How ‘Cleaners’ became one of the best Filipino films of 2019

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Director Glenn Barit breaks down the process behind his award-winning feature film debut ‘Cleaners.’ Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The Filipino high school experience makes for an impossibly rich space for collective memory. We draw common threads with fellow alumni, whether it’s from the conservatism of Catholic institutions, the annual observances we shared — the seemingly high-stakes preparations for Buwan ng Wika competitions, the thrill of asking out your prom date, the warm, happy-sad glow of the last day of school — or the tender nostalgia we’ve colored these memories with.

Glenn Barit’s film “Cleaners” began with the director’s desire to dip into this font of memory. Barit recalls growing up in Tuguegarao in the 2000s and the specific experiences and textures of that time. In four chapters, a prologue and an epilogue, the film tells the story of a group of high school classmates in Tuguegarao who happen to be the designated classroom cleaners. To play on this element further, Barit wanted to explore the idea of “cleanliness” in each chapter, from the literal cleanliness of “II. Nutrition Month” where a germaphobe poops her pants in the middle of a school presentation to the questions of moral purity in “V. SK” where the son of a mayor becomes pressured to follow his parents’ corrupt ways.

Barit developed a distinct visual palette for the film that resembles highlighted photocopies (much like books and readings common in Philippine schools). To achieve this, they finalized the offline cut of the film, exported it at eight frames per second, then printed each of those frames out to look like photocopies. What followed was months of manual highlighting of each frame before these were batch-scanned and put in place of the original offline cut. The resulting film is so deeply enriched by these visual textures. The colors become an exciting layer of the storytelling, isolating the main characters in each frame and occasionally reflecting changes in their emotions and relationships. Barit treats the unseen hands as characters themselves in the film, their highlights informing what the viewer sees in each frame.

The main characters in each of the film's segments can be distinguished by their individual colors. Screenshot from QCINEMA/YOUTUBE

"Cleaners" is divided into five segments with each story involving a designated classroom cleaner. Screenshot from QCINEMA/YOUTUBE

The film explores the idea of “cleanliness” in each chapter, from the literal cleanliness of “II. Nutrition Month” where a germaphobe poops her pants in the middle of a school presentation to the questions of moral purity in “V. SK” where the son of a mayor becomes pressured to follow his parents’ corrupt ways. Screenshot from QCINEMA/YOUTUBE

While the film ended up winning Best Picture, Best Screenplay, and the Audience Choice Award at this year’s QCinema International Film Festival, the journey towards making the film was difficult because of Barit’s insistence on his treatment, which began as early as when he was pitching the film to different grant-giving bodies.

“The main challenge for the film during pitches was that it has never been done before in a feature film,” he says, citing both his visual treatment and his intention to shoot the whole film in Tuguegarao. “For an industry that already has their own set of notions of what sells, film companies can be naturally allergic to these new forms. At the same time, it is admittedly a logistical nightmare within a limited timeframe. The risk for it failing is too high for them of which, from their business standpoint, I do really get. Most suggested compromises with the film’s look, like maybe the entire thing doesn’t have to be photocopied or maybe just shoot it conventionally. Or some suggested that it can be shot somewhere nearer in Manila.”

“There was a time when no one believed in it but myself. But luckily, I’m very stubborn and stupid,” he adds.

Once the film was greenlit, he chose to work with young actors from Tuguegarao. The main cast were first-time actors in their first screen roles. This lent a raw, honest energy to the film. Barit explains, “Being first-time actors, I was quite surprised with how they handled their own roles. All of them are very smart and collaborative. They often suggested different ways of how to throw their lines or how to portray their characters more effectively by varying specific actions. I even noticed that they are way easier to direct than the older extras we had on set. They are also all naturally funny so shooting with them was definitely lighter. I also like how they bonded like actual classmates even though they came from different schools there. At one point, they even got very rowdy inside the classroom, one side of me had to be strict, but the other took pleasure from knowing that this is what my classroom really looked and sounded like before. I’m really proud of our Tugue cast and interns.”

