Curiously enough, the best film of Dumaguete in the pandemic was made just right before the pandemic — and in that regard can be then taken as prophecy. The short film A Wakeful Sennight, made in the last months of 2019 by Andrew Alvarez and Stanley Alcala, asks us to picture the world in disarray: the sun is inexplicably in a standstill, and the world’s population — or at least the segment we see representing it — are tortured by the endless brightness and cannot sleep. When the film begins, we see a man — Mr. Alvarez directing himself — traversing a bucolic neighborhood, looking up at the sky and seeing the sun shining brightly in noontime splendor. He checks his watch — and that’s when we know of the film’s conceit: it is past 8 in the evening, and the sun has not set. There is no ensuing panic, only puzzlement. Our man tries to go to sleep and finds that he can’t. The days pass, and he and everyone else succumb to a zombie-like existence of wanting sleep but are forever deprived of it. The world becomes desolate, and when we see people about in the streets, they are in a stupor. And so it goes, on and on — until sunset eventually comes, and our man has finally gotten his need of night, but has collapsed on the street in much-needed slumber.
It’s a simple film, done without dialogue, and unspooling in its absurdity carried only by its musical motif [a French ballad the filmmakers composed themselves] and the comic work of everyone involved. When the filmmakers collaborated on it in 2019, it was the culmination of years of filmmaking done piecemeal — acting work here, editing work there — until the duo of Alvarez and Alcala, friends since childhood, finally joined forces as a directing/editing/producing tandem. A Wakeful Sennight was the product of that first collaboration — but no one saw it as the prophecy it turned out to be: a showcase of Dumaguete in desolation, its people afflicted by a phenomena bigger than themselves and walking around like trapped rats. It was a “comedy” when it came out in late 2019, and virtually a “documentary” when reviewed in the light of 2020 — and it demonstrated one sure thing for both filmmakers: no one really knows how the days will go, so they might as well do film.
But is Dumaguete a filmmaking hub? And did the pandemic affect it?
“Dumaguete is home,” says Mr. Alvarez. “I grew up in Piapi; Stan in Bantayan. Our late grandfathers [Rev. Proceso Udarbe and National Scientist Angel Alcala] were well-known personalities [who helped] put this city on the map.” That familial affinity assured a strong bond since they met in grade school at Silliman, and lasted even with almost divergent paths they took in college and right after. Both alumni of Silliman University, Mr. Alvarez graduated with a degree in public administration but currently works as a content editor for a digital marketing company. Mr. Alcala, meanwhile, studied medical technology and eventually went on to finish medical school at Silliman, and is now a resident physician at a local hospital [and recently got into a training program for pathology in a Cebu hospital].
Their lives are totally different, but the arts always had a strong pull on both of them. “I started out in my creative career as a theater actor and occasional songwriter,” Mr. Alvarez says. “I’ve also joined a number of workshops, [with] the Philippine Educational Theater Association and the Elements Singer-Songwriter Camp.” That is how most people in Dumaguete know him: as a reliable mainstay in many plays and musicals in campus, and as a musician who has recorded and performed with the Belltower Project. On the other hand, most people see Mr. Alcala as someone devoted to his medical studies and career — but what many do not know is that he has dabbled frequently in film simply because of his love for the medium. “My first major foray in the creative scene was in a film that my fraternity/sorority sister asked me to edit,” Mr. Alcala says, thinking back to Tigway, a short film by Maya Jajalla, which won Best Film in the 2015 Silliman Film Open or SFO. [The SFO started as Dumaguete Shorts, an exhibition of locally-made short films in 2007, marking it as the first film festival in Dumaguete, but twice changing its name as its concentration expanded and changed over the years: the 61 Short Film Festival in 2010 and finally the Silliman Film Open in 2014.] “I have no formal training in filmmaking,” Mr. Alcala continues, but jumped at the chance to edit a film anyway — and subsequently won the Best Editing award for Tigway in that year’s SFO.
Mr. Alcala is aware that Dumaguete actually has a heritage of filmmaking — even if nobody knows or acknowledges it anymore. He cites, for example, the National Artist for Cinema Eddie Romero as a major influence, a Dumaguete filmmaker who parlayed his creative writing passions as a high school senior at Silliman into a mentorship with the great Filipino director Gerardo de Leon, eventually cementing his own reputation as a maker of solid Filipino film epics [such as Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kaayo Ngayon and Aguila] and schlocky Hollywood B-movies [such as The Mad Doctor of Blood Island and Black Mama White Mama].
