With Dobels (left) and assistant director Maki Sarmiento (right) on the set of Imago (2016), Gutierrez's first short film.
Culture Movies

Meet the Brillante Mendoza protégé making waves in Cannes and Venice

Raymund Ribay Gutierrez won last year’s Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Fest, following two Cannes recognitions since debuting there just three years ago. These days, the guy is just trying to not let it get into his head
Bam V. Abellon | Jan 04 2020

Last September, Verdict, a Philippine crime drama feature won the coveted special jury prize at the 76th Venice Film Festival. It was the only Southeast Asian title that made it to the prestigious festival’s 2019 edition. The same month, the film about domestic violence was chosen as the Philippine entry to the International Feature Film category at the 92nd Academy Awards

The director behind Verdict isn’t exactly a familiar name in and out of the local movie scene, but the plum recognition for his debut full-length have made him a talent to watch out for. 

 

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Mendoza and Gutierrez after learning about the Cannes nomination for Judgement.

Raymund Ribay Gutierrez, only 27, already has three films to his name, including the short films Imago and JudgmentImago was nominated for the Palm D’Or Best Short Film award at the Cannes Film Festival in 2016. 

Gutierrez’s interest wasn’t originally in the movies. He had always wanted to become an architect. Either that or an interior designer. But he took the requisite college entrance exams and failed. Next step: He ventured into graphic design and graduated with a degree in Multimedia Arts at the Mapua Institute of Techology. But while he found a job connected to what he studied, work did not provide him the creative environment he craved, as well as likeminded colleagues who will foster his artistic interests and ideas. 

“It wasn’t what I expected,” Gutierrez says about the work, looking back. “I became depressed and unproductive. I had no one to talk to because no one understood my epiphanies.”

Baffled and unhappy, the then-fresh-graduate found solace in cinema: “Movies were my only resort, where I could find similar problems as mine,” says Gutierrez. The movies didn’t only mirror his concerns, they offered insight into how he can address the complexities of young adult life. “If you found a group that has the same mind as yours, you join them. So I started making movies.”

A scene from Verdict.

We’re in trouble 

Gutierrez started by attempting to write a script, but almost immediately trouble set in: writing didn’t come naturally to him. “It’s very natural for me to tell stories, but when I think about doing them in writing, nothing comes out.”

By stroke of fate, he came across a poster about a filmmaking workshop that award-winning director Brillante Mendoza was putting together. Gutierrez applied for the scriptwriting category. Unfortunately, the number of applicants didn’t reach the minimum requirement and the class was dissolved. This would lead him to join the directing category instead. 

“It was a risk for me to apply in his workshop because I didn’t have money at the time,” Gutierrez recalls. It was a “do or die moment,” to use his words. To be able to pay for the workshop fees, he had to dig into his savings. “It was not expensive, but it was for me. Also, I didn’t know Direk Brillante really at the time. I only applied because it was an opportunity to know more what I can do.”

At the end of the workshop, Gutierrez won a Best Director award. “I don’t think it was because I was good,” he says, downplaying the recognition . “It was only because I think I had a different style and concept.”

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Thank you God, We Found the Lion♥️ Thank you God, We Found the Lion♥️ Please watch Verdict on Sept 13-19 The cinemas screening VERDICT so far for an exclusive run with the 3rd Pista Ng Pelikulang Pilipino. Greenhills San Juan Trinoma Glorietta 4 Megamall Gateway Galleria SM Seaside SM Manila SM MOA SM Bacolod Our distributor Solar Pictures is trying to work out more theatres for Verdict. Maraming maraming Salamat sa FDCP and of course to Liza Diño-Seguerra for the utmost support you have given us! ❤️ Mabuhay ang pelikulag Pilipino! #verdict2019 #orrizontiSpecialJuryPrize #filmsboutique #centerstageproductions #foundstory #solarpictures #verdict2019 #orrizontiSpecialJuryPrize #filmsboutique #centerstageproductions #foundstory #solarpictures

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Celebrating his first win for Verdict.

 

No and no 

The award allowed him to gain enough confidence to ask Mendoza to take him in as his mentee. But the director doesn’t really take in apprentices. Gutierrez, who was so impressed by Mendoza’s teaching style, wanted to work closely with the acclaimed helmsman. He applied for an assistant director position. Again, Mendoza said no. 

