FILM

Ways of seeing: Richard Bolisay on his journey to becoming a film critic

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Richard Bolisay’s debut essay collection, “Break It to Me Gently,” provides a snapshot of the so-called Third Golden Age of Philippine Cinema. Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Richard Bolisay arrives on a bike at a storefront in the village where he has been living for a year or so. The young film critic moved to this part of Quezon City after he got back from finishing his master’s in the U.K. and landed jobs teaching film classes at two nearby universities. The two years he spent away were part of a germination period that, Bolisay says, enabled him to get to a later stage of being a film critic, and of finally being at ease with the term “film critic” itself. He spent them studying at the University of Sussex under the Chevening Scholarship and participating in initiatives such as the Berlinale Talent Press, in 2017, and the Locarno Critics Academy, in 2018. Before leaving for Europe, he closed his film blog, Lilok Pelikula, effectively taking down 10 years’ worth of entries — as though in punctuation of the end of an early phase in his life as a film critic.

As it turned out, Bolisay would be reviving a number of those writings for his first book, “Break It to Me Gently,” a collection of film reviews and dispatches from film festivals. Bolisay began Lilok Pelikula in 2007 as a lean WordPress blog — “a repository,” as he puts it. While completing his undergraduate film degree (having shifted from his earlier choice of landscape architecture), Bolisay spent two years working at a library where, as he had the luxury of time, started writing about the films that he watched.

“That was the time when it was easy to write,” he says. “It was easy to express your feelings, and ang haba mo magsulat, saka parang wala masyadong policing involved, so kung mali ‘yung grammar mo, that’s fine.” It was also a time that was “more ‘analog’ in the sense that if people wanted to read you, they visited your blog. “Wala pa akong Facebook,” he recalls, “It’s not like you linked to it in a tweet.”

Photo from EVERYTHING'S FINE/OFFICIAL WEBSITE

The era of blogrolls may have ended, but Bolisay has managed to move out of the blogosphere to the international rodeo of film criticism, having served as a jury member in film festivals in Hong Kong and Jeonju, in addition to ones in Cebu and Manila. In many ways, Bolisay has been able to transition from the temporality of his initial writing platform, cultivating a practice shaped by both the academe and contemporary pop culture.

Not that Bolisay has become a snooty film professor. He’s far from it. He writes because he loves watching films. His work is informed by his “roots” as a citizen of the internet, where memes and dumpster fires of discussion hold and sway attention.

In this interview, Bolisay talks about his early years as a film blogger, his current life in the academe, and why it took him years to embrace being a “film critic.” Below are edited excerpts from the conversation.

You mentioned that your earliest film consumption was of Hollywood movies.

Oo, kasi ‘yun ‘yung available, ‘yun ‘yung nasa sine. Andyan ‘yung mga “Lord of the Rings,” mga “Harry Potter.” I guess ‘yung turning point was when I started to actively seek films as opposed to just passively watching what’s available. Ayan na ‘yung bumibili ka ng pirated, uma-attend ng screenings. Meron na akong consciousness na if I want to see something I like, I will look for it rather than watch what’s available on TV, on cable, on HBO. Doon ko naramdaman ‘yung one of the earliest realizations ko that I want to pursue [writing about film] because I’m consciously wanting to learn more about the language.

Did that affect your decision to shift to film from landscape architecture?

On one hand, yes. Because I was never into making, ano lang talaga ako, “cinephile” in the very sense of the word, voracious. But then again, I was dissatisfied already with my landscape architecture major. I was passing, like above average. Well, it might have been a bad decision because I could have had more money now. [Laughs] ‘Yung mga batchmates ko wala na rito. Pero I followed my heart, in a very corny sense of the phrase.

How was film school like for you?

