Interview - Ellen Ongkeko-Marfil

I’ve always believed that directing films requires boldness and bravery because it means putting your soul on the line. And women starting from childhood have always been more constrained from expressing themselves; among school-age children, teachers would always say how difficult boys are, unlike the girls who are obedient.

Ellen Ongkeko-Marfili

How did you begin the work that you are doing now?

Ellen: Since college, I was with the Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA), a company committed to theatre for social transformation. It deals with various issues such as poverty, land reform, women’s concerns… More than a decade ago, we decided to take our causes to television and I became an in-house director. I was bitten by the bug – the medium was for me and the wide audience reach was a major turn-on. We had kicked out a dictator but the mindsets hadn’t changed. Soon, I was a supervising producer for a mainstream film studio while directing drama for their TV network. Later, I was a news and public affairs programme manager for another mainstream television network and was quite fulfilled with the documentaries and the service-oriented shows I handled.

But I wanted the combination of drama features and advocacy as well as the big screen. I love the big screen and have had an on and off affair with mainstream cinema. Both because of the art and the craft as well as its power to influence. Unfortunately, the greater the influence of any medium, the greater the control – from the state, the businessmen, the moralists…

The entry of digital cinema allowed me to go into film seriously. Through digital technology, I was able to go on my own, direct and produce at the same time, which means greater control in terms of process, output, and distribution – and for the big screen at that! My goal was to use alternative means of doing film (digital, equity-sharing) to create mainstream impact. I may have moved away from theatre, but always, I carried the advocacy with me.

Do the films in the Philippines cater to women? What are the kinds of films they get to see?

Ellen: There are various genres and some cater to women – the romantic comedies, the melodramas, even horror, I learned is patronised mostly by girls. But as far as sexuality is concerned, I don’t think most films in the Philippines cater to women. It’s like romance is for women, sex is for men. My intention was to fill that gap. So I was thrilled when a female reviewer who has reviewed Filipino films for quite some time, wrote about Mga Pusang Gala that for the first time she didn’t squirm while watching a sexy scene on screen. Of course, sexuality isn’t just a sex scene but the whole context. And I thought that seemingly light comment put the whole difference in perspective.

Is it easy being a woman film-maker?

Ellen: In the Philippines, many film outfits are headed by women executives and producers. Of course you have to deal with the patriarchal values and machismo of mainstream industries. But certainly, it isn’t closed to women. That there are very few women directors, however, I can attribute to the basic upbringing of women. May I quote from an earlier interview: ‘Women have been more constrained in expressing their real selves freely, which is what creativity is all about. In growing up, girls have been controlled to conform more to the dictates of society, to be feminine, which means to sit properly, talk softly. You’re not even allowed to laugh out loud. Not only that, you are not encouraged to climb trees, you’re not supposed to go out at night, you have to be protected. No need to be brave! But that protection meant nothing but repression. To be a director, you need wounds, you need to be able to laugh out loud, to be able to go wild and crazy the way boys are allowed to. I had to exorcise many things, including my aversion to technology’. But the struggle was a long process which started from my schooldays and not only during my career life, leaving a comfortable home to be able to choose one’s own lifestyle and values, to learn to brave going home late nights by carrying a Swiss knife or tear gas can in one’s bag. The internal struggle is helped along of course by involvement in public struggles for change.

Why do you make the films that you do?

Ellen: I usually choose my subject depending on my reaction to a certain subject, event or situation. Angels, I did because I felt strongly for the plight of the masseur who serviced me every now and then and her son who served as her guide. I was awed by the dignified way they coped with their difficulties. Walang Bakas (Without A Trace), I did because it was the 20th anniversary of the assassination of Ninoy Aquino and yet somehow, the situation was still the same. There are desaparecidos twenty years after we had kicked out a dictator

What motivated you to make Mga Pusang Gala?

Ellen: Unfortunately, that year in 1995 when I did get to work for a film outfit, the talk then was that the film industry was dying and that only ‘bold films’ were surviving. In the Philippines, films tackling sexuality are generally classified as ‘bold’, almost a euphemism for films with nudity and sex scenes, if not downright pornography.

I decided I needed to go and see these ‘bold’ films for myself. As a film lover I had gotten used to going to the movies myself, but this time, out of fear and embarrassment, I dragged my husband along as these films were patronised mostly by men. Seeing these films, I was aghast, more than anything else. One story, for example, is about a rape case where the victim kills all the rapists in the end. Pretty acceptable proposition. There was this image, however, of the man, putting his gun to the woman’s face ordering her to give him oral sex while he thrust his pelvis in front of her. The image was shown repetitively, throughout the film after the incident, in the guise of motivating her to take revenge. Intentionally or not, I think it created a different effect. Amidst the predominantly male audience, I saw some women with their male partners and two women huddled together, seemingly squirming in their seats.