But there’s also the equally distinguished Dumaguete director and screenwriter Cesar Jalandoni Amigo, who penned the political tragedy The Moises Padilla Story  and won a number of FAMAS Awards for his screenplays. And there’s also the fact that in the 1950s, at the height of the Golden Age of Visayan Cinema, a film company based in Dumaguete named Visayan Films — founded by Don Luis Arnaiz and Don Serafin Teves, whose family owned Park and Main, the two main movie theaters in Dumaguete for many decades — released a “musical extravaganza” titled Dumagsa in 1950, directed by a Cebuano director named Tura Rodriguez, and starring a popular Cebuano starlet named Rosita Fernandez. [Dumagsa was the story of a school teacher who falls in love with a hacendero. It had its premiere in 1950 in Park Theater and was a tremendous success, which led to its second offering, Leon Kilat, about the revolutionary hero hailing from Bacong. This was directed by Sat. A. Villarino. But after Leon Kilat’s release in 1952, the company no longer made any other movie, although other titles that Visayan Films was planning to do included another musical by Tura Rodriguez titled Miss Smiles, a society drama by F. Borromeo titled Karnabal, a musical by M.P. Velez titled Sa Kabukiran, a drama by G.C. Abdula titled Layawan, and an action drama by Mike Calumpang titled Bartender. The two films made are now considered lost films — possibly lost in the fire that engulfed Main Theater in the 1970s.]
But for the most part, except for actual filming done by Mr. Romero in his hometown — for The Passionate Strangers in 1968 and for Kamakalawa in 1981 — Dumaguete has not really pursued an active filmmaking scene.
But the beginning of a real film culture — with movies made by locals, using local resources — began as a trickle, starting in that first Dumaguete Shorts exhibition in 2007 — and soon there were animated films by Ramon Del Prado and Xteve Abanto, and documentary films by Carmen Del Prado and Anthony Gerard Odtohan, and short live action films by Jonah Lim, Mahogany Rae Bacon, Melissa Bernas Pal, Jo Simone Vale, Raymond Vincent Cutillar, Henzoly Alboroto, Jose Adrian Miraflor, Francis James Kho, and Carl Ivan Caballero, and the genuinely avant-garde curiosities by Razceljan Salvarita and Hersley-Ven Casero. [Mr. Salvarita’s I Am Patience, about a caterpillar making its way through a forest of leaves, was ultimately nominated in the best short film category of the 2013 Urian Awards.]
Mr. Miraflor’s Voldemort Must Die, an action/comedy short about love lost in the vein of Edgar Wright and Quentin Tarantino, won Best Film in the 2012 61 Film Festival — and signaled the start of a production company that he and his friends named DumbFights Productions, which would go on to release a number of short films over the years, including Jake Villegas on a Bridge with the Dancing Dragons, The House The Dead The Ugly, Ang Lansang ni Jake Villegas, and Ang Paghibalag sa Kalibunan — films that would more or less define the “Dumaguete short film” for many seasons in the regional film festival circuit as stories made with a cocky flair, always in the service of comedic action, and with a lot of fantastical elements, and edits, thrown in. [The House The Dead The Ugly, a story about a bunch of killers and gangsters who wind up in a mysterious house where they’re thrown for one violent loop, remains, for me, as their masterpiece.] DumbFights would gather an increasing number of collaborators since that first outing, including Von Colina, who would come to direct [and star] in most of their later films after Mr. Miraflor semi-retired from filmmaking due to health reasons, Alex Gascon [as cinematographer], Jetmore Banot [as actor and director], Louie Villegas [as actor], Mr. Alvarez [as actor], among many others — including Jomar Solania, Paul Benzi Florendo, and Ruel Joseph Tabada, who would also make significant directorial contributions to local film.
