Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Heneral Luna Goes to War: Thinking Seriously About that Elusive Oscar Nomination

When was the last time in recent memory that a Filipino film received such an outpouring of affection, ardor, and support? Cineastes, students, historians, and casual moviegoers alike have bombarded social networking sites with praise for Jerrold Tarog’s Heneral Luna and admonitions to those who have not seen it during its run in cinemas. Rarely have the words “must-see movie” seen so much use over a local production. A few days ago, the local film industry (by way of a seven-man committee under the Film Academy of the Philippines) gave its own stamp of approval, and a far-reaching, burdensome one at that: Heneral Luna is our country’s entry to the Best Foreign Language Film category of the 88th Academy Awards (aka the Oscars).

Since its release on 9 September, Heneral Luna has become a rallying point for various sectors of society that are usually at odds with each other on a multitude of other issues. Those less aware of the excellent films that such independent festivals as Cinemalaya and CinemaOne have been churning out on a yearly basis have certainly made it one for high-quality cinema (with “mistress” movies—as if that were a real genre—being the scapegoat). Those decrying the shortcomings of history education in our schools have also used it as such; there are calls for the Department of Education to make it required viewing for elementary and high school students. When in its third week, cinema houses announced that they would be removing the film from over half of their theaters, the public made Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking sites their battleground in pressuring the houses to abort such plans (and they largely did). When word got out that the pirates have been busy with creating bootlegged copies of the movie, it suddenly became popular for one to speak up against piracy.

Like the true general that the title character was, Heneral Luna has called Filipinos to arms.

Perhaps one more battle is not too much to ask for? Heneral Luna could very well be the rallying point for our pursuit of recognition in the global film arena, that Oscar nomination that has eluded us since the 1950s.

Flirting with the Foreign Language Film Oscar

The Philippines has been sending movies to the Best Foreign Language Film category of the Oscars since 1956, the year that the category became a competitive one with five nominees. That inaugural race, where we sent Lamberto Avellana’s Anak Dalita, was won by Federico Fellini’s La Strada. Including Anak Dalita, we have fielded 25 entries prior to Heneral Luna. Not one has made it to the nominees’ circle of five. Presumably, some have made it to the shortlist, but certainly not since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) first publicly announced their shortlists in 2006. To see a Filipino film getting attention from the Academy, we would have to go all the way back to 1953, when Manuel Conde’s Genghis Khan was under consideration for the Honorary Foreign Language Film Award (then non-competitive) in the 26th Academy Awards.

Last year, we sent a particularly worthy contender: Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan by Lav Diaz. It was nominated for the Un Certain Regard Award in the Cannes Film Festival and a won a slew of other international citations. Such attention from the foreign film industry is not to be underestimated; even simply making rounds and creating buzz in such festivals as those in Cannes, Berlin, Venice, Tribeca, or Sundance can do wonders for a competing film. Prior to getting its first nomination with The Missing Picture, Cambodia’s film made its rounds in the international festival circuit (and won that same Un Certain Regard race to boot). Unfortunately, Norte’s Cannes debut came over a full year before it was submitted for consideration in the 87th Academy Awards (in contrast, The Missing Picture was submitted for the 86th—just five months after its Cannes win).

Interestingly, Brillante Mendoza, clearly one of the vanguards of Philippine cinema in international cinema with repeated Cannes, Berlinale, and Venezia appearances, has never represented the country in the Oscar race.

Digging the Trenches

Simply put, Heneral Luna must have international screenings if it is to even make a dent in the consciousness of the Academy voters. The film has been shown in select theaters in Los Angeles and New York, but mainly for the Filipino communities there. Right now, there is virtually no buzz from Oscar watchers and insiders on the film, something that even Bwakaw had healthy amounts of two years ago because of participation in international film festivals. And no, that article on Variety about the selection of the film does not count for much (but an advertisement in the magazine, which is very costly, probably will—any willing sponsors?).

Several films already have a significant advantage going into the race by virtue of their strong performance in international festivals: The Second Mother (Anna Muylaert, Brazil), Embrace of the Serpent (Ciro Guerra, Colombia), Labyrinth of Lies (Giulio Ricciarelli, Germany), The Wave (Roar Uthaug, Norway), A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (Roy Andersson, Sweden), The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Taiwan), and the presumed frontrunner, Son of Saul (László Nemes, Hungary). Even if the Foreign Language committee does not normally warm up to horror movies, Austria’s Goodnight Mommy (Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz) has at least word-of-mouth from international cineastes going for it. With the selection above, five of which could very well be the actual nominees, Heneral Luna truly has to make an uphill climb. This is especially true because Tarog is unfortunately not yet a very recognizable name outside the Philippines.

