Festivals, Interview

SeaShorts 2021: A Personal Conversation with Petersen Vargas on ‘How to Die Young in Manila’

Spoilers ahead.

In recent years, we’ve become very familiar with Filipino filmmaker Petersen Vargas and his films Lisyun Qng Geografia and 2 Cool 2 be 4gotten. Following his ever-growing filmography is his recent short film How to Die Young in Manila, which premiered in Busan Film Festival, competed in the Singapore International Film Festival, and was recently selected as a finalist in the Official Competition of the 2021 Seashorts Film Festival.

How to Die Young in Manila sheds light on queer spaces that are hidden in plain sight in Manila’s gritty underground. With its poetic allegories on the queer experiences situated in the capital, we find the familiar and unfamiliar in its characters, their brief relationships, and the many tensions that they experience as they navigate the dark streets of the city. 

I spoke with Vargas, who is now working on his second feature film Some Nights I Feel Like Walking. Our conversation together helped uncover the many layers of How to Die Young in Manila and everything that helped him write and direct the film.

SINE LIWANAG: Ano yung naging personal inspiration mo in writing and making How to Die Young in Manila?

Petersen: I’ve been writing and thinking about, all these strange encounters in the public by queer characters na parang hindi siya “public” at all; they happen in public spaces but they are almost hidden from plain sight if you’re not part of that world.

It really came from all this thinking about how those encounters happen and how [they] produce these very unique dynamics between people. Boys from different classes, with different sexualities, and yet it makes it possible to have this sort of public confrontation with each other. We thought of this story, about a boy who happens to chase his desire despite what’s happening to that other side of life in Manila that he might not be aware of and is suddenly becoming aware of. 

SL: Yung [next] question ko po actually related dun sa boy nga po na character, yung nakita nya yung sa relationships nya dun sa Manila. How were you able to write this character, who I think is very real, kahit naman we don’t get to know a lot of things about him, [and yet] we still know this character?

Petersen: I think I tried my best to make this character that is coming from this very specific queer experience, where you’re suddenly about to actualize a certain kept desire for so long. It doesn’t matter what lengths you take because it’s been kept for so long eh. So I think a lot of queer people having all these queer desires, yung history noon kitang-kita mo sa mukha, sa body language. So I wanted to have that character and kind of give him that complicated journey of going to all those dangerous lengths just because feeling niya this is the night. This should be night. No one’s gonna stop me. 

And in some ways parang naka-parallel siya dun sa [fact na] there are also all these kids his age, whose desires are so different from his, ‘diba? I guess the only similarity is their age and that they’re men, young men who are coming of age in this city. [Pero] ang gusto pala nilang magawa is to get those clients, to get money. [i] just really want[ed] to illustrate that stark difference. 

SL: About this stark difference, ano yung pinagkuhanan mo nun? Kasi nakita ko nga rin dun sa characters where you have this young teenage gay man who’s running away from home and then meron dito yung mga people in the streets those who are forced to exploit themselves to earn money. Since I think that these are people we don’t often see onscreen, what helped you with the representation of these characters?

Petersen: The reason why I got attracted to that sort of queer dynamic is because I made these actual encounters myself, especially when I was young and I was thrown into Manila because Ì had to go to college here. And of course you spend all these lonely nights in the city where you feel like you don’t belong anywhere and yet you go out and then…

You go out because you’re trying to look for something and you can’t even define that something yet, especially when you’re young. You meet another person who’s also looking for something, and you may never know what that guy’s looking for; and yet you’re connecting because of this shared feeling of looking for something.

I kept in contact with some of them, and [it isn’t] even rooted in sexual reasons. [It’s] more male companionship. I would even [go] so far as to call it spiritual kinship. We’re all just a bunch of kids finding the idea of home.

These characters are always looking for home in places where they’re unwanted. And ‘yun yung nag-uunite sa kanila ‘diba? 

SL: Since narinig ko nga po na shinoot ‘tong How to Die Young as your proof of concept for Some Nights I Feel Like Walking [for your SEAFIC Pitch], how does How to Die Young in Manila differ from Some Nights I feel Like Walking? Are they in the same universe, or is it another version? 

Petersen: They’re basically set in the same world. I wanted to create a vision of the Manila I know, where these kids [are] not wanted anywhere. They have to grapple with that, in the public eye. Actually iffy ako when I say na proof of concept siya kasi it’s the same world, it’s the same characters, but I think they’re coming from very different sources from my own self.