In 2021, DumbFights would release You, their take on the pandemic and the casual indifference of people towards impending danger by recasting the health crisis as a zombie apocalypse. That year, it was a finalist at the Lutas Film Festival, which also fielded Mr. Alvarez’s Best Mayo, starring Mr. Banot as a man in desperate search for a jar of mayonnaise to the point of madness, destroying his house in the process, and angering his wife. In a small role as Mayonnaise Girl in an Ad is Ara Mina Amor, also a film director [and occasional actress]. She would also have a film in competition that year at Lutas, a horror-adjacent story titled Masulob-on, a melancholic tone poem in stark black and white about depression and desperation and temptation. But Ms. Amor’s most pandemic-centered film is the comedy short Pisti Pandemic, made in 2022 for Eksena Cinema Quarantine, which follows a naïve young man who has just wisened up to the strictures [and dangers] of the lockdown and finds himself fighting zany battles to stock up on provisions with people panic-buying everything. [The funniest bit is the introduction to his yaya, played by an actor with a considerable beard — depicted to seem like a side-effect to the vaccine.]
A cursory observation would immediately pick up on the fact that these filmmakers constantly work with each other — and especially during the pandemic. In many ways, this collaborative spirit is the lifeblood of current Dumaguete filmmaking. Almost all of the filmmakers, especially those who started doing films in the early years of Lutas and the SFO, cross-pollinate their film productions with each other’s contributions, sometimes with these collaborations spilling into the storylines themselves. [Ms. Amor’s Finals, for example, include a cameo from the fighting gangsters of Miraflor’s The House The Dead The Ugly.] They act in each other films. They do sound design for some, and production design for others. Cinematography and editing are constantly on a round robin. For Mr. Alvarez and Mr. Alcala, this is the norm for current local filmmaking — and the smallness of Dumaguete makes it a necessity. “Dumaguete contributes to the growth of our artists,” Mr. Alvarez says. “I don’t mean this career-wise though, since there isn’t much of an industry here yet. But the city has this appeal that helps clear our thoughts and prepare ourselves to be inspired. The locals foster this [and] celebrate this, and the city itself grows from it.”
“The arts scene in Dumaguete is ever thriving,” Mr. Alcala says. “It’s easy to collaborate with different artists in the creation of cohesive art, and the city has actively endeavored to develop the scene through art exhibits, film contests, and music festivals.”
To which Mr. Alvarez adds: “There’s always something to do to help express ourselves and our backgrounds. And year after year, someone new joins in our circle. Someone young, hungry, and almost always willing to open up and collaborate.”
That openness for collaboration was what drove them to pair up in the first place in 2019. They both wanted to submit a film for Lutas — and then they brought in the Gonzales cousins [Gerick and Dhen Dart] to help out with the music and cinematography, and Renz Torres [who had made the D&D-themed short Primordial Witt] as production manager, and that was it. The collaboration, now known as Potlight Pictures, would go on to produce A Wakeful Sennight in 2019 and Best Mayo in 2021, pausing only in 2020 because of the pandemic lockdown. Their latest production, released in 2022, is Trash-Messiah, a fable about a man who finds a way to get rid of trash via a rip in the time/space continuum on his kitchen table — but to unexpected repercussions. It fits right in with their previous efforts — stories that are “dark, macabre, and odd,” that give one “an unnerving feeling that something is wrong,” where “symmetry and order [exist] amidst the chaos.”
“In developing films,” Mr. Alcala says, “I usually conjure a barebones concept and Andy [Alvarez] fills it up. Occasionally, it’s vice versa. The major challenge in the process is us — our conflicting ideologies — but we’ve never failed to arrive at a compromise, and the product is almost always magical with everything seemingly fitting in place.”
Interestingly enough, they found the pandemic to be a minor hiccup in their film productions. “Shooting during the pandemic wasn’t too foreign to us,” Mr. Alvarez admits. “We already work with a skeletal team. It was just the matter of making sure we were all doing things with health and safety protocols in mind. It helped that Stan’s a doctor as well. It certainly was meaningful to me, at least, that we got to work again on a film even with all the restrictions. I loved getting out of the house with more purpose.” To which Mr. Alcala adds: “If anything, [the pandemic only] added to our process. Limitations [somehow] provoke creativity for us.” Part of that provocation to creativity was the fact that most of the online film festivals they joined during the pandemic’s peak had guidelines requiring them to add themes centering on the pandemic lockdown into their storylines, “so that was definitely a factor we had to consider during pre-productions,” Mr. Alvarez adds.
