Festivals, Interview

SeaShorts 2021: ‘Gutab’ Director Mary Andrea Palmares Wants to Remind Women of Their Power

Gutab is fuelled by stares. The two leads—a beauty queen and a mat weaver’s daughter—exchange little to no words, and yet we understand. When the film concludes, it makes perfect sense.

The short film, which was part of the recently concluded SeaShorts Film Festival, was directed by University of the Philippines Visayas student Mary Andrea Palmares. Sine Liwanag spoke to the filmmaker about her first time directing, her dream for regional filmmakers, and why she decided to shed light on the experiences of women in the province.

SINE LIWANAG: When did you first get the idea for Gutab? How and why did you decide to incorporate weaving into the narrative of the film? 

Mary Andrea Palmares: ‘Gutab’ is a Kinaray-a word. Kinaray-a is the mother tongue of my hometown Libertad, a small town known as the gateway to freedom because of its name and because it is located at the northernmost part of the province. 

‘Gutab’ is considered the final step in weaving mats. This is when the unwanted and unnecessary strands in a mat are cut and eliminated. And because I grew up in a small town known for its mat- or banig-weaving culture, I decided to incorporate our locality’s oldest weaving practice into this short film. As I wrote the script, this weaving practice somehow became an allegory for separation and unification, as well as oppression and freedom.

I also decided to tell this women-oriented story which takes place in a provincial town, tackles culture, and features characters such as a beauty queen and a mat weaver’s daughter, because I think that women in these similar situations have consistently been underrepresented in cinema and in any media. Just like the local beauty pageant culture in town fiestas and how it still exhibits stereotypical and traditional notions of what it means to be a woman, and also how some traditions such as mat-weaving expect women to be just weavers rather than dreamers. 

SL: What challenges did you face as a first-time director, and how did you overcome them on set? Did you find that directing is how you expected it to be? 

MA: Gutab was initially a course requirement [for] our directing class under our mentor, award-winning filmmaker Dir. Arden Rod Condez. Our batch was his first set of students when he started teaching in UPV. Gutab is also the first film I have ever directed, and as someone who considers herself an introvert, I was terribly anxious about the whole idea. I was nervous that I would have a hard time making the people I work with understand my vision because it has always been a struggle to express my thoughts. 

But I was fortunate because I had the chance to work with a fantastic production team with the same passion level as mine. I was also grateful that I had the full support of my family and friends. Since I did not have enough budget to make this film, I asked some of my closest friends to help me do it for free or for meager pay. I have always thought that it was just a family and friends kind of project; that is why I never expected it to be selected in an international film festival such as SeaShorts.

Along the way, we encountered certain difficulties. Aside from the monetary constraints, making the film in the middle of the pandemic is arguably the most challenging task I have done as a starting filmmaker. Prior to filming, we had to secure particular permits and ensure [that] everyone on set was in shape and followed proper safety protocols. We also had to adhere to curfews, which forced us to shoot a night scene in broad daylight. Thankfully, our editor and DOP Caleb Maglunob was able to make that scene appear to be taking place at night. This particular scene was the finale. 

But in a nutshell, the whole experience was extremely memorable and an eye-opener.  I learned that making films is not easy and really requires a lot of collaborative effort and work from people you know who are equally passionate as you are. I also learned that the experience of writing the screenplay is far different from directing the actual film. In our group projects in class, I only write the script or sometimes take charge of tasks related to cinematography and editing, but I never really tried directing. Because of this experience, I realize that you have to know the core of your story so that every time you feel like almost everything is getting more challenging, you just go back to why you are making the film. You have to go back to the purpose of your film in order to continue and finish it.

SL: Who and what are your major influences as a filmmaker, and what were your influences for Gutab?

MA: When I was writing the screenplay, my mentor suggested watching Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire to get some inspiration. The film tells a love affair between an aristocrat and a painter commissioned to paint that aristocrat’s marriage portrait. I fell in love with the film for many reasons, especially the meaningful demonstration of the female gaze, the comparison of the observed and the observer, and the story’s rhythm. Sciamma’s film not only confronted certain taboos but also powerfully demonstrated how women view the world differently. For that reason, it did influence how I made our short film. I was inspired to tell a sincere and honest story told through a young woman’s perspective. A personal story unfolding through Jo-an’s eyes.

SL: Gutab has been part of many local and international festivals. What is that experience like? Did having bigger audiences impact how you see your film or how you approach filmmaking?

MA: As a first-time director and filmmaker from the region, being selected and becoming part of these local and international film festivals alongside different filmmakers I admire, and knowing that many people have watched our film, honestly came as a surprise. Aside from the primary goal of getting a decent grade in our directing class, I only wanted to share a sincere story close to my heart. Qualifying [for] festivals and receiving recognition for the film did not really occur to me or ever cross my mind. It was just so unexpected and surreal. But that whole experience did make an impact on me as a person and as a filmmaker. I would sometimes find or read comments online from several people about how Jo-an and Sabel’s story made them feel a certain way, think about their lives, or their perspective on gender and love—and it made me realize how powerful films can be. As filmmakers or visual storytellers, I learned that we have the ability to tell stories that can move people, inspire them to lay bare, and in some ways, act on something important.

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

MA: Even in these modern times, there are still traditional and stereotypical notions of what it means to be a woman. With this, being a woman is often regarded as a stumbling block. I, for one, still experience discrimination for being a young woman living in the province. And it cannot be ignored that until now, in some places, a lot of women still suffer from harassment and discrimination. These unsettling issues are the reasons why this short film was made. 

I wrote the main characters to represent two out of various situations of women in society: the issues of objectification and of bounding them in different domestic roles. Gutab was initially made as a personal letter to my younger self, but also in hopes of inspiring other women to become more empowered and be reminded that they are not mere objects confined inside their homes. And that every woman has the right, freedom, and power to defy the different constraints brought by society.

SL: What is your dream for regional filmmakers?

MA: There are a lot of interesting and meaningful stories that exist in the regions. There are also a lot of regional filmmakers who have the ability to tell these important stories; different passionate voices that a lot of people still have not heard of. I hope that more talented filmmakers from the regions are offered more platforms to showcase their work and more heartfelt and empowering stories are given the space they truly deserve.

SL: Are there any other stories you plan on bringing to life soon, or any issues you’re really excited to tackle?

MA: I have a few concepts in mind, but I have not started writing anything yet. However, it has always been my aspiration as a filmmaker to share different stories of people. To tell their struggles and, at the same time, their triumphs. But most significantly, I want to continue bringing local culture into cinema, so maybe in the future, if time allows, I might work on a short film that would feature another culture from our hometown or our province—or other particular stories from different sectors of society that are continuously being underrepresented.

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