How 'Respeto' became a movie about the war on drugs

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The debut film of Treb Monteras II was originally a story about a martial law poet and an aspiring rapper. But current events made it into the film, which became a riveting portrayal of the government’s campaign against drugs. Photo from CINEMALAYA

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — It took Alberto “Treb” Monteras II more than a decade to finally make his first feature length film. Monteras started out as a music video director whose credits include Urbandub’s “The Fight is Over,” Rico Blanco’s “Antukin,” Regine Velasquez’s “And I Love You So,” Chicosci’s “Seven Black Roses,” and Quest’s “Pagbabago.” He also directed commercials, T.V. shows, and live concerts. His music-laden career almost begs for a full length film, but Monteras needed to put his immediate needs first.

Madami kasi akong dinaanan. And then napansin ko na ‘yung mga kasabay ko, like sina Dan Villegas, kasabay ko sa Mowelfund, and Paolo Dy, who made “Ignacio de Loyola,” parang lahat sila, even ‘yung mga younger na directors, nagkakaroon na ng full length. Naisip ko I need to rest muna sa mga iba kong ginagawa so nag-resign ako sa work and then for two years, I focused on ‘Respeto.’”

Monteras put his savings into the film, which focuses on Hendrix (Abra), an aspiring rapper, and Doc (Dido de La Paz), a martial law poet, and their unlikely relationship. The film was met with resounding success in this year’s Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival, bagging Best Film, Best Supporting Actor, and Audience Choice Award.

Emerging as an audience favorite only meant one thing: a commercial release should be on the horizon. But, as Monteras relates, there were initial doubts about this.

“[My producer, Monster Jimenez, told me] ‘Treb, ‘wag ka nang umasa na may commercial release ‘yan.’ Unang una kasi puro mura, may violence. And ako naman nagwo-worry na since nag-touch kami on EJK and martial law, baka may humarang kasi so far wala pang [masyadong] pelikula na nag-tackle talaga eh. Inisip namin na pang-festival lang talaga. But napansin namin na maganda ‘yung response, so nag-decide kami na mag-commercial release na kami-kami lang. Talagang DIY.”

The film will be released in theaters this Sept. 20, in time for the martial law anniversary. There are only a handful of theaters so far that are willing to screen“Respeto” and the filmmakers are rallying for support.

Photo-5 (6).jpg "Magkakaiba tayo ng paniniwala pero para sa akin paalala siya na may nangyari dati na ganon," says Monteras (pictured above) on 'historical revisionism' and the role of "Respeto" at this time in the Philippines. Photo by JL JAVIER

CNN Philippines Life sat down with Monteras who discussed how “Respeto” evolved from a “Karate Kid” type of film into a politically charged movie, the intersection between rap and poetry, and what he wants the audience to take away from watching the film. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

How does being a music video director help you in directing a full length film?

For me kasi, the first film na gagawin ko should be about music. Kasi ‘yun ‘yung gusto kong transition sa film. And I got into filmmaking because I wanted to be a music video director. So feeling ko malaki ‘yung naitulong niya kasi sanay kami na gumawa nang walang budget [Laughs]. So parang kung pwede akong magbigay ng course on low budget filmmaking, pwedeng pwede. Kasi ‘yung mga music videos talaga halos wala siyang budget. Nung nagsa-start ako, ako din ‘yung PA, catering, and mga friends and relatives ‘yung mga ginugulo ko. Siguro dun sa aspect ng financing my first film nakatulong siya kasi matipid siya.

‘Yung diskarte din na … sa music video kasi mas visual siguro … eye candy palagi. ‘Yun lang pagdating sa narrative, dun kami na-challenge kasi sa music videos, kahit ano pwede. Maglagay ka lang ng singer diyan and mga art stuff, mas madali. So ‘yun ‘yung naging challenge sa akin nung gumagawa ako ng full length kasi mahirap bantayan ‘yung story. Music videos are three to four minutes lang.

