REVIEW: Sine Halaga in the year of the shorts

After short films took the limelight in the recently concluded Cinemalaya Film Festival and Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino, 2021 is turning out to be the year of the shorts. Short films also filled the inaugural lineup of Sine Halaga, the newest addition to the terrain of Filipino film festivals.

The project is the result of the collaboration of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) and the Negros Cultural Foundation.

As the festival’s name suggests, Sine Halaga aimed to highlight 19 Filipino values determined in a two-year research led by the NCCA. Among these are: life and purpose, care for the environment, human rights, honesty and integrity, good governance, peace and progress.

From over a hundred entries, only 12 stories were selected and funded for production. The films will be used by teachers from select Philippine schools to discuss Filipino values, alongside study guides crafted by the commission.  

The films, however, require more time to shine as half the participating shorts were upsettingly lackluster. The films indeed depict Filipino cultural values, but not enough to give weight to their narratives. Only a few rise above their promise, as they understand the limits of the short medium but are not confined by it. 

Here are dispatches on all 12 films in the roster: 

“Black Rainbow” (2021; dir. Zig Madamba Dulay) 

“Black Rainbow” follows the story of an Aeta boy who dreams of becoming a lawyer to protect his community from corporate giants trying to occupy their ancestral lands. 

This gem of a piece has such an organic execution that brings out the film’s core. There is something surprising about its rawness and slice of life approach that blends beautifully in favor of the film. 

Not only is it aware of its material but makes wise use of it. Without overexplaining its intention and instead allowing small details to carry its nuances, the film handles the larger story with subtlety. 

But this short begs the question: Are we not past the need for subtleties in portraying the struggles long endured by our indigenous peoples? 

Nonetheless, I have no qualms indulging in the captivating beat of this work. 

“Ugbos Ka Bayabas” (2021; dir. Manie Magbanua Jr.)

There is no denying that this film offers, at the very least, a good laugh. One is easily hooked by its clever and campy energy but it is only short-lived (no pun intended). 

While the 17-minute film “Ugbos Ka Bayabas” managed to touch on cultural and religious undertones surrounding circumcision, a traditional rite of passage, there is nothing new that leaps from it. Nothing makes the film worthy of a second viewing. 

The film revolves around an old, patriarchal joke and reinforces it. Had the story matched its execution, it would have made a much stronger case.

“Looking for Rafflesias and Other Fleeting Things” (2021; dir. James Allen Fajardo)

Exploring the tikbalang as a queer-coded persona—partially reminiscent of Irene Villamor’s “Ulan”—is a welcome selling point; but scratch this, then all we get from this short is a meandering, unsteady narrative laid bare, save for some visual flair. 

The film anchors on ambiguity and miserably settles with that. The sound design also needs fine-tuning as the choice of music can become off-putting at times. 

“Looking for Rafflesias and Other Fleeting Things” has the vision and promise but not the cinematic language it requires to pull these off. Still, props to Fajardo for the attempt. As the title warrants, this film is simply another fleeting thing, too fragmented to be desired.

“13 Feet” (2021; dir. Carlo Obispo)

Contrary to its title, “13 Feet” seeks depth in shallow waters. I needed to get back to its logline to grasp what it was hoping to convey, but to little avail. 

It seems like it began somewhere in the middle and was unsure how to march forward. The bulk of this work was left to interpretation, only I have no idea where to dive into first. 

“Salog Ning Diklom” (2021; dir. Jordan dela Cruz)

I appreciate the texture of this piece which revolves around its troubled protagonist. The best part was that it does not strive to be something it is not, but still delivers surprises worth latching onto. It knows its way around voiceovers, so kudos to that poetic ending sequence.

Through its clear pacing and reliable camerawork, “Salog Ning Diklom” makes an appealing case for a full-length version. I’m looking forward to what dela Cruz has left in store.

“Sa Balay ni Papang” (2021; dir. Kurt Soberano) 

Since it clearly pays homage to the late master director Peque Gallaga, it was a likely hit-and-miss film. But “Sa Balay ni Papang” became an easy favorite among the festival entries. 

Not because of its veneer of sentimentality—a common component of most tribute films—but because it elicits a personal and universal sense of cinema. 

What makes it more desirable is how it evokes a certain attachment which allows the audience to appreciate the often-curtailed value of filmmaking. It also surfaces one’s longing for the traditional moviegoing experience.

To each their own, of course, but this piece steals the show. It seems to be the kind of film that, after a long day, taps you on the shoulder and says: “Everything will be okay.”