‘Yung final thesis namin was to make a short film. Dine-dread ko talaga ‘yung production, which was partly my fault kasi aware naman ako that the curriculum was very production-based. But then again, I think after I graduated, they invited me to send feedback about the program, so ‘yun ‘yung sinasabi ko na the curriculum encourages film practitioners: film directors, scriptwriters, cinematographers, as opposed to film critics, scholars, historians. I feel that’s quite unfair, especially if someone finds himself passionate in film, loves seeing films, but not into making them, and valid din naman ‘yun. I feel like it’s always been relegated to the side, the whole writing about film, criticism. And it reflects a lot on the industry as well. We don’t value critics a lot. We don’t value scholars, historians. We are not paid, or paid very less, even the writers. It’s the whole system, obviously. I realized hindi naman ako majority. Ever since I was a student, I’d known I wouldn’t be a filmmaker. Ka-batch ko si Antoinette Jadaone. I knew that she was going to be a filmmaker; she’s passionate about what she’s doing. But then again wala naman kasing ibang film program that I could apply for.

Na-delay ako ng two years eh. I had to work as a librarian to save up money. Nothing very dramatic pero naka-graduate ako.

What encouraged you to write more when you were starting out as a young critic?

To be honest, masaya kasi siya. Hindi ‘yung parang may hinahabol kang deadline or meron kang hits na hinahabol. It’s all because you want to write. When you’re young, you have a lot to say about the world. Wala ka pang friends na filmmakers, so when you see something, very immediate ‘yung sinusulat mo. It’s not like you’re worried who’s going to read it, but eventually, I gathered some readership, tapos may mga friends na din, parang lumalaki naman siya. Pero meron ka ring mga nababangga. So parang ‘yung climate din that time na ang daming films na napo-produce, it gives you more opportunities, options to write. So hindi ko mahihiwalay ‘yung sarili ko sa climate na pinanggalingan ko, because the climate itself encouraged long-form writing, encouraged writing in general.

Siguro at that time, may mga problems, may mga issues din, the way we have issues now with Facebook and Twitter, but looking back with the output, OK, productive siya. It’s not like we really wasted our time after all.

Photo by JL JAVIER

You decided to close your blog, Lilok Pelikula, in 2017. How did that decision come about?

It’s time to go. Wala namang triggers. Incidentally it’s exactly 10 years, so September 2017. I just felt like the blog had been stagnant. Even Oggs Cruz [another film critic] hadn’t been cross-posting his [new articles] on his blogs anymore. Parang tumira ka sa bahay and kailangan mo na umalis. ‘Yun lang siya. And I didn’t want to leave it on its own, without telling people that I’d left, so it needed a marker. Nothing dramatic, nothing like “it’s the end of an era.” I needed to tell people that I was leaving. That’s it.

How did you come to terms with being called a “film critic”? It’s a loaded label on its own.

It comes with negative connotations, it’s kind of self-serving, and people suppose a lot of things about you. It’s a term that’s never really meant to look good on you. But eventually, nag-mature ako. And I think I became comfortable with the term. It took me 10 years, but had it been sooner, it would have led to a different life. But the very fact that it took me 10 years speaks a lot about the environment, the struggles. Because even the term itself was so hard to contend with. Pero wala naman palang masama na i-embrace siya. So I embraced it. It has to go through that long difficult process, which is fine.

Did you take it upon yourself because no one else is doing it?

No, not really. [Laughs]

Because we have very few critics, particularly that time when you started writing. Like, Noel Vera writes criticism, but he’s living elsewhere ...

I read [his] writings, and I respect him a lot. I read “Critic After Dark” in college from cover to cover. However, I know I am different from the stuff I am reading. I have a different voice. I have a different background. I have a different way of conveying my ideas.

Factor din ‘yung youth. I had a lot of time. I could attend festivals. I could go on leave for a week without getting fired. Ngayong teacher na ako, hindi na ako makapag-leave. May mga responsibilities ka na hindi maiwan as much as you want to go to a festival. Youth itself is an enabler of production. When I look back, natural naman ‘yung progression, matagal lang. ‘Yun naman ako. Even in my writing matagal akong magsulat, matagal akong mag-process. The very nature of slowness is something that I’m accustomed to. And ‘yung bunga nito ‘di ba — this book — it’s a product of 12 years. Life’s work. 

"When people say that it’s the Third Golden Age, because of the quality of works, the quantity of works, give it to them, because they haven’t lived through the First and Second Golden Ages."