“He told me that to be able to direct, I need to learn how to write first,” recalls Gutierrez. “He told me that I should write my own story because no one will write it for me.” Mendoza then introduced Gutierrez to award-winning screenwriter, Armando “Bing” Lao, who accepted Gutierrez as a participant in his workshop. Lao was the screenwriter for the movie Kinatay (2009), which won Mendoza the Best Director award at the 62nd Cannes Film Festival.

“Direk Brillante and Sir Bing Lao made a huge impact on what I wanted to achieve,” says Gutierrez. To teach the earnest young talent, Mendoza didn’t follow a book, nor did he teach Gutierrez how to do any of the narrative styles he uses on his films. “He taught me discipline,” Gutierrez says. “He taught me how to have the right attitude, and how to value opportunity. Every time you have a project, treat that project as your first and last. Be humble no matter what because all of this is just temporary.” 

Walking the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival.

Here comes acclaim 

Imago, the 2016 short film about a 50-something single parent of a special child, the one that eventually snagged a Palm D’Or nomination for Best Short Film award at the 2016 Cannes, was a product of a writing exercise at Bing Lao’s workshop.

During the course of his mentorship under Mendoza and Lao, the former introduced him to two of his other students, Joshua Reyles and Diego Marx Dobles. Gutierrez would make Imago with Reyles as cinematographer and Dobles as film editor. “That film started it all for me,” Gutierrez recalls.

“He taught me discipline,” Gutierrez says. “He taught me how to have the right attitude, and how to value opportunity. 

Imago made the rounds of the international festival circuit, and earned an international distributor. It also opened the young director’s mind to the world outside Philippine cinema. He was traveling with his film so much that in no time his passport had ran out of unstamped pages. “What I knew before that is you just make film and hope for the net profit from ticket sales locally,” Gutierrez says now. 

In 2018, another one of Gutierrez’s short films, Judgement, got nominated for Best Short Film in Cannes. The film tackles domestic violence, and was the precursor to Verdict. “We thought that there was still another perspective to show about domestic violence, which the short film didn’t have time to tackle,” Gutierrez says as he talked about the idea behind his first full-length feature. 

“After identifying a topic, you always think very, very hard, ‘Why do we need to tell the story?” says the young director, giving a glimpse of his process. “Is it worth the time? Because filmmaking will definitely drain your energy and passion. So the reason to tell the story should be very strong.”

To create Verdict, which is about an abused wife’s search for justice for her and her child, Gutierrez had to brush up on domestic violence laws. It made a world of difference that his production team included people he trusted: his former colleagues Reyles and Dobles. “In our process, the editor has the same freedom as the director to re-tell the story, using the footage that the director shot,” says Gutierrez, giving Dobles his share of the spotlight. 

Gutierrez dedicates Verdict, starring the always impressive Max Eigenmann, to all the women whom he interviewed and who helped his team finish the script. “It’s their story, told in my voice,” he says. Variety called it “a sure-handed directorial debut.” 

The young director recently found out Olive Lamasan (Milan, Anak, Madrasta), ABS-CBN Films managing director, is his aunt.

Don’t dwell on the good 

For the writer-director, winning the Venice Film Festival was exhilarating, but he says he now needs to cope with the tension and expectations that a plum recognition like that brings. “It’s a constant challenge and a source of frustration,” says the 27-year old, “but it brings a healthy kind of productivity.”

A few months after Venice, while he was at a friend’s birthday party, he got news that Verdict was chosen as the Philippines’ entry to the Oscars. But while that early distinction did not progress as hoped, he remembers greeting the news with real concern: “How do we campaign for such a material without any resources?” It’s a typical Raymund reaction, he tells ANCX. “I don’t dwell on the good parts. I always find the worst case scenario, and think about what problem may arise.”

Now, the director is trying not to take the benefits of success too seriously, saying he isn’t comfortable being this comfortable. The recognitions, however, has allowed him to learn to rely on where his artistic instincts—and fate—tell him to go. Which could very well be a road to another internationally-acclaimed film.

“I realized that sometimes we don't know what we really want, more so what we need,” says the former wannabe architect. “Our choices may not be what we expected, but rather, it leads us to where we are supposed to be.”