Berlin is a cinephile’s city. Nearly every person you meet is a filmmaker, or at the very least a film fanatic. From the prestigious Berlinale to quirky festivals that push the envelope like the renowned Porn Film Festival, the city is a hub for a multitude of genres, forms, and voices in cinema.
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When she first moved to Berlin in 2007, however, editor and media anthropologist Lola Abrera was surprised to discover that even with over a hundred film festivals held in the city throughout the year, there had never been one exclusively dedicated to showcasing Filipino movies.
“I knew that had to change,” says Abrera. “There is little representation of Asians—particularly Filipino figures—in the international stage. And all too often these representations are in the form of caricatures and stereotypes of how the Filipino is perceived, and thus defined and generalized by non-Filipinos: the comic relief, the sidekick, the submissive female, or the nanny with the thick accent. There [needed] to be more opportunities for Filipino representation not only onscreen, but behind the scenes as well.”
The rest, as she would describe, was kismet. One chance lunch date with then-Philippine Ambassador Melita Sta. Maria-Thomeczek got Abrera some support. Eventually, she would get a partner through Rosa Cordillera Castillo, the founder of the Philippine Studies Series, a platform for lectures, discussions, and events regarding the country and its diaspora. Soon enough, filmmaker and producer Trinka Lat would enter the picture as a curator. And in November 2015, The First Reel, Berlin’s first and only film festival dedicated to Filipino films, hit the screens of Germany’s oldest cinema.
“The theme for [the first] festival was Rising Voices,” says Abrera. “So it was about breaking through and making Filipino voices heard. Recognizing that even at home in the Philippines, many filmmakers’ voices struggle to break through. And that’s what we do in our festival: provide a platform for vital and impactful stories that are all too often ignored or dismissed.”
There’s a power in giving people a voice—especially to the diverse Filipino communities that have made their way to Berlin and Hamburg. You have folks belonging to the traditional church community that’s been around since before the Berlin Wall fell, those who’ve come to Europe as OFWs, and students and artists making their way in the world. To have them converge for screenings of mainstream and independent films alike (think anything from Dan Villegas’ English Only, Please to Jerrold Tarog’s Heneral Luna) made for a turnout that was nothing short of wild.
“The owners and team of the Kino Moviemento, our festival home, were blown away by the vitality and size of our audiences,” describes Abrera. “The Filipino community was such a force to reckon with. The theater was packed and their energy was astounding not just for us as the organizers, but also for the non-Filipinos in attendance.”
Filipinos in full force
That sense of community also made for an opportunity for German and international audiences to gain a better understanding of the culture and of issues important both in the Philippines and abroad. But another thing that sets The First Reel apart from other film festivals is how its post-screening events have given audiences and filmmakers alike the chance to exchange ideas.
A screening of Sigrid Andrea Bernardo’s Ang Huling Cha-Cha ni Anita sparked a spirited forum on the film’s themes—such as sexual identity, teen pregnancy, and abortion—that brought in perspectives from audience members of varying backgrounds, and even that of actress Jay Bordon. In 2017, acclaimed filmmaker Arbi Barbarona joined a roundtable with Filipino anthropologists on the Lumad struggle and on the rise of film communities outside of Manila, following a screening of his film Tu Pug Imatuy.
And now, the non-profit (all of the money goes to the filmmakers and the cost of operations) festival is beginning to grow from just a biennial event to a community-oriented platform for Filipino filmmakers to showcase their work in Europe. Now moving forward independently from the Philippine Studies Series, The First Reel is even brewing up a series of monthly events hosted by the Museum am Rothenbaum (MARKK) in Hamburg.
This November will mark the festival’s return to Berlin, just as more international attention has turned to the Philippines in the time of Duterte. And the First Reel’s ambitions continue to grow both in its themes and its programs.
“We continue to present a mirror to the various dimensions and evolutions in the Filipino experience toward agency and self-actualization,” explains Abrera. “In our 2015 festival, our theme was ‘Rising Voices,’ while our 2017 program focused on ‘Breaking Boundaries.’ And now for 2019, our theme is ‘Of Lives and Labels,’ which strives to use storytelling as a means to explore, confront, and dismantle the labels that have for too long defined us.”
Though the lineup of this year’s festival remains top-secret, Abrera hints at a few things to look forward to. A polarizing activist and performance artist will be making an appearance to discuss the role of food in our identity, while a forum examines the narratives of Filipino rap. This isn’t even to mention the adobo cook-off with members of the community. Yes, you read that right.
All of these are different sides to the story of the Filipino experience, giving a voice to a community trying to both touch base with home and to journey further out into the world. Abrera adds, “And in the process of journeying alongside each storyteller—from filmmaker to rapper to performance-historian—we hope to find ways to embrace who we are, how far we have come, and what more we need to achieve.”