Aside from creating the needed buzz, screening Heneral Luna in theaters in the United States will also make it eligible for the awards bestowed by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (aka the Golden Globes). Say what you may about that group of international journalists, but their power in bringing attention to films up for Oscar consideration is not to be underestimated.

On that note, perhaps the Nepaleses (Janet and Ruben), the two Filipino members of the HFPA, can more vocally champion the film among their peers?

The General Needs Champions

Having someone in Hollywood as a very vocal supporter of Heneral Luna could do wonders. When the Philippines made its final pitch to the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) to host the World Cup in 2019, the delegation included boxing superstar Manny Pacquiao and veteran actor Lou Diamond Philips. Presumably, neither has much clout within the Academy.

Thankfully, we do not need to limit ourselves to compatriots. Perhaps John Arcilla can ask for a little help from his The Bourne Legacy colleagues Jeremy Renner and Rachel Weisz (both big stars, Academy members, and Oscar nominees; Weisz actually won as Oscar for The Constant Gardener). Or maybe Hollywood heavyweights Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, and Leonardo DiCaprio, who promoted the City of Dreams casino resort complex in Manila, could become Heneral Luna advocates?

Why not Quentin Tarantino? A proud fan of Asian cinema (including the drive-in staples of Filipino directors Eddie Romero and Gerardo de Leon), he was feted in the Cinemanila International Film Festival in 2007. He is an Academy favorite, having just recently won Best Original Screenplay honors for Django Unchained and his upcoming The Hateful Eight being widely anticipated as another Oscar contender. He had championed Zhang Yimou’s Hero, which was nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category and several others.

Some might see this as shameless campaigning, but Oscar watchers recognize that the race is as much about the campaign as it is about the quality of films in contention. This late in the game (the official list of foreign language film entries comes out in October, with the shortlist of nine following perhaps in December), public screenings might not be enough to pull off the magic trick of a nomination. Sending physical screeners (e.g. DVDs) or even providing links for download or streaming content to select Academy insiders might be the extra shot in the arm that this particular campaign needs.

Spread That Love

Filipinos are very comfortable with social media. The online hoopla surrounding Heneral Luna just proved how powerful a weapon the Internet can be with our advocacies. The film seems to have struck a collective nerve in most of those who have seen it, and most telling of that is the sentimentality over its importance as a work of art and a tool for history education.

A strong online campaign for Heneral Luna in the Best Foreign Language Film category will not be seen as presumptuous, especially with a good number of known Oscar watchers like Tom O’Neil (Gold Derby) and Nathaniel Rogers (The Film Experience) having lamented the lack of attention that regular entrants like the Philippines are getting in the race. The effort will likely be seen as proactive and nationalistic (as befitting the actual film), qualities that most Academy voters (i.e. American) would presumably be able to appreciate.

One other thing that many American voters will probably appreciate: Heneral Luna does not pander to them as our colonial masters. Some Filipinos may be worried that voters will find the film offensive given its sentiments against American colonialists, but modern liberalist America—with its strong slant on social liberalism and social justice—will probably develop a fondness for this poke at past oppressionist imperial America. The almost cartoonish portrayal of American generals may actually help.

It’s certainly a riveting story from any angle: a developing nation, the film industry of which has had glorious past decades (many international cineastes still know who Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal) and is currently back on the upswing (with Mendoza and Diaz at the vanguard); submitting an Oscar entry since the 1950s but never being nominated; comes together to champion a film about patriotism, respect for history, and sheer conviction.

We could definitely put those memes and hashtags to very good use these next few months. Foreign Oscar journalists and bloggers like O’Neil, Rogers, Sasha Stone (Awards Daily), Kristopher Tapley (Variety), and Anne Thompson (Indiewire) might pick the message up and pass it on.

The Odds

As things stand right now, Heneral Luna will easily get lost in the sea of foreign language film entries (at least 80 territories are expected to submit theirs), with early festival favorites Son of Saul and The Second Mother making it even more difficult for us to get breathing space. However, if enough buzz picks up and attention shifts to this gem of a movie from an emerging film culture, then getting into at least the shortlist isn’t unlikely (especially with the Committee having the power to include three films that do not get enough popular votes).

That’s exactly what the film is: a gem that deserves to be seen by fans of cinema not only here in our country but elsewhere. It’s a war film/biopic with excellent technical quality, powerful writing and direction, and impeccable performances by its ensemble cast. It has the trappings of a Best Foreign Language Film Award shoo-in.

The right people just have to know about it and watch it. So now, it’s a matter of us making sure that happens.

Image from the Heneral Luna Facebook page