“Respeto” was announced as part of the Cinemalaya 2017 shortlist in 2016, which was a transition period for the new government. How did current events, like tokhang, make it to the film?

Kung mababasa mo ‘yung unang script niya, mababaw siya. Kasi ‘yung [unang] idea sa kanya was just about an aspiring rapper and a martial law victim. Nung nag-transition ‘yung government, I felt na parang kailangan niyang i-update. Marami kasing nangyari eh, especially ‘yung topic ko is martial law. Nung 2016, nilibing si Marcos [sa Libingan ng mga Bayani]. So nung time na ‘yun, parang magandang setting ng pelikula was from the day na in-announce ni Duterte na papayagan niyang ilibing up to the time na biglang nilibing. Feeling ko magandang gamitin ‘yun para sa character ni Doc.

In the film, the connections between rap and poetry became a strong focus. How was that developed?

Before, meron kaming event sa Varsitarian — I was part of the school paper sa UST — parang the Jubilee celebration, may part ng program na balagtasan; sina Vim Nadera, Mike Coroza na nagba-balagtasan sila. Nung time na ‘yun, pa-usbong din ‘yung Fliptop, naka-panood din ako sa YouTube so [naisip ko] wait, parang rap battle din pala sila. So naisip ko parang magandang gawan ng pelikula. Pero hindi ko pa rin siya nagawa that time. Mga two years after, nakita ko naman si Doc Bien Lumera sa album launch ni  Gloc 9 sa Eastwood. Nung nakita ko sila, close silang dalawa, naisip ko [rin] na magandang pelikula ‘to, hindi lang pala ako 'yung nakakita ng connection ng rap sa poetry. In fact, nung nakausap ko si Gloc 9 nung time na ‘yun, ‘yung ilan sa gawa niya, nasa mga textbooks na ng mga bata. Inaaral na din pala siya ngayon kasi [they’re] considered na bagong mga makata.

Tell us about how the rappers were cast.

Marami kaming mga tinanong. ‘Yung mga iba kasi na hindi  willing, may mga willing. ‘Yung sa eksena kasi namin [sa pelikula] mga parang heavyweights ‘yan eh. ‘Yung iba hindi lang talaga pwede. ‘Yung schedule namin, bilang indie, medyo nagagalaw-galaw. Especially si Abra, nung time na kailangan namin i-shoot 'yung mga rap battle scenes, nagpunta siya ng U.S. para manood ng game ni Lebron [Laughs]. Pinadala siya ng Globe. Meron kaming last two days na nabitin, supposedly tapos kami mga isang buwan at kalahati, may time kami mag-edit. So talagang kinapos kami ng time.

Portraits-33.jpg Monteras focused his film on Hendrix (Abra - pictured above), an aspiring rapper, and Doc (Dido de La Paz), a martial law poet, and their unlikely relationship. Photo by JL JAVIER

May mga iba kaming tinanong na rappers na hindi  willing kasi baka … baduy. ‘Yung mga [rappers] kasi ngayon, gusto nilang itaas ‘yung level [ng rap]. May mga nakausap ako, si Anygma, na para sa kanya, kung gagawa ka ng pelikula, dapat maitaas ‘yung level. Nag-worry kasi sila na this is another [baduy] movie. Lumalabas din kasi sa ibang T.V. networks, like ‘yung Christmas Rapper na competition sa  "Showtime," galit na galit sila dun kasi para daw nagmumukhang tanga ‘yung mga rappers. Kasi finally nagka-Fliptop, nagkaron sila ng mga pangalan, sineseryoso na ‘yung mga rapper. ‘Yung iba na mga nakapanood [ng “Respeto” ang sabi sa akin], “to be honest akala namin hindi ganyan eh … so next time sali na kami.” [Laughs]. Siyempre okay lang naman sa akin kasi kung hindi naman nila ako kilala as a person, dahil first time din na gagawa ng movie[since] “Tribu.”