There were in fact a number of film festivals local filmmakers gravitated to during the pandemic, even if only online, chief among them Foundation University’s Lutas Film Festival, which was established in 2014 and bills itself as “the Negros Oriental film festival,” and has since gone beyond annual screenings to also cater to lectures, workshops, and mentoring sessions on film production, as well as outright grant-giving to help local filmmakers in realizing their film projects.
In September 2020, with the pandemic still raging, Lutas was left with no choice but to modify its programming to host a Facebook screening of “The Best of Lutas,” featuring previous winners of the festival, including the late Mark Lifana’s Bugas , Geraldine Acibron’s Tubod , Mr. Lifana’s Abag , and Mr. Alvarez’s A Wakeful Sennight , and selections from Komedya, including Mr. Colina’s Ang Lansang ni Jake Villegas, Mr. Florendo and Mr. Banot’s Ang Paghibalag sa Kalibunan, Mr. Banot’s Hobo Ramon, and Mr. Florendo’s Karlo. That year’s edition, sponsored by the Film Development Council of the Philippines and the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, also included master classes on screenwriting with [soon-to-be National Artist for Cinema] Ricky Lee, and on “pursuing film in the time of pandemic” with Achinette Villamor [producer of Balangiga: Howling Wilderness and Ruined Heart]. It also included a film pitching competition — from which three winners emerged: Kent Cadungog’s Kuan, Puhon, Daniella Spontak’s Cotton Candy Dreams, and Von Colina’s Three sa Mountain, each of them granted a sum to realize their screenplays. Later that year, in October, Lutas would field Abag, Tubod, and A Wakeful Sennight to be part of the Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino, together with the Bacolod-based Sine Negrense Film Festival, which fielded Belle Loyola’s Dalit, Kurt Soberano’s Jameson, and Mark Raymund Garcia’s Buding: Ang Babaye nga Naglitaw.
By the following year, in 2021, Lutas participated in the 10th Annual Moviemov Italian Film Festival, and also in Cinema Rehiyon, fielding Mr. Tabada’s Pamilya, Mr. Lifana’s Tagbo, and Kaira Maureen Downard’s Daman as the Negros Oriental representatives. In November, Lutas returned to its competition format, and premiered the winning films of the previous year’s pitch competition, as well as the nine entries to the main competition — out of which emerged a new winner, Ella Louise Salomon’s Ang Bunga sa Tiyan ni Adam, a film about a gender-switched story of a pregnancy. Salomon’s tragicomedy — which features one of the best scenes of swearing in Binisaya ever captured on film — swept most of the awards, including Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Cinematography — leaving the Best Editing award to Mr. Alvarez’s Best Mayo. Salomon’s film also led the Negros Oriental roster in the 2022 Cinema Rehiyon, which also included Best Mayo, Cotton Candy Dreams, Kuan Puhon, Masulub-on, and Ramon Del Prado’s Why the World Needs Coral Reefs.
Ang Bunga sa Tiyan ni Adam by Ella Louise Salomon
When Adam, a 17 year old boy, finds out he is pregnant, he confronts his longtime girlfriend Lily about the situation…
Later in 2022, Lutas finally returned to a physical festival, screening its new slate of competing films at CityMall Cinema Dumaguete. Among the finalists are Emmmanuel Noel T. Navales’ Habwa, Marco Simpao’s Kawat, Carina Simpao’s Taknaan, Fredrick Tan’s Ang Panagdagit sa Dakong Dagat, and Von Colina’s ITI E.T., and fielded a spread of new winners including a special jury prize for Daniella Spontak’s Serial Influencer, Best Cinematography for Chris Jan Vergara’s Makasasala, Best in Editing for Mary Joy Real’s Panganti, Best in Screenplay for Alfonso Adrian Cerna’s Taymsa, and Best Film for Pawlo Lasmarias’ Hatud. The previous year’s pitch winner — Mr. Alvarez’s Trash-Messiah — was also screened, and the new pitch winner announced: Ms. Amor’s forthcoming Sad Bananas. Lasmarias’ Hatud, which follows a young man who walks to school with his younger brother, only for the latter to discover that his older brother is harboring an unpleasant dilemma, would also win Best Director and Best Actor [for Lasmarias himself] at the Nabunturan Independent Film Exhibition in September 2022, and would be invited to several national and international film festivals.