“Masalimuot ya Tiyagew ed Dayat” (2021; dir. Jan Carlo Natividad)

Just with the first few sequences, I was already aware that this film hints at many gay romances, too many for its own good. 

This is how the story unfolds: two souls rekindling an old friendship. Then an infinite sea, something this pandemic denies us of, thus a welcome element. Lastly, the drinking and dancing and a brief moment of rupture—of desire—appears. 

The inevitable tension-break occurs, but the plot quickly swims further and forward. It is about to reach that surprise we desperately yearn for, only to wave us back to where it all began, to what we have already seen countless of times.

Simply put, “Masalimuot ya Tiyagew ed Dayat” is predictable at best. It easily dilutes itself when placed among its kind. But for what it’s worth, it comes with a saving grace, thanks to the convincing and propulsive performance of Kych Minemoto. What a darling!

“Dandansoy” (2021; dir. Arden Rod Condez) 

A charming tale about a pseudo-mother-son relationship: two strangers striking a connection with each other after meeting at a computer shop. 

The raw chemistry between Mong (Jansen Magpusao) and Lola Acay (Adela Luciano-Berb) is the centerpiece of this short. But a part of me wonders if the story could have been more appealing without the aswang lore—a metaphor the film reduced into a pulp. 

Some editing mishaps, especially toward the end, hurt the film’s overall pace. 

Still, I’m glad to have seen this cinematic treat from Condez. 

“Bakit Ako Sinusundan ng Buwan?” (2021; dir. Richard Soriano Legaspi) 

There are two sparks of brilliance from this picture. First, the breathtaking Arayat landscape. Props to Albert Banzon’s superb cinematography for giving it justice.

Next is the remarkable lead performance of Jemuel Satumba, who immediately captures me right from the opening scene. He needed not burst into tears for one to feel the weight in his eyes. 

However, the script has done Satumba’s talent a grave disservice. It does not take a genius to notice bad and stale writing. 

For instance, the conversation between the lead’s former teachers is forced and mechanical. Perhaps the screenwriters need a crash course on how to distinguish dialogue from mere contrivance. 

Just as the film reaches greater heights, the plot twist arrives out of nowhere like a final blow waiting to happen, burying the entire narrative deep, deep under. What a wasted opportunity. 

“Hadlok” (2021; dir. Ralston Jover) 

Not to undermine the capacity of the horror genre as a social commentary, but this piece tries too hard to be both. Upon realizing that it is miserably failing, it takes a vague route as a lousy excuse for an ending. 

I am also not sold on the title (hadlok means scared) as the film struggles to substantiate what it attempts to impart. It shapeshifts without warning. Had it known where it was heading, “Hadlok” could have been a solid work. 

“Lorna” (2021; dir. Noel Escondo) 

Form-wise, “Lorna” is one of the most consistent in the festival. However, its narrative does not follow its consistency. 

No matter how stellar Angeli Bayani’s work here is, she can only do so much. It does not help that the film overdid its voiceovers and lacked dialogue when it needed it.

This short feature is decent but its core revels in banality, slipping ever so swiftly from our hands. 

“Mina’s Family History” (2021; dir. Christopher Gozum) 

This short is tonally similar to “Lorna,” which is to say, it is as emotionally flat or even worse. The acting is far more inferior from the latter, often clunky and awkward. 

What makes it more baffling is the direction it hesitantly pursues. It travels in a non-existent route, circling around the same thing over and over again. 

The film’s logline promises something interesting but it turns out to be the exact opposite. Sad to say, the entire 38-minute runtime, the longest among the festival entries, feels like nothing but an exasperated sigh. It is a far cry from a Lav Diaz film. And at last, it ends.

To put everything bluntly, it doesn’t take much time to sober up after consuming the festival’s 12 films in one go. The viewing experience naturally ends as the screen fades to black. I cannot help but wonder what some of the films offer that hasn’t been offered yet, if not told better. 

Sine Halaga’s biggest merit lies in its attempt to harness filmmaking as a way of shaping values—a point it has already nailed during the festival’s promotion. But it makes sense that this is a debuting film fest establishing its foothold, slowly and patiently, before cementing its status in the film industry. While this year’s selection is rough around the edges, Sine Halaga can only improve from here.

It’s no easy job to produce films, and by extension, anything of cultural value at this time of abject precarity, especially for a sector whose importance has long remained in the periphery. Because of this, no matter their lapses, I will always appreciate film festivals that dare trying.