We’ve all been there, childhood that is, and during that time I bet we all had a childhood crush at some stage. Be it a friend, someone older we admired or even an adult, it’s a phase in what’s called ‘growing up’ and we all know it well.
For me it was my babysitter. I thought she was just ace, could do no wrong and a hug goodnight was the thing dreams were made of. For her, she probably thought I was just weirdly cute? Maybe she just thought nothing, too involved in her university days to notice a starry eyed 9-year old. It was my first experience of unrequited love. Those sentiments are echoed in Anita’s Last Cha-Cha, a film about a childhood crush, a beautiful exploration of those emotions of love and desire that totally consume but can never be, directed by Fillpina director, Sigrid Andrea Bernardo.
Anita (Teri Malvar) is a young girl coming of age in a small village set in the Philippines. Her desires are awakening, her wants are blossoming and she is no longer content to play along with her childhood friends in their games of husbands and wives. There has to be something more to this life. Her prayers are answered when Pilar (Angel Aquino) returns home to the village; it is love at first sight, at least for Anita and so begins a very sweet tale of a girlhood crush.
Not everyone celebrates Pilar’s return however, the women of the village question her motives, as she didn’t even return to bury her father who passed the year before. What type of woman does that? And what type of woman sets up a massage therapy shop, does she just want to get her hands on their men? Why has she returned? Is it to get back her ex beau who she left under a cloud all those years ago? Our love struck Anita is oblivious to all this hoo-ha.
The film is structured in the form of flashback, allowing the adult Anita who is now a tough army commander, to relive her memories and make peace with her past. This is done quite magically in both the past and present by bringing Anita’s thoughts to life. Whether it be her and Pilar cha-cha’ing down the road or an adult Anita bidding her younger self farewell in attempt to let go with her desires, it’s a technique that allows us into Anita’s head where we can share her desires, her wants and her fears.
Within the story and highlighting the innocence is an undertow of darkness in the form of unwanted pregnancy, abortion, incest, misconstrued motivations, malicious gossip and whether an inappropriate relationship will develop or not. It is a complex but beautifully written fable that explores issues of womanhood in a lighthearted, loving but serious way. It’s a great example where author becomes director and the vision translates with its message speaking, unadulterated and clear.
Anita’s Last Cha-Cha is officially the debut feature for Sigrid Andrea Bernardo but back in 2007 she directed the majority of a film called Haw Ang. Irreconcilable differences between her staff and the production company saw her leave before its completion and she is not credited for the role. Despite the hardships of filming in a remote mountain village the production would give her good training for her next feature length project six years later. One of her accomplishments was sourcing and training ten non-actor local children for the film that spoke a dialect that she didn’t understand.
“I lived in the mountains for three months just to feel the vibe and you know the cast is [about ten or twelve kids]. And all of them were non-actors so when I had them audition I liked them so much I had to have them do the workshop and I had to talk to every parent of that kid in the mountains. I’d go to every mountain and they were telling me, ‘Why would I let her be an actor? We don’t need money, what can you promise us?'”
Bernardo promised that she “would tell the world about their culture; what was really happening” and vowed to the parents that their children wouldn’t be put to shame.
These children would go on to play major roles in the film alongside a trained Filipino name actor, Kalila Aguilos. Little did she know at the time that this experience on Haw Ang would also work in her favour while filming Anita’s Last Cha-Cha.
Working with non-actors is no easy feat and is an indicator of Sigrid’s strength as a director. She is described by her cast as an ‘actor’s director’ and although we live in an age of ‘technical directors’ dominating (think Hollywood/CGI), it is surely the director’s main responsibility to ensure a paramount performance. Anita’s Last Cha-Cha has beautiful locations, shots and structure with a sprinkle of magic realism but its performances are the gold in this movie.
No surprises then, that it won Best Picture at the 1st CineFilipino Film Festival and that both main actors, Teri Malvar and Angel Aquino, keep scooping awards for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress.
The approach toward the actor and performance is not a total surprise as Bernardo’s background before production was treading the boards.
“My background is actually theatre at the University of the Philippines. That’s where I went to college and I am a stage actress before but I was also into directing theatre plays. But my humble beginnings were with Lav Diaz. He got me as an actress and I begged him to please let me be a production assistant because I had always wanted to be behind the scenes directing a movie!”
That film was Evolution of a Filipino Family, the epic from 2004 that runs at 630 minutes long. Yes, that’s ten and a half hours and she also has a role in front of the camera.
“I was there, you will see me on the fifth hour, I think? I was the sister.”
Lav Diaz is an icon in his own right, in the Philippines and also around the world. His films are many and the running times are always long – he is a true epic filmmaker. What a great training ground for a wanna be filmmaker then for the Bernardo to learn from one of Filipino cinema’s masters. The stories around Evolution of a Filipino Family are legendary and now there is this one about an actor who worked her way through production roles, moving to second assistant director then through the ranks working with other directors until she had the confidence to direct her own.
The inspiration for Anita’s Last Cha-Cha comes from her first short film, Babae (Woman) which had been selected at the very first Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival back in 2005 where she won the award for Best Director (Short).
“I was with the first batch and we won! If you watch my first short film it is something like Anita’s Last Cha-Cha. So it was inspired actually from that short film,” said Bernardo.
In 2006, she expanded the themes of that short into the script that is now Anita’s Last Cha-Cha but selling a script is never easy and this one was shopped around for a number of years. Although garnering interest and earning Sigrid and her cinematographer/producer Ms Alma de la Peña a spot in a Producer’s Workshop (Produire au Sud) in France it failed to attract sufficient investors.
“In the early process of Anita’s Last Cha-Cha we were trying to submit to different funding bodies all over the world. It was just so difficult to get funding, maybe because I was not known, maybe because I was (pause) well I don’t know the reason.”