The film's frames are printed, photocopied and colored with a highlighter. Photo from GLENN BARIT

The film crew highlighting individual frames. Photo from GLENN BARIT

The cast of "Cleaners" are all non-actors. They all flew from Tuguegarao to Manila to attend the film's premiere at the QCinema International Film Festival. Photo from GLENN BARIT

Barit says he wanted to make sure they could bring the whole cast to Manila to attend the film’s premiere at the festival. “I haven’t really asked them what their actual reactions are from the entire process; but I hope more than anything else, that they had fun. Shooting a film is definitely never easy for both the crew and cast, but I hope they still enjoyed the entire process despite all that. ‘Cleaners’ should be just another school project for them. I hope they also became a little more optimistic about pursuing the arts as a hobby or even a career.”

Another key element Barit was insistent on was the time and music in Tuguegarao. “During my high school years in 2004 to 2008, there was a resurgence of OPM bands. We all heard them from Myx and burned them on CDs, and I think it would be a disservice if I would not utilize them in a period film like ours,” he says.

Some of these included “Bakit Part 2” by Mayonnaise and two songs by Typecast, “Will You Ever Learn” and “The Boston Drama.” The latter poignantly scores a rebellious tinikling performance by a trio of emo kids in “III. Buwan ng Wika.” Barit says, “The latter instrumental half of ‘The Boston Drama’ still amazes me to this day. I thought it was very transcendental, and it’s a huge privilege to translate that to film.”

He explains further, “The introduction track, ‘Kay Sarap Mabuhay sa Bayang Payapa,’ is from Edru Abraham. He came from Tuguegarao and has founded Kontra-GaPi in UP. Aside from the track giving the film a unique tone from the get-go, I thought it would also be nice to set the location of the film through the music of a local artist. ‘Pulis Ybanag,’ the one you’ll hear when the protagonists are roaming around the city vandalizing, is also from a local band, EMILYS. It became famous in our hometown years ago. I thought it was also important to champion local musicians not only to further anchor the film in its location but also to showcase that we can really produce and forward other art forms like music.”

The final scene of the film is set to Unique’s “Apoy ng Kandila,” which came out last year. While technically anachronistic, it caught something else the director needed for the scene of the last day in the epilogue. “[It] isn’t from both period and place but I think it perfectly encapsulates what the end of the film should feel like. There’s no other track like it.”

With all the elements in place, “Cleaners” turned out to be one of the richest, most tender films of the year and a perfect depiction of that Filipino high school experience that people have such complex feelings about. What excited Barit to begin with was the idea of this crucial juncture in that we all experience in our youth. “High school is a confusing time. You suddenly have a place in the world instead of it merely revolving around you. You begin to categorize yourself — and be categorized by others — to a specific social status, class, gender, beliefs, tastes, etc. You’ll also feel social pressures when you don’t belong or are different in a particular category. Structures and institutions in place also sway you to different directions. In other words, you begin building up an identity. To make matters worse, you’re also chemically and physically changing through it all,” Barit says.

"Cleaners" director Glenn Barit. Photo by JL JAVIER

“What’s even more fascinating for me is that you don’t go through it alone," he adds. “In our own high school class before, we were co-ed with 56 students in total. So imagine every one of us undergoing these different high school trajectories and you forcibly collide us all together in a single classroom for years. Friction and natural attraction with other students will definitely ensue. It becomes beautifully chaotic. We come of age in different ways and paces.”

The film taps so well into that collective memory while being able to portray the specificity of those experiences in Tuguegarao. Given that it was filmed in Tuguegarao by a director and actors from the city, one could also consider it a key piece of regional cinema this year. For the difficulty Barit had pitching the film, there are many more films that don’t begin to get that sort of mainstream exposure, if they ever manage to get made.

Barit says, “I think regional cinema is definitely important because there are a lot of stories and issues that are not being shown and discussed as much in the dominant center. As a naïve child growing up in the province, I often wondered why they kept showing traffic situation in Manila in our T.V. sets when it’s not even remotely relevant to us.”

“In a similar vein, regional cinema can be a counter-reaction to that. We can now bring to the forefront these issues and personal stories that we can call our own while also enriching the national cinematic experience,” he adds, citing films like Arnel Barbarona’s “Tu Pug Imatuy” which tells a story of Lumad displacement and Xeph Suarez’s “Si Astri Maka Si Tambulah” which is about a Badjao transwoman. “In a country so geographically divided, regional cinema can be the bridge.”

“Cleaners” makes a compelling case for the future of Filipino films and the ways that we need to begin centering regional voices in Philippine cinema and showing more stories that use the medium to convey universal emotions in these very particular settings. For such a beautiful film to emerge from out of the center, there must be more where it came from.