Smaller and Smaller Circles

One of the more welcome film series in town, Asian Pop-Up Cinema (now in its seventh season) presents recent work from east Asia that might not have reached this city otherwise. Case in point: this Wednesday at the River East 21 at 7 PM, it will present Smaller and Smaller Circles (2017), the latest feature by Filipino director Raya Martin, with the filmmaker scheduled to appear for a postshow discussion. Martin’s work has received much attention over the past 15 years—some of his films have played at Cannes, and he’s been the subject of retrospectives in New York and Paris—but his movies rarely play in Chicago. Perhaps this screening will mark the beginning of a belated local discovery of his filmography.

Based on a best-selling novel by F.H. Batacan and set in the 1990s, Circles follows two Jesuit priests-cum-investigative detectives, Fathers Gus (Nonie Buencamino) and Jerome (Sid Lucero), who help the Manila police solve difficult mysteries. The plot kicks into gear when one of the priests realizes that a series of child murders has likely been committed by the same criminal, meaning that the heroes are working to stop one of the Philippines’ first serial killers. Martin generates an impressive amount of suspense, but he also stops to consider larger issues in his country’s recent history. One compelling subplot concerns Father Gus’s contentious relationship with a hypocritical cardinal—their rift is over how the Catholic Church has handled cases of child abuse reported in the Philippines. The film works perfectly well as a murder mystery, but it’s these conversations about moral responsibility that make Circles a lasting experience.

I recently communicated with Martin via e-mail to discuss the film, his career, and where he feels both fit into Filipino cinema and culture.

What attracted you to the screenplay of Smaller and Smaller Circles? Did you revise the script at all before filming it?

I had read the novella version of Smaller and Smaller Circles almost a decade ago when I brought it with me to New York on one of my festival trips. People always pointed out how cinematic the book is and wondered when the movie version would come out. I didn’t think about it [again] until years later, when our producer friend came across a new version, which is the expanded novel [that was] picked up by a publisher based in New York. She was looking for a director to turn it into a movie. I suggested some names before realizing I wanted to do it. I even used a litany of reasons why I should do it, like when I was young I had wanted to become a priest in the U.S. Then it all happened quickly, and I suddenly found myself back in New York with our producer, licensing the rights to the story. We didn’t know yet that the local news would later be filled with reports of children being killed under the so-called “war on drugs.”

The book has a big following in the Philippines, especially with students who were familiar with the original material when it was released by a university press back in the late 90s. We didn’t want to touch so much of the story in the book, as it seemed like its own screenplay. But during the shoot, we would revise dialogue, even right before a take. In editing, we had to move more scenes around to have a better flow for the movie. The movie ending is quite different from the book.

On a related note, what is your personal relationship to Catholicism? Are you a practicing Catholic?

I went to a private Catholic school run by nuns who were affiliated with the Jesuits, and they were very conservative. At the same time, I was also raised by a nanny who had strong folk beliefs, like in sorcery or the supernatural, and so I would say that these two opposing beliefs kept a friction in me. I used to debate my religion teacher back in high school, but I would get good grades for it. Filipinos have an extremely complicated relationship with religion, given that our colonial history was founded on it. I stopped practicing as soon as I entered college, but it’s difficult to separate the impact of organized religion with a more fluid sense of spirituality.

One thing I admire about the film is that it critiques abuses within the Catholic Church while maintaining a respectful view of religion on the whole. How did you maintain this balance?

I wanted to avoid a black-and-white picture, not just in tackling religion but also in our relationship to politics and society in general. I was understanding more this idea that limiting our perception of institutions prohibits us from understanding why people do what they do within them. It’s similar to the Christian precept of “hate the sin, not the sinner.” It would become contrived if we started to reduce characters to statistics, concepts, ideas. That’s also a tenet of screenwriting.

In addition to working as a serious consideration of faith, Smaller and Smaller Circles is also a good murder mystery. Were there any films you looked to for inspiration in your storytelling?

Perhaps the most obvious one visually would be [David] Fincher’s Seven (1995)—it was the quintessential 90s crime noir. There was also a copy of Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder (2003) floating around during preproduction. I think in general the approach was more classical, and perhaps the old-film feel comes from watching [the Japanese movie studio] Nikkatsu’s noirs or The Maltese Falcon. But there’s also a lot of Ishmael Bernal’s Manila By Night (1980) in there, which is difficult to categorize in terms of the genre.

<i>Smaller and Smaller Circles</i>
Smaller and Smaller Circles

Could you tell me a bit about your lead actors, Nonie Buencamino and Sid Lucero? What are their backgrounds and what is it like to work with them?

They’re two of the best Filipino actors working today. Nonie is theater royalty and has roots in musicals. He’s become popular as a character actor, usually [playing] a villain, in mainstream movies and soap operas. The first time I worked with him was in my atmospheric horror How to Disappear Completely (2013), and he was such a piercing, sinister father figure looming over the film. I remember him mentioning that it was a dream role to play a priest saying Mass. Sid comes from a showbiz royalty clan, and he’s done numerous strong characters in memorable indies. He was in my period historical drama Independencia (2009) as the son who grows up to be a father in the jungle. They both do “intense” onscreen in different ways, and the contrast in their acting styles complements perfectly.