Into this swirl of local filmmaking enters Edwin Dalisay Jr. — JR to most people who know him. Born and raised in Cubao, Quezon City, he was not exactly a stranger to Dumaguete. He would regularly visit his girlfriend Shyr Keene Aragones over the years, and gradually came to know many of the city’s creatives, if cursorily in the beginning. And whenever people asked about what he did, he would say he was trying to be a filmmaker, which was always the dream.
He recalls: “My parents worked abroad so I was raised by my grandmother and my older brothers. I was always hanging out with my brother, JC, who introduced me to many things, including heavy metal music, music videos — and film. I admired my brother because he was a superb graphic artist. So I chose to study Fine Arts and Design at the UST to become an artist like him. It was during our third year when we had a class in video production, and that became my first exposure to filmmaking. I fell in love with it and became obsessed with telling stories with the camera. Filmmaking became my passion. I would mostly spend my free time watching movies, music videos, and documentaries. I didn’t know where to begin at the time, and it seemed impossible for me to work in the film industry. Making films back then was expensive and we had little or no source for equipment. So after college, I worked as a web designer for a real estate company — a desperate move because it felt like the better recourse than be a bum. But at the back of my mind, I kept telling myself that, whatever it took, I was going to be a filmmaker someday. After working for about three years, I stumbled on a film school in Ortigas called Asia Pacific Film Institute, which wasn’t too expensive. I thought to myself, I can probably find a few sidelines to pay for my film education. I can work in the morning till afternoon and go to school in the evening.” So he quit his job at that time, found a few weird online jobs, and got himself to film school — a brave choice that would mirror a later, pandemic-related decision.
After film school, he found himself working for the U.S. Embassy as their multimedia specialist. The Embassy soon brought him to Siquijor for a documentation project of the Lazi Church. “It was the first time that I’ve heard of Dumaguete and Siquijor, to be honest,” he says. “On our first day, we went straight to Siquijor, so I didn’t think much of Dumaguete. But the moment I stepped foot in Siquijor, I fell in love with it. It was really the first time in my life that I was in a rural province.”
He spent four days in Siquijor, and then spent one night in Dumaguete before flying back to Manila — which was when, like the fates, he decided to go around the city alone, taking pictures with his camera. And then he met Shyr.
“I noticed her in a coffee shop and asked her for suggestions on what to do in and around Dumaguete,” he says. “It was already late in the afternoon, so I didn’t really see much and I didn’t really get to explore the place. But that evening, Shyr invited me to hang out with her friends — and getting to know them was a wonderful experience. Despite the fact that I was a stranger, they were really welcoming and friendly. I had a terrific time getting to know Shyr.”
So he kept returning to Dumaguete, to court Shyr while she showed him “the beauty of the city and how amazing Negros Oriental is.” He fell in love — with Shyr, and with Dumaguete. Slowly, he came to know the city’s artists. First, the musicians — he would watch live gigs in Hayahay and El Amigo. Then, the visual artists — he would meet Jana Jumalon, who would show him around the art scene in the city. Then, the literary artists — he would meet me, and immediately he knew I would ask him the question: “Are you related to Butch Dalisay?” [He doesn’t know.] He would meet more people over the years.
When he would return to Manila after his Dumaguete visits, he would get back to his Embassy job — and to his abiding desire to found his own production company. He called it DWNTWN Films, which he started with his best friend Phish, and his cousin Joel. “We often hung out on the rooftop where I was living and talked about movies, music, and whatever topic came to mind,” he remembers. “That’s all we ever did, hangout and talk about life and our passion for filmmaking. Then, since I had the equipment that I could borrow from work, I would sometimes find side hustles as a freelance camera operator on the weekends.” In 2013, a friend who had a band was in need of someone to shoot a live performance. “He asked us if we were up for it, and of course we were game!” Mr. Dalisay remembers. “That was our first project as a team, the thing that started it all. Even though we really didn’t know what we were doing, we were definitely having fun just experiencing the craft.” They came up with the name DWNTWN Films, because the place where JR lived was a bit of a rough neighborhood. “When we’d be on the rooftop, we could see establishments in Cubao, including Araneta Coliseum, Gateway Mall, and other high-rise buildings,” he says. “We referred to that part of Cubao as ‘UPTOWN,’ and we would call our neighborhood, ‘DOWNTOWN.’ So that’s why we called ourselves DWNTWN Films. There’s just something about the name that feels so punk rock, so underground. That’s why I fell in love with it and stuck with it.” Their efforts paid off, and soon they were getting regular gigs.