I checked out one ‘bold’ film after another but I usually couldn’t watch the whole movie as the portrayal of women was generally as being objects of lust, in various poses of undress and the overall feel was that of voyeurism. I felt violated most of the time.

I realised then how sexuality, being a taboo subject in this catolico serrado country, has been dominated by the perspective of men, which dominated women’s own consciousness of their sexuality – thus the constant desire to be sexy and to please their men.

I told myself then that I wanted to do my own version of a ‘bold’ film, this time from a woman’s perspective, but within the same battleground where the audience are, and yet change the rules. In short, I wanted to intervene.

Was it easy getting the movie project off the ground?

Ellen: My first project pitch was an anatomy of a marriage story set during the period from the Marcos dictatorship to the victory of Erap Estrada, a macho actor who rose to become president. More than a love story, it tackled sex and the growth of the woman’s consciousness, contextualised within the growth of the women’s movement of that period. My film studio was wary of ‘bold’ films. They focussed on teen romances, capitalising on their TV stars’ following. I decided to go on my own and pitched the story to various producers.

One male producer asked me if I was married, seemingly puzzled about why I wanted to do this type of film. The belief is that ‘sexy films’ is male territory, of course. Another producer did sign me in, but he wanted me to cut out all the politics.

Finally, I was able to get the most prolific woman producer to get excited about it. She may have been disappointed however because I wanted a female lead who was beautiful but not male-defined sexy – she was quite flat-chested for a bold film. Yes I wanted to show flesh, but not for the audience to feast on. The producer refused the budget I asked for. I checked out another actress who she thought was no longer ‘fresh’. Finally, after two years, I was ready to compromise and offered the project to an upcoming ‘bold’ actress, but the actress’ manager refused. He said it wasn’t bold or sexy enough. I went on to do other projects. But still the idea of a ‘bold film’ nagged me.

Thankfully, with the entry of the affordable digital technology, film making has become democratised, available to anyone who likes to take part in the discourse and break the monopoly of dominant culture. I thought this was my chance to produce myself. I looked for material that was manageable – few actors, few locations – and I remembered Mga Pusang Gala or Stray Cats, an award-winning play by PETA in the mid 90s, a parody about a woman and a gay man bonding in search of true love.

Actually, I pitched this to the woman producer but her gay creative consultant wanted me to cut out the gay part and focus on the woman’s story. I refused because I thought the parallelism and the differentiation of the female and gay oppression was what got me interested in the play. Finally we just did it ourselves with equity sharing amongst the cast and crew.

So that is one major difficulty, becoming a filmmaker on your own terms, carrying your own perspective against dominant ideology, that is a source of struggle.


Your film has been much acclaimed. What do you think is the cause for its success?

Ellen: I don’t know, my plan was just to do a small film. I was quite surprised with the noise it made locally, the good reviews, the nominations, the awards. And then it won the Docker’s first feature at Frameline 30, the oldest and biggest LGBT film festival, and now it is going around various festivals abroad. But although it has its share of great responses from women, I’d say it’s really more popular with the gay men. Carolyn Coombes of the Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, a member of the jury in Frameline, said she liked it because it isn’t just for gay men but for everybody. Actually I did it for women primarily. I think women’s cause is very much tied up with the whole LGBT cause which is about being able to live out of the box. So maybe it’s that. But maybe aside from the advocacy, it’s also the good script, the good acting. May I make a sales pitch here? Come June, DVDs will soon be available internationally and we are actually looking for distributors in various territories. Then maybe the viewers can answer the question themselves.

Actually, at first, I was ambivalent about the play. I read the play even before it was staged and I could not put it down. I kept on laughing, but in the end, I felt disturbed, feeling either stupid or insulted. When I saw it performed, the feeling was the same and it was shared by others, mostly women and progressives. It was hilarious, it seemed real and honest, but it also offended something in me. I could not articulate why at that time.

Many years later, I decided to confront that feeling. I sat down with the original playwright and another writer, both gays, and I shared my issues.

Stray Cats, the play, is the story of Marta, an ordinary employee and her gay landlord Boyet, a dressmaker. They become best friends sharing parallel love lives, serving their lovers, waiting for commitments that never come. In one night of madness, they take their revenge. The over-all feeling is, gosh, they’re so stupid, they keep on taking the abuse, they deserve what they get. And yet I know there are many people like that even among successful women and gays, among friends, and even within myself to a certain extent.

Studying it for a film project, I understood the parody as a style where you push circumstances and characters to the extreme, where you exaggerate to drive home a point.