I think How to Die Young [is] more of illustrating this surreal representation of how I see Manila, and how I see these kids’ lives. Dahil ‘dun, meron kaming opportunities to really go [for] all these aesthetic, thematic choices, like St. Sebastian’s iconography. 

In Some Nights, the creative process involves not illustrating it metaphorically. I think it’s high time na I should just be straightforward with the depiction; kumbaga, this is real life. 

SL: There are other things I also found notable, like the dead bodies of men scattered in the streets. Can you tell us more about them?

Petersen: We’re living in this very cruel Duterte regime. When I just started thinking about the concept for the second feature, nadesensitize na tayong lahat from all the EJKs. And then umingay lang ulit dahil when Kian was killed and [he] was a kid that suddenly [became] a victim of the EJKs.

Nagka-pake yung mga tao for a moment. Then after Kian, parang naging norm na there are all these minors who are in the middle of these killings, ‘diba? Ang heartbreaking kasi, especially si Kian right before his death, he was saying na, “Tama na po” kasi may exam pa siya. And I can’t stomach that.

And yet life goes on, especially if you’re part of a [certain] class. Actually, self-criticism siya eh. I could only tell this story coming from a main character that isn’t from that life. I’m telling it from a character that I could create without feeling like I’m marching away from the truth.

I was trying to build this vision of Manila na, there are all these accumulating dead bodies, and yet life goes on. Like, no one cares. And maybe this kid who is the same age as the dead bodies, maybe may curiosity siya or meron siyang visceral reaction to the sight of death. But what can he do? There’s also [a] helpless quality about being middle or middle lower class and you have all these—I mean of course, they’re very valid—class concerns of your own, and yet you’re confronted with this. Like what can you do?

There was just this conscious effort for me to build that world, and I’m a part of that world. Ano nga ba yung ginawa [ng] main character? Wala din. So may self-reflexive moment for me na I know how they die young in Manila but like, I just know that.

And parang hanggang dun lang ako. A lot of people say the film ends when it feels like it’s only just beginning, and I feel like dahil ganun din yung state of mind ko. I don’t know how to start living that life knowing what I need.

SL: What was also interesting to me was how you touched upon the prostitution of men in our society, [which is] not something we see often in Philippine cinema, as we have constantly seen women [as] prostitutes. What helped you show that often unexplored issue?

Petersen: I mean from what little old Filipino cinema I’ve seen, [these characters] exist so prominently for me. My favorite Filipino film is Ishmael Bernal’s Manila By Night; my favorite Brocka is Macho Dancer. And then you have these series of macho dancer films in the 80s until the 90’s: they feature cishet men trying to make a living in Manila and succumbing to prostitution.

But what’s actually more interesting for me is to also depict the anomaly of the queer male prostitute. Of course, it’s not something that’s evident in the short film, but it’s something I would explore in the feature. I actually encountered this book called Kolboy. It’s this study on how the male prostitute’s existence in Manila is an anomaly. Kasi nga, like you said, when you say prostitute, its context is in the cishet females, ‘diba? So paano pa kung naging male? Paano pa kung naging queer yung male na prostitute? Where is his place?

And I’ve always been interested in the male companionship that’s being built within these territories. In the pre-heavily digital times, there are all these designated places where these young men convene, informally, and they all build this strange companionship amongst each other. And yun yung gusto kong ipaint for them; there exists this spiritual brotherhood among their peers. 

SL: Ano yung naging inspiration niyo [doon sa] ending [na] homage kay St. Sebastian?

Petersen: I’m just really fascinated with the iconography of St. Sebastian. Parang anomaly din siya eh. Sa Christian doctrine, there’s this saint and martyr, pero icon siya for the queers.

I just really wanted to build this direct noticeable image. Thematic peak kasi siya eh, ‘diba? Especially, magkamukha pa [sila] nung hookup eh. So it just made sense to use this imagery, kasi andami niya ring na-encapsulate about the essence of the short.

SL: Nacurious ako sa pag-explore niyo sa queer spaces since I saw that it’s very layered. It’s set in the Philippines, and it explores that Filipino queer experience. What helped you create that experience in this film?

Petersen: I think this film can only exist [at] nighttime. In telling the story of these queer spaces, my keywords were always like, ‘in the shadows’, ‘in the underside’, ‘hidden public spaces’. Ang ganda lang for me ng irony na public siya, pero hidden siya. And it also speaks so much about, queer individuals, queer identities, and even the queer acts. Bakit kailangan silang itago? Kasi “disgusting” sila? “Nirereject” natin yung idea [ng] queerness? 