And then the pandemic happened — and with that, a kind of spiritual crisis for Mr. Dalisay. “The pandemic made me realize that life is short and we can lose everything in a snap of a finger,” he remembers. He made a sudden choice that scared even him: “I decided to move to Dumaguete during the pandemic, because I wanted to wake up every day feeling happy.”
For him, Manila was becoming too chaotic and he was missing Shyr too much. The stress of the separation was killing him — and on a lark, he contacted the Dumaguete LGU and told them that he was a Local Stranded Individual [LSI], wondering if that gambit would make them give him a certificate to travel. And it worked!
Still, it was a challenge to make the move, because travel was almost an impossibility at the peak of the pandemic. His airline kept cancelling his flight — “I got cancelled five times!” — and his plan to make the move in April 2020 eventually became a reality only in August. Getting the requirements to travel was also a huge hindrance — with lines to get a doctor’s certificate that lasted six hours. “And because my flight kept getting cancelled, my doctor’s certificates also get expired — so I had to go back and line up again,” he remembers.
And yet, moving to Dumaguete still seemed to Mr. Dalisay to be a no-brainer of a decision — even if it was a considerable gamble: “I had no plans of what the hell I was going to do here as a career, but because I had experience in filmmaking, I was confident enough to just take a leap of faith. I knew that if I moved to Dumaguete City, I’d just figure it out and find clients that will need my service. I told myself that whatever happens, I know that I have enough talent and experience for me to survive. I mean, I was a punk ass kid back then with no money and no idea what I would do in life, but I survived that and put myself in the right path to pursue my passion.”
He remembers reading an article once where he stumbled on a line he could not forget: “It was something like, ‘Remember, after the black plague, came the Renaissance.’ That quote really inspired me, and moving to Dumaguete, hands down, was one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life, seriously.” And Mr. Dalisay feels that at this juncture of Dumaguete’s growth, the city will still be able to give him so many opportunities to fulfill a lifelong dream of being a filmmaker. “Here, I could write, direct, produce, shoot, edit, color grade, and even talk to clients,” he says. “For a full production, Shyr and I usually just work as a two-man crew. Of course it’s hard work but we’re really enjoying the experience.”
That faith in Dumaguete being able to give back to him has proven fruitful so far. Already, sometimes in collaboration with Paul Benzi Florendo’s Higantez Films, he has made several well-received pandemic-era videos for the Dumaguete City Tourism Office, including Kanus-a Man?, a video chronicling the hopes of local Dumaguetnon during the pandemic and encouraging them to get vaccinated against COVID-19, released in October 2021; Everyday Dumaguete, a video showcasing a Dumaguete slowly opening up, released in April 2022; and Celebrate Life in Dumaguete, a video showcasing the full beauty of the city emerging from the pandemic, released in August 2022. He has done videos for local businesses. And he has done many of the exhibit videos for the new MUGNA Gallery — a project that is close to his heart. One of these is a short documentary on the terra cotta art of Jana Jumalon, one of his first friends in Dumaguete.
“Lately, I’ve been doing short documentaries for artists here in Dumaguete,” he says. “I love projects like these because it’s really inspiring to get to know a person who’s passionate and creative. I believe that’s another appealing aspect of documentary filmmaking: once your subject begins to trust you and open up to you, you develop a strong bond with them.”
Mr. Dalisay dreams of doing narrative films eventually: “I wish to tell heartfelt stories through captivating moving pictures. I want to work with local talent, shoot in the neighborhood, and present stories about Dumaguete. Representing the magic and beauty that this city inspired in me. But, given my limited experience, I want to focus on making short films first. Then in the near future, I will eventually create full-length feature films here.”
Part of that plan is collaborating with Potlight Pictures — for whom he has already lensed Mr. Alvarez’s Trash-Messiah.
Mr. Dalisay moved to Dumaguete for love.
He plans to stay to capture the city fully on film — also for love.