for it. I had to make sure that the ending was right; I didn’t want it to be rushed. I isolated myself from everyone so I could reflect properly on what I think is the best thing for Lola Mayumi and what I think about the call boy. We had the production for only three weeks: we had one week of pre-production, shot the film for two days, and I edited the film by myself for the weeks leading up to [the Cinemalaya deadline] March 5.

Shiri on set with Ruby Ruiz

SL: I am really curious about the thought process behind the ending. Since you said you isolated yourself, what were you thinking about in deciding the ending?

Shiri: The ending actually was the hardest thing for me. I want to give credit to my producer Darlene [Ballano], and [Bryant] Gali. They really helped me with the ending. I think there were three to four endings for it, and they really helped me find a way to make those three work well together. 

We all think that it’s the best possible thing that you could give to Lola Mayumi and the callboy, because ang pagdadalaga, for me, isn’t really about sexual awakening. It’s more on her being able to establish her boundaries. So when she went back to the room and asked him to leave; she didn’t say it in a dramatic way, she was just like, I had enough. I’m not comfortable and I want you to leave. 

The callboy naman, that was actually the hardest thing for me because, you know, writing a male character in the perspective of a female is totally challenging; I could have made him a complete jerk. That was my first idea, for the callboy to [be] a complete asshole. But I know a lot of men personally who seem nice at first, but as time passes by, you see kung ano talaga balak nila. So with the suggestion of Darlene, we decided it would be realistic if the callboy was nice to her in the beginning, because he didn’t know what to do, how to react, and of course he felt the pain. Being in his line of work, he knows that there are a lot of people who are exposed to sex in a different way. He felt sympathy for her, but it was too much for him as well. But when he came back—and Mayumi expected that he came back just to stay with her and a part of her hopes that he will be the guy that is different from all the men she met before—he just asked for the money. That just gave her the assurance na, tangina talaga ng mga lalake

I see the reviews and I see how people reacted to the 6000 [pesos that Mayumi paid the callboy]. I don’t want to defend myself, but at the same time I want to explain bakit sobrang controversial ng 6000 na ‘yon. Lola Mayumi has no idea how much to pay him. So he exploited her, he knew that she was in a position of not being fully aware of the rates for his line of work. So he emotionally manipulated her into giving him more money, which happens to a lot of us.

The film’s six-person crew, along with its two leads

SL: When you made this film, the crew was all your friends. 

Shiri: All my best friends, we’re like a squad (laughs). All still in school. Our dynamic together as a crew really worked well together, kaya kahit six lang kami during the shoot, we already know how one works on set. The term quality over quantity really applied to shoot because everyone wasn’t doing just one role. I feel like if I worked with different people, it wouldn’t be what it is. We were shooting during the pandemic, and it was a tough time. And being with your best friends, kahit just for work lang, kahit socially distanced, it just gives you more sanity and more clarity. We had a lot of plans and some of them didn’t work out because we only went to the venue on that day. I had to think of last-minute shots, but they were very patient, they were very understanding. They’re my biggest support system in this project.

SL: You mentioned in your director’s notes that casting Julian Roxas was kind of a risk because he wasn’t exactly the character you were originally envisioning. What was your original vision for that character?

Shiri: I envisioned him looking Filipino. I actually had a couple actors that fit the first description of the moreno, parang very daddy vibes, very mysterious, sexy. When I saw Julian’s picture, an idea flashed in my head that maybe his character shouldn’t fall under that stereotype. Maybe his character should be someone who doesn’t look like what people perceive to be under that job. Maybe he can break that stereotype. And it would add more to the mind game that Mayumi was facing because he looked like a nice man. 

SL: Yeah, that’s very true. While I was watching the film, nung unang pumasok si Julian, I was like girl.

Shiri: The most [frequent] comment that I’ve received for this film is why didn’t [Mayumi] take [Julian’s] shirt off? And I was like, I wrote this film to go against oversexualizing—why are the reviews sexualizing Julian? I get his role as a prostitute, [it’s] supposed to be sexual. But did they get the main point of this film? 

SL: I felt like, watching it, the point of him being conventionally attractive was to really activate the halo effect. 

Shiri: Imagine if you were in Mayumi’s situation, and your first time is with someone who is conventionally attractive, it’s easier for [you] to be exploited, hence the ending. 

Shiri on the set of Ang Pagdadalaga ni Lola Mayumi

SL: What were your influences in writing and directing this film?

Shiri: Fleabag is my biggest influence, and probably my only influence in writing. Aesthetically, I guess you could tell by the aspect ratio, by the way it was edited, the way they delivered the lines and how the lines were written, it was heavily inspired by the Golden Age of Philippine Cinema, like Lino Brocka, Mike De Leon. Although [the film is] set in modern times, I wanted to distort the audience’s perception of when the story took place. I’ve always loved the way that they tackle serious issues, but at the same time, make it look freaking beautiful, kahit yellow and green lang yung color ng film.

And then Fleabag, [she] is such a strong-willed woman, she is a very sexual woman. And she had a secret, which was the reason why she was behaving that way. So that really inspired me to think of a bigger and more realistic reason why Lola Mayumi chose to be that way. 