Ganun kasi dito sa Pilipinas. And I think that’s my goal na ilalagay natin yung camera dito sa mga nakatagong espasyo na ‘to, sa mga nakatagong acts, nakatagong mga karakter. There are malls na merong sobrang queer CR, kasi ‘dun tumatambay yung mga… like alam mo ‘yun? Parang may designated lagi, na para sa’min ‘to, walang papasok dito. I wanted to show that.

Binubuild namin yung mga ganitong world, so we could own them for ourselves. Tapos wala namang nagla-label ‘diba? Na this is a queer CR or parang mga beks lang pwede dito. And yet, it was already recontextualized, and reinvented to be ours. I wanted to put the camera there, and see what situations arise from there. 

SL: Sinasabi niyo po kanina [na] yung imagery ng Manila is very deliberate, very familiar, but [there’s] also something unfamiliar about it. Paano niyo binuo ‘tong Manila in your eyes? 

Petersen: What I hate about it is I still romanticize Manila, despite its ugliness and grit. Nagtatalo siya in my head. I want[ed] to find a way to make Manila beautiful in my head, and yet when I portray it, it’s not. We wanted to strengthen that sort of ambivalence. Double coded siya palagi; there’s always this binary that we can’t escape. Nandun siya palagi sa frame. 

SL: There’s this loudness din po nung nakita ko yung streets talaga. Yung underpass sabi ko, shet. It’s hard to explain, but you know…

Petersen: It’s always at both ends of the extremes, kaya parang double coded siya palagi na it’s both old and new. It’s both showing all this history but also showing all this modernity. It’s showing beauty but you know it’s ugly. 

SL: Although very subtle lang siya, gusto kong magtanong about how you directed yung scene na nagkita na sila before the ending. There’s this tension that you know is also familiar, especially with queer people. Nag-end siya in this denial; sinabi niya, “Ikaw ba ‘yun?” and then hindi rin siya nakakuha ng sagot. How did you direct this scene particularly?

Petersen: That was the hardest scene to write. It’s not like it’s a talky film ‘diba? But ang ganda ng sinabi mo na it’s such a specific thing to the queer experience, na there’s this disbelief all the time. “Do you like me?”, “You don’t like me?”, “Are you really gay?”, “Are you not?”, “If you’re not, can I pay you?” Like andaming [tanong], para siyang nagvo-volley back and forth. Kaya even the camerawork, I wanted to feel like it was going back and forth, kasi ganun ko siya laging nafefeel; someone looks at you and then you follow them, and then he looks back, and then you look back. And then you keep following them, and then he stops. And that’s how you stop also. So ‘di kayo ever nagtatagpo.

There’s always this restraint and a sense of shame na you’re doing it so out in the open, and you don’t know where it could lead. And yet it’s also so exciting, so sensual. It’s part of the attraction of why you do it, ‘no? Para siyang game of chase and there’s something that leads you to the point where you feel like it’s the first time again.

SL: Since this was Kokoy de Santos and Elijah Canlas’ first time working together before Gameboys, how was the experience directing them? 

Petersen: I’ve always been a fan of Elijah. I actually worked with him but not as his director. I produced this short Contestant #4 and he was the lead. I even co-wrote this feature film called Sakaling Hindi Makarating and he was one of the main supporting [characters] there. So I’ve always known Elijah. And I’ve always even liked all his theatre [work], so sobrang dali na siya yung magiging bida nito. Everything that I needed from the main character, I know Elijah could do well.

Tapos si Kokoy, fan din ako. And I think ‘yun yung naging tough nung casting. We actually had a number of boys as choices for these two main characters, but it was only when we paired Elijah and Kokoy during auditions na nag-click. May nafefeel ka kahit magkatabi lang sila, for some reason. And yun nga, first time ‘yun. So I’m sure when they screen tested them for Gameboys, obvious choice siya eh. There’s just this weird energy that is so strong when you put them together. Magic siya. 

SL: For your audiences for this short, ano yung gusto mong maalala nila about How to Die Young

Petersen: Here’s a film that portrays this world, this Manila, where people don’t care. So we were afforded this viewing pleasure “to see that happening”. You’re taken out of the reality of Manila, for a moment, and you’re seeing this. Young kids die, and we just pass by them, not literally of course, but it happens. 

Sana ma-remember lang nila, we are not removed from that reality. The sidewalks where they die are the sidewalks we will walk [on] the next day. Part tayo ng espasyo na yun, part tayo ng realidad nito, whether we like it or not. My wish is when we see this film, you can’t look away. 

I hope it fuels us to do something. I’m not the right person to define what that something is. But at least I have the consciousness to do something.

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