Raya Martin on filmmaking as ‘a time travel of the heart’

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The award-winning filmmaker on his newest film “Death of Nintendo” and his forthcoming F. Sionil Jose adaptation starring Piolo Pascual. Illustration by MARIA SARAH ORLINA

Creative's Questionnaire is an interview series where artists, writers, filmmakers, and other creatives talk about their work, the challenges that they face, and their inspirations.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — “I’m usually introduced as a historical filmmaker — most of my early works were about the colonization of the country,” says director Raya Martin. “It started from my fascination with emotions of the past. ‘How did people feel then? How are they different from our feelings today?’ It’s like a time travel of the heart, which is another way of relating to history instead of just dealing with its cold hard facts.”

Martin’s latest film, “Death of Nintendo,” seems poised to be exactly that — a time travel of the heart. It’s a coming-of-age film set in the ‘90s, with the impending eruption of Mt. Pinatubo looming overhead as teenage boys deal with the pains of growing up “at the very beginning of virtual realities.” At face value, it seems like a far cry from Martin’s moodier work in his recent works “Smaller and Smaller Circles,” and “How to Disappear Completely,” but thematically they’re cut from the same cloth.

For CNN Philippines Life’s series of Q&As with creatives, Martin shares his proclivity for playing with perception, time and timelessness, and finding common ground in seemingly polar opposites — themes that make his work uniquely his.

He also shares some details about “Death of Nintendo” and an upcoming film adaptation of an F. Sionil Jose short story, his creative philosophy, and his sources of inspiration. The interview has been edited for clarity.

What do you think are the essential traits of a creative person, especially in your field?

A creative person is an open person. If a person sticks to just the tried-and-tested, and yet claims to be creative, be suspicious of that person. Because creativity comes from finding solutions to problems, and security and calculatedness immediately eliminate those possibilities. Calculated risk is an invention of the salaryman. It’s a similar concept in scriptwriting: if the characters are predictable, you lose interest in the story.

What is the core philosophy that guides your work? How does your usual day go?

Making movies has a lot to do with time, so it’s really mostly about my relationship with time. Cinema is both time and space, which is also simply experience or the experience of watching a movie. This is also just a matter of perception, which is both what is right in front of you and your worldview in general. Time is conceptual but it is also finite, and those are the parameters I generally work with in my field to simply tell a story. When you watch a movie, you are both in the theater and elsewhere. You are also both in the present, and in the past or future.

I try to keep my days as simple as possible. Depending on my mood when I wake up, I complement it with a book or articles to read, or movies to watch. It’s like curating your day, and each day is different. Much of the time spent when I’m not on set is really just immersing on a topic or subject that I’m currently interested in. I also go to the gym to balance this mental work with something more physical. Shooting a movie is exhausting both to the body and mind, and we usually don’t have time to sleep in between so I try to make the off days relaxed as much as possible.

Tell us about your latest work.

We just finished premiering a coming-of-age movie called “Death of Nintendo” at the Berlinale last month, and hopefully we will release it soon in theaters nationwide! The movie follows a group of boys and a girl who grow up in suburban Manila in the ‘90s amid the earthquakes and blackouts, at the very beginning of virtual realities.

My next movie is a film adaptation of a short story by F. Sionil Jose titled “Puppy Love” starring Piolo Pascual. It’s a simple love story set before and after World War II, about two childhood lovers who find each other again but in tragic circumstances.

You talked about how your relationship with the concept of time is a philosophy that guides your work. How does this relate to your latest work?

Obviously, I like occupying certain spaces in time. In “Death of Nintendo” it was about going back to childhood and reliving that feeling of innocence before shit gets real, so to speak. I was attracted to “Puppy Love” because it’s time traveling to a space in history that’s similar to what we’re going through these days. The character of Jake was about being stuck in the past. It was understanding how our regrets hold us back from loving in the present. I think we tell stories to create these spaces of understanding characters and situations so we don’t fall into just seeing a black-and-white picture of reality.

What inspires you?

I’m in love with the concept of timelessness, which makes me merge a lot of old and new things together. It’s common that I put on some old black-and-white silent film and play Taylor Swift in the background. I also like going back and forth reading a reportage and catching up on some Marvel movie, and in the end, I get to mix up these completely different materials. It’s the fluidity between the different consciousness, and the process of finding that common truth throughout the different cultural constructs that ironically make me feel more connected with the present.

Do you have a mentor? Do you think it's important to have one?

I’m torn between the ideas of following someone and listening to yourself, because both are as useful in life and artistic practice. One is honoring traditions throughout time, a connection to our ancestors and their wisdom while the other is questioning how they fit in the changing world. It’s both spirituality and grounding.

I was very much into the history of Russian Cinema when I was in film school, from Dziga Vertov to Mikhail Kalatozov to Andrei Tarkovsky. I found kinship in the creative ways they create around the political. Later, I went through an actual mentorship with Kidlat Tahimik who taught me so much about documentary as a creative form and that expanded into how one engages in life. He taught me how your creative work is pretty much informed by how you live your life and deal with others. It’s all about your own process.

How important is social media in your work?

Social media for the film industry is usually marketing. But what’s specially interesting for me is how it becomes a critical element in how we perceive films. If you take a look at Hollywood now, much of how we react to movies largely depends on how it’s engaged in social media. It’s made watching a movie just on its own harder because we already have preconceived notions, through this engagement, even prior to its release. But then it’s interesting to play around with this dynamic: creating stories around the stories we tell. So there’s that creative responsibility aside from the selling.

What do you think are the biggest challenges faced by people in your field today? How do you overcome them?

My concerns are practical: film workers should be paid proper wages and have reasonable working hours. That’s always been a problem in the local industry, because we’re used to instant modes of production, and this generally creates a problem of too many films and not enough venues to show it. So distribution of these films is another big problem. I don’t believe that people don’t want to see certain films: they just don’t have the chance to see them. I think the biggest challenge is that the film industry today has become monopolized.

It’s ultimately about bringing back the very foundation of cinema, which is that it’s a collective thing. It takes a handful of people to make a movie, more people to organize screenings, and a roomfull of audience to maximize that cinematic experience.

What myth(s) about your field of work would you like to debunk?

Everyone thinks that filmmakers have an exciting life: sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll. But the filmmakers I admire actually have very boring lives, and most of their time is spent working hard on set without much sleep. It’s a lot of dirty work to come up with an interesting movie.

What are the values that are essential in each work that you create?

It’s becoming simpler to me as I get older: as an artist, we are simply just defining love. What we love doing, who or what we love, how we love creating alone or with a group of people. It’s that mystery that we keep defining through our creativity, filling in the gaps of the unknown in our lives, which we ultimately call love, I guess.