At only 17, these two Filipino filmmakers are already winning awards

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Jared Joven (left) and Kaj Palanca may have been still in high school when they made “Contestant #4,” but their short film is already making waves in international film festivals. Most recently, it won "Best Film" at the Shanghai Queer Film Festival. Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — It was one year ago when Jared Joven and Kaj Palanca shot their short film “Contestant #4” at Joven’s ancestral home in San Juan. “Naalala ko pa noon naglilinis ako,” he says, recounting the day of the 24-hour shoot. The directors were Grade 12 students at that time, and shooting on a Tuesday meant missing a day of classes.

Marami na kaming absences dahil sa film,” says Palanca, although he was quick to clarify that their absences didn’t exceed the allowable maximum number. Joven and Palanca were 16 years old, balancing their studies with the pressure of finishing a short film in the midst of some of local cinema’s giants.

The short film, which is about an old man (Joel Saracho) who lives alone and a young boy (Elijah Canlas) curious about the old man’s past, was an official entry to the 2016 QCinema International Film Festival’s short film competition, which pitted them against more experienced filmmakers (including Dodo Dayao whose film “Violator” already won Best Film at the 2014 Cinema One Originals Film Festival).

Kaj Palanca and Jared Joven Joven and Palanca were still minors (they’re turning 18 this year) when they pitched "Contestant #4" for QCinema International Film Festival. Their film went on to win the Audience Choice Award. Photo by JL JAVIER

Joven and Palanca met as Grade 7 students in Lourdes School of Mandaluyong and discovered they shared similar interests, particularly films. They’ve been best friends ever since. The two fell in love with filmmaking, with video making assignments in their art classes serving as some sort of a rudimentary film school, along with the library of DVDs in Joven’s house.

The two have always dreamed of making their own film — as co-directors (kind of like Peque Gallaga and Lore Reyes or, if you want a more contemporary example, Phil Lord and Chris Miller) and planned to join local film festivals like Cinemalaya.

In the summer before their last year in high school, Joven came up with an idea for a short film and Palanca offered to write the script. It was finished right at the time QCinema sounded a call for entries for the #QCShorts competition. “With very little confidence, we submitted our script,” says Palanca. It was eventually chosen as a finalist and they were called in to present their pitch, with only a night to prepare. That’s when they realized they had to call in reinforcements.

 

The brilliance of the internet is that the lonely axis of blogs can lead you to a lifetime of friendships. Palanca met filmmaker Bebe Go through his film reviews blog on Tumblr. Go then introduced Palanca to another filmmaker, Petersen Vargas, who later introduced Joven and Palanca to another filmmaker, Jade Castro.

“Kaj and Jared called me up on the eve of their pitch to QCinema to ask for advice on pitching,” recounts Castro. “One of the things that I told them was because they were young first timers, they needed to show the panel they are supported by a producer and [a] team the panel could trust.”

Candidate #4 "Contestant #4" was inspired by a Super 8 footage of Jared Joven's grandfather at a cross dressing competition at this high school homecoming. "Inisip ko paano kaya kung bakla itong lolo ko," says Joven. "So I started writing, thinking of that." Photo courtesy of KAJ PALANCA

Joven and Palanca were still minors (they’re turning 18 this year) and if eventually chosen, the seed money of ₱100,000 should go to a producer who can oversee the film to completion. It was suggested that Castro should come in as a producer, along with Go and Vargas. “Prior to this, I only considered Kaj and Jared my young friends — funny, smart, sensitive, talented, super promising high school students with exceptional taste in film and music,” says Castro.

More than the bond of friendship, Castro believed that Joven and Palanca were onto something, and that this could be the beginning for two filmmakers who could shape local cinema. He says: “Why did I want to do it? I wanted to help. They needed guidance and I could give it. But also, it was a film with great potential, by two guys who could be the future of cinema. I wanted to be part of it.”

 

“Contestant #4” became one of the seven competition films in QCinema’s short film category in 2016. It went on to win the Audience Choice Award and travel in several film festivals afterwards, including the 2017 Torino LGBTQ International Film Festival in Italy (where Vargas’ film “2 Cool 2 Be 4Gotten” also competed) and the 2017 Shanghai Queer Film Festival where it won Best Film.