Lola Mayumi’s issue is something that’s happening to a lot of Filipinos now. There are a lot of children who are exposed to parents, relatives, or family friends who are abusive. And now with the pandemic, a lot of people, specifically young people, are suffering because of someone abusive in their household. It’s something that’s not talked about much during the pandemic [but] as COVID cases rise, domestic abuse cases rise as well. The story of Mayumi is one that I really wanted to do justice, because I know I’m not only speaking for Mayumi, I’m speaking for all the other victims out there who have been sexually assaulted or who have been witnessing sexual assault in their homes. 

The topic of sexual assault really means a lot to me and Fleabag kept that burden to herself, to the point that she talks to the camera because she’s not comfortable opening up to other people. That kind of translated to Mayumi’s shy, demure personality; of being clueless about everything regarding sex. I really wanted her to release all her energy by the end. Because the orgasm in this film isn’t sexual. It’s an emotional orgasm, when she let everything that she was feeling out during the role play. So Fleabag talaga was a big influence in terms of how one takes grief, how one takes trauma, and how that affects a woman and her decisions.

SL: Were there any scenes that you were particularly nervous about? 

Shiri: The kissing scene! Because I haven’t had a clear idea of how I wanted it to look like yet; the way I wrote it in the script was he was just kissing her neck, then she cried. That was the first time that Julian and Tita Ruby [Ruiz] met, and of course, I wanted them to feel comfortable. We gave them time to fully establish what’s going to happen, we gave them blockings. I told Julian where to kiss. 

I intentionally wrote this for Cinemalaya, and I wanted people to feel disturbed. I didn’t want them to feel turned on by what’s happening. So that was the biggest problem: how am I going to make it seem like she was turned on at first? And at the same time, how will I—within those few seconds—show triggers of trauma? 

SL: I was also really curious how you guys shot that particular scene, and how you explained it now, it reminded me of Sex Education [on Netflix]. They have a lot of sex scenes din, and they had an intimacy coordinator, so [the sex scenes] were like a choreographed dance. And I really love how you describe the scene, like it’s a choreographed dance nga talaga. It’s such a good way to ensure that the actors feel safe and comfortable.

Shiri: Leading up to that scene, I kept my distance from everyone. I had to think about how it was going to actually work. I think that’s what you said about it being choreographed, like, I’m a dancer as well. So I wanted to make sure that the timing of everything was perfect, because everything was intentional. Where he kissed, how long it took for her to cry, and the cue for him to say ‘What’s wrong?’ Everything was perfectly timed during that scene. I didn’t want the trigger for trauma to be too quick. Because sometimes we get triggered and it’s a buildup; it’s not all at once. And a part of me wanted Mayumi to enjoy it even for a few seconds; as he was laying her down the bed she actually liked it. But the trauma took over the feeling of pleasure. 

[In terms of the flashback scene], initially I wanted [young Mayumi] to intervene. Actually, there was a scene na dapat kita yung parents. But at the same time, we’re really focusing on her and on what she felt and what she experienced, so why do I have to give grave importance to what’s actually happening with the parents. Being in her situation, I would have stood still. I would have been frozen, unable to speak, unable to do anything to help my mom. And that added guilt to her trauma, na parang, ‘I didn’t do anything to help my mom.’ 

SL: I think that’s a really smart choice, not showing it. Sometimes, there’s a tendency for films like that to be scopophilic, or parang for show na lang din. I really love how you zeroed in on Mayumi. So Lola Mayumi, she’s recognized by the public, from the cashier at the motel to the callboy himself, they recognize her as this “Town Virgin”. Is that something you decided on early, the treatment of virginity as a spectacle?

Shiri: I wanted [the film] to be as realistic as possible, [but] the only thing I wanted to exaggerate was the pressure of society on [Mayumi]. She only did it because she was pressured to, because of her label, because she was recognized by everyone and she didn’t like that anymore. 

Julian Roxas and Ruby Ruiz on the set of Ang Pagdadalaga ni Lola Mayumi

SL: Related to that, I think a lot of people, especially among young people, are noticing that recently, there’s this equating of female empowerment with hypersexuality. Being autonomous as a woman becomes synonymous with like, having sex all the time. Do you think this film subverts that belief?

Shiri: Of course. Well, I also support the idea of an empowered woman doing whatever she wants to do, as long as she’s not hurting anyone, as long as she feels good, as long as it’s consensual. But at the same time, this film also subverts that. Because being empowered, like the explanation for pagdadalaga, isn’t really about sleeping with a man, it’s also about [knowing] your pacing and going about when you want it, and knowing when to stand up for yourself. 

SL: What do you want audiences to take away from this?

Shiri: Like my explanation for the title, to be able to know your boundaries and to know when enough is enough for you; when to say no, when to do whatever you want to do, and to not let the pressure of society, your trauma, or whatever problems you’ve faced in the past, affect you as an individual and blind you and shield you from experiencing happiness, because everyone deserves happiness. Everyone deserves pleasure, everyone deserves to feel good. But you really can’t do that until you learn to forgive yourself and learn to properly grow as an individual.

CInemalaya films are streaming on KTX.PH until September 5.

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