But fortunes changed when Anita’s Last Cha-Cha was selected for the inaugural CineFilipino Film Festival.
“It’s very memorable for me because my first film (her short, Babae) was put in the first Cinemalaya Film festival and Anita’s Last Cha Cha was funded in 2013 for the first CineFilipino Film Festival.”
Like Cinemalaya, this festival selects scripts on merit and provides modest funding for production to secure a premiere at the festival. In order to do the film justice, additional funds were sought and obtained from a successful Indiegogo crowd funding campaign and after seven years of pitching, the film was finally going to be made.
However, a major problem facing low budget filmmakers is not being able to afford the cast members that they desire and in this case Sigrid had Angel Aquino in mind to play the main adult role of Pilar.
“Angel Aquino, my Pilar, she is actually my pet actress in the movie. I told my production manager not to get her because I couldn’t afford her… Suddenly my production manager had to work with Angel [on another film] and she didn’t tell me about this!”
Her production manager handed Aquino the script for Anita’s Last Cha-Cha while on set for another film and enjoyed reading through it. Her production manager came back to Bernardo with good news.
“You got Angel,” said the production manager. “Who’s Angel?” asks Bernardo. “Angel Quino.”
Initially horrified and upset that her instructions had not been followed, Sigrid knew this was indeed a gift from above and now with Pilar in place it was time to find her Anita.
Thirteen year old Teri Malvar attended the inaugural CineFilipino cattle call. She was accompanying mum who was trying out for certain roles but Sigrid spied her amongst the crowd and asked her a few probing questions: Would she be able to portray a young boy role (Anita is a tomboy)? Was she willing to cut her hair short? And was she willing to kiss a girl?
All answers were in the affirmative and despite reservations about her lack of experience, the teenager was asked to attend a callback. It was here that Teri Malvar delivered such a knock out audition piece that not only did she get the part but the piece was written into the final film. It’s the scene where Anita expresses/confesses her love for Pilar. Delivered to the camera, it is poignant, beautiful and honest.
But she was still a diamond in the rough. Sigrid workshopped Teri for an intensive month beforehand and the training continued throughout the film. Through this experience, they had a pact based on mutual trust and admiration.
“‘I have chosen you because I want you for the role and you will not in any way be a bad actress and ruin both of our reputations, we have to work together,’ I told her that.”
The results speak for themselves, Teri Malvar certainly delivers a stand out performance in the film which makes her award win at the CineF Although she thoroughly deserves the acclaim the two other kids in the film, her friends Carmen (Len-Len Frial) and Goying (Solomon Mark De Guzman), are also amazing and amusing.
They counter Anita by having exactly the same desires, they love each other and want to marry and go on sweet pretend dates in a sweet world of true childhood innocence. The difference for Anita’s emotions and wants are that there is something more serious – her crush is an adult and she is a woman. Solomon and Len-Len deliver this contrast so beautifully and it is indicative of Bernardo’s direction that she can draw out three great performances from her youngest cast members.
“My treatment with kids is the same as my treatment with the actors. That’s what they want. They want the same. The kids bonded so much there was separation anxiety at the end.”
She explains that it was paramount for the set to have an ‘up’ vibe and be a happy, fun place to work and this was helped by having an ex-cheerleader as a PA, who would cartwheel and lead affirmative chants and an assistant director who would conduct sing-a-longs before the start of every day.
“In every shoot that I have it has to be fun. You know, maybe because of the themes of my films also, it’s very deep but it’s comedy also. It’s so hard to direct when the set has a negative vibe. That was my main requirement for everyone, to have fun.”
With the film finished and everyone happy the last hurdle before releasing to the public was to get it rated. Like all film industries the Philippines has a government run film ratings board and for most films it is a formality but in the case of Anita’s Last Cha-Cha there was a hiccup in the process. Three days out from the festival Sigrid receives a call from the festival director.
“I almost fainted [when the festival director told me] I got a X [rating] and it [would be] banned from public viewing. Oh my god, I don’t know what to do. I’ve just bought the hard drives for the DCP, we’re about to screen in about three days or so. We were going to screen in less than a week… I have to appeal this!”
Friends were rung, lawyers were consulted and with the help of the festival, an immediate appeal was arranged for the next day to try and avert the disaster. Described as one of her most nervous days, Bernardo sat outside the theatre as the review panel watched in earnest.
“I was so stressed and then they were laughing and I was like peeping in the room wondering if they liked the film. Do they love it? I was about to cry and there was this one reviewer who told me ‘What are you worrying about? It’s okay.'”
After the review panel reassessed the film, they came up to Bernardo and hugged her out of reassurance.
“[It] was like very emotional and the said to me, ‘We couldn’t believe we put an X to this! Who put it?’”
The appeal had won and the film got an R16 rating (16 years and older). On hearing this story, I thought immediately that it would have been because there is the potential of pedophilia running throughout the film or maybe the homosexual undertones but apparently in the initial review it was banned because of the themes of abortion. Mind you they are only mentioned in dialogue but hey this is the Philippines, more Catholic than the Vatican some say!
Anita’s Last Cha Cha is the story of unrequited love wrapped in the innocence of childhood desire. Carmen and Goying are too young to marry (yet), Pilar is too late for her one love and Anita’s desire is bounded by impossibility. After the laughter fades and your smile settles there is a gentle sadness and the seriousness of some of the issues seep in. The result is uplifting, birthing a beautiful film and a profound cinematic experience.
Anita’s Last Cha-Cha will be screening at the 2015 Melbourne Queer Film Festival on Wednesday, March 25. Sigrid Andrea Bernardo has just wrapped filming her newest feature, Lorna, which also has Lav Diaz in front of the camera!