“There’s pressure because of the recognition,” says Palanca. “But secondary lang naman ‘yung mga awards. Mas importante na na-share namin [‘yung film] to a wider audience.”

“It’s really flattering that more people are appreciating ‘Contestant #4,’ adds Joven. “It motivates us to keep moving and mag-kwento lang nang kwento.”

CNN Philippines Life sat down with Joven and Palanca and talked about the process of creating their short film, collaborating with film professionals, and the pressure of following up such an acclaimed film.

How do you guys work as co-directors?

Kaj Palanca: ‘Yun din ‘yung challenge. Sinabi rin sa amin.

Jared Joven: But since we’ve known each other for so long, and we’re best friends, it’s easier to say “I wanna do this” [or] “Let’s do this instead.”

Kaj Palanca: ‘Yun talaga ‘yung factor that helped us kasi we already know each other very well.

Was it a mutual decision to become co-directors?

Jared Joven: Even before ‘yun na ‘yung dream namin. ‘Yung short films namin for art class, we were helping each other out.

Kaj Palanca: I helped him write his screenplay and he helped me with photography. Our long term goal before was to create a film.

"People consider short films na parang student film lang pero hindi. Iba talaga ‘yung way of writing, ‘yung form ... it’s so free because you can tell anything and it’s so honest." — Jared Joven

 

And that became “Contestant #4.” Where did the inspiration come from?

Jared Joven: ‘Yung lolo ko had family videos shot in Super 8. One night, nilabas niya ‘yung old projector niya just to see if it was still working. Tapos andun ako so pinapanood niya ‘yung family videos. One of those videos was his high school homecoming tapos may contest in cross dressing. Andun ‘yung lolo ko. Inisip ko paano kaya kung bakla itong lolo ko. So I started writing, thinking of that, and there came the [character of an] old man struggling with his identity, he has a friend na young boy.

Kaj Palanca: So it started from that clip talaga, of his lolo.

Jared Joven: Na andun din sa actual film.

How was it like working with film professionals for your first short film?

Jared Joven: Ang pinaka-important na sinabi nila was as directors, susundan ka, just say what you want to happen.

Kaj Palanca: And stick to the vision. Hindi naman kami nahirapan masyado because we already knew Jade and Petersen. We already knew how to talk to them. So we didn’t talk to them as professionals talaga [Laughs]. They made it easy for us.

Jared Joven: Sila na rin mismo, they were good people. Nagkataon din na they were ready to work with really young people.

Kaj Palanca: They knew we were children. So sila na lang nag-adjust [Laughs].

How does “Contestant #4” represent your vision as filmmakers?

Kaj Palanca: One of the films that inspired me to be a filmmaker is “Endo.” It’s the first film that revealed to me na cinema should be above all personal. So I also learned from “Endo” na I should be honest, especially with what I let manifest in my work. So when I write, I start with the smallness of the person and work from there. I feel like the best and most necessary stories come from the smallness of the person. That’s how we worked with “Contestant #4”— it’s everyday life, it’s just people talking. That’s how we understand life and film.

Jared Joven: Mine was “Before Sunset,” namangha ako sa writing and how it was shot. I was only 14 when I watched it. They were just talking. It was a different kind of cinema. You can shoot a film [and] write a film with just two people talking.

Candidate #4 Jared Joven and Kaj Palanca's short film, "Contestant #4," is a story about an old man (Joel Saracho) who lives alone and a young boy (Elijah Canlas) curious about the old man’s past. Photo courtesy of KAJ PALANCA

What kind of films did you guys watch when you were growing up?

Kaj Palanca: All kinds of films. As a kid, I enjoyed being in the cinema, no matter how good or bad the film. But eventually I made my way to Kubrick, Scorsese … tapos I learned what I like.

Jared Joven: Ganun din kami ng dad ko every Thursday movie day namin. Sa house ang dami namin DVDs.

