Filmmaker Phil Giordano On His Short Film SUPOT & About Filmmaking In Asia

Recently, I spoke with filmmaker Phil Giordano. Originally from Staten Island, New York, he elected to take the NYU’s Directing Program in Singapore, which is where he lives today. In 2010 he released the controversial short film The Empty Playgound, about a man struggling with inner-demons who tries to abduct a young girl from a playground. The film screened at ten film festivals around the world, winning the Golden Palm at the Mexico International Film Festival and Best Short at the 2010 ZERO Film Festival in Brooklyn, New York.

I had the chance to watch his new short film, Supot, before it gets its world premiere at the Busan International Film Festival in South Korea next week. Supot is a 12-minute short telling the story of how young provincial boys in the Philippines are circumcised, and does so in a meaningful, respectful way. It’s a beautifully shot short film and I was thrilled to see it.  I was very interested in how he approaches and overcomes cultural difference and language barriers, as well as what it’s like to work in the Asian film industry.


Manon de Reeper for Film Inquiry:  How did you decide to write this story about the (relatively taboo, in the West, anyway) topic of circumcision? How do you feel circumcision in the Philippines compares to how it’s practised in other countries and religions?

PG: I was drawn to the fact that circumcision is a rite of passage in some provinces. That once it’s done you’re a man and that if you haven’t had it done you’re basically a coward. Supot is more of a slang term, it’s pretty dirty and can be used in a funny way to tease someone or insult them.

To be honest I think there is no comparison to circumcision in the US and circumcision in the Philippines. Well, to be honest, it’s not like everywhere, which is why I always say “in some parts of the Philippines.” Because rich kids in the city don’t deal with this. But boys in the provinces, this is their life.

Filmmaker Phil Giordano On His Short Film SUPOT & About Creating In Asia

I witnessed a circumcision when I was writing the script, and one of the boys got scared half-way through, he turned his back and refused to be cut again. He wiped the tears from his eyes and blood was plastered to his face. I noticed everyone tried to encourage him, but when he gave up, they totally shunned him. All the other boys were walking around, joking, having fun, and he was squatting on a board all alone. No one spoke to him. He was excommunicated.

 

The spider fights were impressively shot – this must’ve been very hard! Can you tell us a little about the spiders and the spider fights? 

PG: Haha! Oh my God! What heartache! The spider fighting scenes! Well, I did extensive spider casting (I’m serious) and we purchased several fighting spiders of different sizes and colors and we kept them in matchbox’s like the kids really do, but they kept on fighting each other when they were suppose to be resting!

So, we wound up with only one fighting spider and a bunch of spiders that our production designer caught by the river at dawn. So, the boys had a tournament, like they usually do, but it wasn’t too much of a fair fight. The red fighting spider won every single fight. So, later on in post we had to color correct it so it looked black and could be the brother’s spider.

For the final fight we chose the red fighting spider and put it against the final remaining river spider. The boys had a lot of fun cause they really play at home.

How do Filipinos respond to your short, and the topic of your short?

PG: Haha! So far, everyone from the Philippines loves the film. One of the biggest producers in the Philippines saw the film as asked to be part of the project so I made him my Executive Producer. His name is Larry Castillo and he just produced Ma’Rosa which screened at Cannes and Toronto and won Best Actress at Cannes.

Filmmaker Phil Giordano On His Short Film SUPOT & About Creating In Asia

Every line in the film came from research and me talking to people, so it’s perfectly authentic. No one ever comments about that, but one note I got a lot from Filipino crew people I showed the film was “where’s the music?” Everyone kept asking where’s the music, what music are you going to put in? I’ve seen a few Filipino shorts and sometimes there’s a tendency to put wall to wall music, but I had to tell them “No, there’s no music. Just the sound of the province. It’s all location sound. There are only two small sections, during the two circumcision scenes that have faint sound design.

What was it like to shoot in the Philippines?

Phil Giordano: It was a breath of fresh air to shoot in the Philippines. I work in commercials in Singapore and there’s so much bureaucracy. It was incredible to say I want to shoot here and you can do it. I want a horse in this shot. Done. I want chickens and ducks in the background, I want a 10 year old boy on a motorcycle to drive by. Done.

Also, the crews are wonderful. They’re so passionate and hardworking. They were incredible. And the actors are so trusting and respectful. I cast two major major actors in the Philippines and they did the project because they liked the script and they liked how excited I was for the project.