In my writing I’ve always assumed readers have already seen the movie. I think it’s important to emphasize that there’s a distinction between film criticism and film review. And it's not hierarchical. I teach this in my class na parang — this is not definite, it’s my definition — film review for me, ang assumption is that the reader hasn’t seen the film, so your language is not as deep, it’s very accessible, because the goal is to encourage people to see the film. As opposed to film criticism, where your assumption is that your audience has already seen the film and therefore they’re reading the piece to enrich their understanding. Dahil malinaw ‘yun sa akin, doon din nagfo-flow ‘yung sinusulat ko — how I understood the film, how I experienced it.

Importante sa writing ‘yung personality. If you read like someone who’s very bland and boring, it’s like you’re talking to a boring date. You wouldn’t want to stay longer! You want to leave, check your phone. But if you have a personality, people would want a second date. They would want to read you again.

You also mentioned how film criticism is inherently embedded with class issues, the act of writing it, its content, and the act of film viewing itself. Can you talk more about that?

Movie consumption is something that needs money. You pay a movie ticket, or subscribe to Netflix. You buy food. It’s something that we’re very much aware is driven by capitalism, by the need to earn. Doon pa lang, nalilimitahan ka na sa audience mo. Another factor is that I write in English. I’m aware that even the language I use limits the audience I can reach. As much as a critic wants to reach a wide audience, the very nature of movie consumption, of writing, requires a lot of capital, and these are cultural capitals that require money. And that’s OK, let’s embrace the contradiction, na middle class tayo, pero nagpapalabas tayo ng films about poverty. No one’s stopping you to do that, but you should acknowledge it. Acknowledge your privilege, where you’re coming from, that you didn’t get there by yourself.

Even just releasing this book, at 600 pesos. That’s a lot for someone. But It’s not just the amount; it’s the years contained in it. All the films I’ve written in the book, napanood ko sa big screen. I invested in the book in the sense na ‘yung capital na andun sa book, it’s more than 600 obviously — ‘yung internet, ‘yung laptop. It’s cheap compared to the actual work involved in it. Aware ako na malaki ‘yung hinihingi ko. Sabi ko sa publishers gusto kong makaabot ‘yung book sa students.

‘Yung seed idea nung book, nasa London ako, wala akong trabaho, wala akong pera. I had a lot of time to kill. I was collecting essays from my blog and … hindi naman ganon kasama. Naipon. I did that every day hanggang sa nakahanap na ako ng trabaho. I worked at a cinema, sa hospitality ako. I would check that folder on my laptop, edit it, sobrang dami. The initial book was more than 500 pages. It was a lot, too heavy, too costly to print, so we had to cut it.

I have to ask, though, do you really believe that we’re in the Third Golden Age of Filipino Cinema?

When people say that it’s the Third Golden Age, because of the quality of works, the quantity of works, give it to them, because they haven’t lived through the First and Second Golden Ages. They have no way of knowing how the golden age felt during either of those times. If they’re feeling it now, sincerely, genuinely, why not? Bakit mo pagdadamutan?

Your question is a very political question, to be honest, because my response to it will reveal explicitly and subtly my age, position, ideology, biases, strengths, and weaknesses. But why shy away from vulnerability? People who usually oppose the label or have strong reservations about it are mostly those who have lived through the Second, or even the First, Golden Age, and they have firsthand, experiential basis for comparison. Their reluctance is valid, of course. But we who haven’t lived through those times, we whose knowledge of these Golden Ages is merely through viewings of films and listening to venerable scholars, our role is to recognize what has been established. But now that we are speaking from our time and experience, why should we feel reluctant and constrained to claim this label, especially when we have good reasons for it?

Calling it the Third Golden Age of Philippine Cinema does not absolve it from criticism. We can criticize and celebrate it at the same time. Labels are markers of power, and I am inclined to believe that claiming this marker, with keen awareness of its shortcomings, is a significant gesture that does not take away anything from what our older vanguards have established.

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“Break It to Me Gently” is available at everythingsfineph.com and at Cinema Centenario in Maginhawa, Quezon City.