So your house was like your film school, and your art classes in high school were like your film classes?

Kaj Palanca: Yeah. Very accessible na ang film for us. Kasi [there’s] the internet and our parents are also interested in movies. Even before our arts classes and film classes in high school, it was easy for us to appreciate how a film worked.

What’s the most interesting about filmmaking for you?

Jared Joven: Writing it.

Kaj Palanca: It feels like creating a world of my own. In film, I see the world right before my eyes. It’s a different experience altogether from writing short stories.

Jared Joven: Especially with “Contestant #4,” while writing it, these two characters na nakilala lang namin sa text were coming to life as we were working on the development of the characters and the story itself. It was really writing that was interesting for me.

Kaj Palanca: And also working with people who were as passionate as we are. Si Tey Clamor [the cinematographer] working with her camera and Popo Diaz [the production designer] … sobrang galing na nila.

Jared Joven: Saka si Ibarra [Guballa] din ‘yung AD [assistant director] namin … he was really guiding us na, “O, diyan lang kayo wag kayong gagalaw.”

Kaj Palanca: They knew how to treat us kasi we [weren’t] professional directors, we don’t have much experience but these people who already have much experience … sobrang nag-adjust talaga for us.

"When I write, I start with the smallness of the person and work from there. I feel like the best and most necessary stories come from the smallness of the person." — Kaj Palanca

What was the most challenging part of making the film?

Jared Joven: Editing. Kasi tatapusin mo na siya and it can come out really different if it were edited in a different way.

Kaj Palanca: Kasi before editing we felt na na-establish na kwento namin, meron na kaming film but pagdating ng editing ang dami pa namin tinanggal kasi the film didn’t work with how it was planned first. It was challenging that we had to remove parts of the story.

How does it feel when your age is brought up in light of your achievements?

Kaj Palanca: Hindi pa ako sure if it’s a good thing that we started early pero now naman I feel like it is a good thing kasi we have time to learn. We don’t mind that it’s brought up as often as it is.

Jared Joven: Na-establish na natin na we’re entering the industry as young people. Kami rin, we would forget we’re the youngest. Sumali lang kami just because we wanted to tell a story. It’s not our goal to be the youngest.

Are you guys working on something new?

Kaj Palanca: I’m trying to write …

Jared Joven: Ako din.

Kaj Palanca: Pero hindi ko naman siya minamadali. I think it will [just] come. I’m struggling with my writing right now because I’m not sure with what I want to do next after “Contestant #4.”

Do you guys feel pressured to follow up “Contestant #4”?

Kaj Palanca: May pressure actually. But more than the pressure, parang meron pa rin talagang passion na I have to make more.

Jared Joven: Now we’re planning to make films by ourselves muna to establish sa sarili namin our identity as filmmakers.

Kaj Palanca: Dahil nga accessible na ang film, we can just make films [on our own]. So our plan is to not create films together muna.

Kaj Palanca and Jared Joven Jared Joven (left) and Kaj Palanca met as Grade 7 students in Lourdes School of Mandaluyong and discovered they shared similar interests, particularly films. The two fell in love with filmmaking, with video making assignments in their art classes serving as some sort of a rudimentary film school, along with the library of DVDs in Joven’s house. Photo by JL JAVIER

What do you like the most about making short films? And when do you think you guys will be ready for a full length?

Kaj Palanca: I want to make short films muna. I’m not thinking of creating a full length [film] anytime soon. Sobrang familiar ko na with short films … I mean ... mas may freedom with short films. But of course I haven’t made a full length so I [really] don’t know.

I want to make short films kasi I appreciate that film can be small, it doesn’t have to be grand. Short films allow that. I can talk about anything I want and not to worry about where it’s going.

Jared Joven: Even though you’re restricted to writing to just a few days, a few characters, it’s still so free because people consider short films na parang student film lang pero hindi. Iba talaga ‘yung way of writing, ‘yung form. Even though ganun ‘yung structure, it’s so free because you can tell anything and it’s so honest.

Kaj Palanca: It’s easier to be honest kapag ganon lang kaliit yung kwento mo.