What were your goals for the look of Smaller and Smaller Circles, and how did you work with your collaborators to achieve it?

From the beginning, my cinematographer and I wanted something clean and glossy, but also dark and moody. It was a big contrast from the movies that we were used to seeing in this milieu, but it reflected the characters of these two investigative priests navigating a textured city like Manila. Ironically, we had to heavily light a lot of the scenes to bring out the shadows and the sense of darkness that lurks around. A lot of people think Manila has a dangerous energy that could strike you at anytime, but there’s also a sense of calm that pushes it back.

I also wanted to play around with the idea of television, something that’s connected to the 90s-ness of the story. When I was young, I remember watching local shows where lost kids came on to find their parents, seeing emotional expressions that I could relate to as part of the aesthetics of a docudrama. And we would later be surrounded by this aggressive necessity for narratives in our news broadcasts. I also imagined our movie would also reach TV broadcast later on.

What has the response to Smaller and Smaller Circles been like in the Philippines? Did it stir up any controversy?

One thing I found interesting during our local release was that people started to discuss publicly the systemic corruption within and among institutions. There’s always been a practice of self-censorship, especially when criticizing “sacred” institutions, but a genre film allowed the conversation to be publicized. It was interesting to see movie reviews talking about these issues side-by-side with real news [reports] on these same concerns. There wasn’t a controversy in the traditional sense, but priests would talk about [the film] during their sermons. I imagine the “controversy” was more on the introspective side.

Could you share some of the more interesting responses to the film?

One of the memorable comments I’ve heard was someone saying that the movie reflects the real-life murders of children happening around the country. People seemed to connect more emotionally to what was happening in the fictional work than to the daily news flashing all these murders, obviously because we’ve amassed so many [news] images. Probably the reason why I’m captivated by genre or commercial filmmaking is that it carries the possibility of connecting to a mass audience on an emotional level.

Given the prominence of your films, along with those by Lav Diaz (Norte, the End of History; The Woman Who Left) and Brillante Mendoza (Serbis, Thy Womb), global interest in Filipino cinema may be at an all-time high. Could you share your thoughts on the current state of the national film industry and how you fit into it?

It was such a different time a decade ago, when I started out with experimental and avant-garde works. Our styles were all different, but there was this unifying spirit of filmmaking that put us together in a movement, and that became the so-called national cinema. My experience is different because I wasn’t part of the film industry to begin with, whereas most older filmmakers produced films precisely as a reaction to working for the studios.

I think the landscape of filmmaking in the country has completely changed since then. There was suddenly an infrastructure for cheap export cinema under the guise of the “indie spirit.” There’s now a saturation of festival films that almost never get shown in the country. And the local studios have reacted defensively by creating a divisive distribution strategy that favors their mainstream movies. It would just be nice to see a Filipino movie regarded the same way as an American commercial movie in theaters. In a sense, it’s extending the idea of national cinema—we’re also part Americans, after all.

Who are some of your favorite Filipino filmmakers?

These past years I’ve been thinking a lot about Ishmael Bernal, because they’ve finally decided to restore some of his films. He was less known internationally when compared to his contemporary Lino Brocka, but he’s celebrated a lot by local filmgoers. Most of his films were critical and commercial successes, and they spoke ingeniously about the socio-political conditions of the country through a mainstream film language. Manila By Night remains my personal favorite Filipino film. It’s probably the most successful attempt at characterizing the multilayered Filipino psyche, going through different film genres in the process.

Another filmmaker I really admire is my mentor, Kidlat Tahimik, who I see more as a film philosopher. It’s amazing to imagine that during the golden age of local filmmaking in the 70s, dominated by studio works, there was someone who made films independently, speaking about our complicated colonial history by collaborating with his own family and a lively arts community. He was in essence, a true independent filmmaker, both in process and ideology. My personal favorite of his is Why is Yellow the Middle of the Rainbow? (1994), which was a letter to his son about the interim period of democracy in the country. It features cameos from a lot of cinema greats, like his good friend Werner Herzog and Andrei Tarkovsky.

Smaller and Smaller Circles stands in contrast to some of your earlier features in that it’s more narrative-driven. Do you see any difference between making art films and making genre films?

This is probably the biggest question that I’ve considered these past years, after not creating for a while. It’s funny to remember the time when I produced some early works. It was such a joyous, personal process to figure out possibilities of language and aesthetics. I think, at some point, I felt the need to stop and figure out what it all means. I think the reflection went back to the joy of watching movies that are engaged with our daily lives. One watches films to be transported elsewhere.

There’s not much difference in making an art house or genre work in a technical sense, especially today, but there’s a load of considerations in crafting a movie that feels a sense of responsibility towards the world and its history.

You were only in your early 20s when you directed your first feature. How do you feel you’ve evolved as a filmmaker since then?

I think I spent my early filmmaking dropping some big moods. I’m now on my way to telling an actual story.