What is it like to make films in a different country, where you don’t speak the language? How do you overcome language barriers?

PG: I don’t speak Tagalog. My wife does, but all she does is teach me the curse words. So, the curses in my film I wrote myself! But everything else was translated from English to Tagalog.

I don’t find it difficult at all. I think all dialogue is blah-blah anyway. It doesn’t matter what people are saying to each other, it’s about how they’re saying it. Only a few parts is it really really important to get it right. So for those I would make sure they were perfectly translated, everything else I would allow the actors to change the words so it felt natural to them.

The adult actors spoke English. I would talk to them in English and sometimes they would translate to the kids. The kids were non-actors and the adult actors were extremely experienced, so they’d coach the kids a bit too.

Filmmaker Phil Giordano On His Short Film SUPOT & About Creating In Asia

Working with my crew, the Keys would speak English so that was okay. My translator would have to translate for me sometimes if I wanted to say “good job today” or something like that to the other crew members, but typically as a director I only speak to my Cinematographer, Gaffer, 1st AD, Sound Mixer, Production Designer and Producer.

What is it like to tell stories about cultures that are different from your own? It’s clear you treated the subject and the culture respectfully and I wonder how you go about that?

PG: I’ve seen a lot of films in the Philippines that are poverty porn. I don’t really like that kind of filmmaking, especially if you’re a foreigner, so I wanted to stay away from that. I’ve also seen a lot of short films in the Philippines that are gritty and handheld. Some films, like by Brilliante Mendoza, show people struggling with poverty, which I find heartbreaking and socially relevant. In fact, his films are essential. I’m not speaking about his films, but when people exploit for no reason I don’t like that.

Me and my cinematographer wanted to tell the story from the boys’ perspective. We wanted the film to have a bit of a romantic feel to it. It’s beautiful and lush and sweeping. It’s very pastoral. We wanted lots of movement so we shot the entire film on a mini-jib that sat on a dolly and the scene where the boys approach the circumcision area, was shot on a 33 foot technocrane. Haha, it took them five hours to bring it down the mountain. Everyone started calling me the Werner Herzog of the Philippines after that.

Filmmaker Phil Giordano On His Short Film SUPOT & About Creating In Asia

But in regards to respecting culture, you know, my wife is from the Philippines and she hates when she sees films about white people coming to Asia for the first time. It’s always insulting and exploitative. So, I wanted to make a film that was something that would really grab your attention, shake you in your seat, but I wanted it to be so honest and authentic that you could believe it was made by someone from the Philippines. My biggest goal was to not make a tourist film.

What is your experience making films in Asia? Is it very different to making films in the West?

PG: It’s very different making films in Asia than in America. The set protocol is completely different, the terms are different. The set culture is different. So, it’s not uncommon in Asia to shoot over 12 hours. Many shoots often shoot 16 hours, 20 hours. My first year in Southeast Asia I worked on a commercial that was a 24 hour shoot and it’s not out of the ordinary. Also, because of the tropical climate, many people will come to set with flip flops on. These are the little differences.

The way crews do things is very different also. So, I needed a lot of smoke in my film. I was always asking for smoke. So in America they might get a smoke machine, but in the Philippines they would set the ground on fire. They would set leaves on fire. They would put coconut husks in a tin can and walk through the set.

Also, people are very generous and they have enormous respect for foreigners. In the province where I filmed the people were very honored if I used their house or if I put someone in the background. I gave them an honorarium (a small payment), but every single location was offered to me for free. In fact, one man asked if he had to pay me for me to use his house.

People would pull fruit off the tree and hand it to me. They were incredibly kind. I’d be doing research asking questions and people would bring over a big glass bottle of Coca-Cola or Lambanog (palm tree alcohol). It was so warm and welcoming. I haven’t felt that at home anywhere else besides my mom’s kitchen.

Your film is screening during the Busan International Film Festival in South Korea next week. What’s that been like so far?

PG: So far it’s been great. Busan is covering my flight and my hotel stay, the FDCP (Film Development Council of the Philippines) is sponsoring my producer at the festival, so it’s been very supportive so far. CNN Philippines mentioned my film and my name on live TV, so that was pretty surreal!


You can watch part of Phil Giordano‘s Supot here:

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