I read that your co-writer Njel De Mesa is a supporter of President Duterte. And the film eventually evolved into something that depicts the war on drugs …

He made the early drafts of the script pero dumating ‘yung point na hindi na namin siya pwedeng makasama. May portions lang ng script [na siya ‘yung gumawa]. And ‘yung characters kasi iba talaga. Feeling ko siya na mismo ‘yung hindi nagparamdam.

There were a lot of things happening even during filming. How did that play into the story?

Even up to the very last day, nagsusulat pa din kami. ‘Yung poetry ni Hendrix sa cemetery, ‘pag mag-isa siya, na-add na lang ‘yun parang mga last two days of editing. Nag-ingat kasi kami eh, like ‘yung mga radio commentary [in the background], tinitimpla namin siya na walang kulay. Kahit na dilawan ka or Duterte supporter, hindi ka ma-ooffend, kung ano lang talaga ‘yung totoo.

So there really was a balance in terms of the politics in the movie ...

Oo. Kasi ayaw namin na gawin siyang plataporma. Gusto namin ‘yung tao ang maghusga kung ano ba talaga ‘yung nangyayari. Nakakabuti ba talaga siya o hindi, bayani ba si Marcos o hindi, nasa kanila ‘yun, wala sa amin.

How did tokhang make it to the final script?

‘Yun ‘yung nangyayari nung time na ‘yun eh. Sa original draft wala ‘yun. Marami kasi silang conversations dati na wala lang, kalokohan. Naisip ko na ‘yung mga conversations nila related sa mga nangyayari ngayon, para makita ‘yung parallelism ng buhay ni Doc and ni Hendrix. So what if ‘yung conversations nila about tokhang and ‘yung isa sa kanila, sinusubaybayan niya.

How were the rap battle scenes shot?

‘Yun ‘yung pinakamasaya. It was just one day, kasi wala na kaming pera. ‘Yun ‘yung last eh. Supposedly two days dapat. Madaling i-shoot actually kasi air conditioned [Laughs]. Naghatak lang kami ng mga tao. Masaya kasi ‘yung mga rappers hindi namin binigyan ng script, ‘dun na rin namin narinig so para siyang naging event. Kunyari si Abra and Loonie, sila lang naman ‘yung may script na kung sino dapat ‘yung manalo and matalo. Pero the lines, sila gumawa. ‘Yung iba on the spot talaga.

What do you think is the role of a film like “Respeto” at this time in the Philippines?

Hindi ko alam kung dapat sa akin manggaling pero parang ano lang kami siguro, reminder na … ngayon kasi grabe ‘yung historical revisionism ‘eh. Magkakaiba tayo ng paniniwala pero para sa akin paalala siya na may nangyari dati na ganon … maraming taong naabuso … na malamang malapit na naman siyang mangyari ngayon and sa akin ito ‘yung nagsasabi kung ano ba talaga dapat ‘yung ‘wag tularan. Mas maganda kung mag-focus tayo sa mga bagay na ‘wag tularan like ‘yung pangungurakot, pambabastos sa mga kababaihan, mga umaabuso sa karapatang pantao.

What do you want the audience to take away after watching your film?

Sa akin, dapat lang siguro magbigay paalala lang sa kung ano ‘yung nangyayari. Hindi natin kailangan ng karahasan para masolusyunan ‘yung problema ng bayan kasi hindi lang naman ‘yun ang problema. Dapat palagi natin i-consider ‘yung karapatang pantao, ‘yung respeto natin sa katotohanan, respeto natin sa kapwa tao at karapatang pantao kasi … para tayong na-budol-budol kasi kahit anong nangyayari, maraming tao na ayaw i-kwestyon. Feeling ko bilang mamamayan, dapat kinekwestyon natin ‘yung mga bagay na ‘yan kasi tayo ang naaapektuhan.

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“Respeto” opens nationwide in theaters on Sept. 20. For list of cinemas and more information visit the “Respeto” Facebook page.