What was the point? That women and gays are stupidly masochistic? Or that there was something in our socialisation and upbringing that brought out the madness in us when it came to love and sex. This was the point. But was it clear? Without demeaning the audience – I was part of the audience – are they aware of that social conditioning and do they process it accordingly?

We decided to make that obvious. The gay character who is a dressmaker, we turned into a romance novelist, writing a novel based on his neighbour’s love life; the romance novel as a backdrop – romantic conditioning as the main culprit of such craziness.

Romantic conditioning which primes a woman to believe that her wedding day is the most important day in her life. That waiting for her prince to sweep her off her feet – is really no different from the Catholic Bible’s story of creation where woman was taken from the rib of man, to love, serve and obey him and be his playmate in paradise – and this is also no different from the ideology of ‘bold or pornographic films’ where a woman is portrayed as an object of lust, her body created for man’s consumption.

Is it a wonder then that indeed women can go crazy for love, sex and romance at the cost of their being? And how better to reflect this condition than by presenting the gay character who beats her in feudal womanhood, serving his man even more than she does – not only does he cook his meals, warm his bed, he also provides for his financial needs, even without any commitment – a very common situation among Filipino gays.

Mga Pusang Gala was my reaction to the ‘bold films’ which showcased women as objects of desire, as well as my reaction to the romance films and what romance generally did to the psyche of women and gays. It was a chance to exorcise the madness of Love, Sex and Romance.

Tell us a little more about how you developed the two main characters, Marta and Boyet.

Ellen: Despite this commonality in oppression, the gay character seemed ahead – he adopted a son and he delighted in his work as romance novelist. The female character had a job as an advertising executive but was sexually harassed by her boss, which dominated her career more than anything else.

I wanted to do this primarily for women and wanted the woman to be equal to the gay character. I thought it was because both my writers were gay that I could not even them out. But in truth, I realised that the gay character had benefited from the male conditioning on the importance of career, making him more self-contained than a woman who needed a man for completeness. And so I retained the imbalance.

It is a parody and pushing things to the extreme served its purpose.

Did the humour lead to people misreading it or trivializing it?

Ellen: In the original script, the lead characters take their vengeance – they go mad and kill their lovers – parody style. In the film, parody is mixed with melodrama. The female and gay characters suffer their pain in melodramatic fashion. She attempts suicide, he kills his pet cats. I did not want to trivialize their pain. I did not want the audience to laugh at their pains. I wanted all my viewers who may have had broken hearts to remember their pain. So in parody style, they exorcise their pain and their madness by conjuring various ways to kill their lovers – from serious to laughable ways. The exorcism happens in their minds – an anti-fantasy fantasy, and finally as they bury their dead, they kiss and embrace and in the morning, they are hysterical to find themselves naked together in bed. Did they have sex? I intentionally made it vague which suited the third part, where illusion and realism constantly interspersed

In the end, I thought it was irrelevant whether they had sex or not. The story was meant to push people to think out of the box. So anything is possible. We cannot put people in boxes and stereotypes. The ambivalent ending was a revelation. Audiences made their own interpretations based on what they wanted to believe.

But in the end, only the emotions were real. And the exorcism of the pain is the exorcism of the myths….the only way to heal, move on and resurrect. And only through awareness can empowerment be achieved. Most times when I introduce the film to audiences, I say that I hope the film will give us a chance to laugh at ourselves and heal and be empowered along the way.

Of course these were all my plans, my sincere intentions, but film is a medium with its own structures and characters that follow their own logic after some time. More importantly, cinema is only one half the filmmaker’s perspective. The other half is provided by the viewers depending on their level of consciousness.

So I’m not sure how to answer this question. Certainly there were those who misunderstood or disagreed, some because of the style, others because of the content. You can’t really please everyone.

How have women’s groups reacted to the film in the Philippines?

Ellen: Women generally liked it and would tell me they saw, if not themselves, their friends, in the lead role. Some cried, some got hurt and walked out. Feminists were torn between loving and hating it.

It was shown at the 16th International Women’s Film Festival in Manila, but after much argument, I heard, about whether it was a woman’s film or not. Even when it was first invited, the organisers asked if my protagonist was a victim or an empowered woman. I answered that she is a victim but in the end she exorcises her pain and moves on. ‘Isn’t honesty the issue?’, I thought. This seems to be a main concern of most women’s festivals – to show women as empowered. Though I understand where they are coming from – because indeed there is a need for a woman to see herself in a new light – it actually disturbs me. I think it does the movement injustice when women artistes just beginning to speak up are immediately boxed in within particular frameworks. I want to ask them how many women film makers are there? In the Philippines, many of the film outfits are led by women. And yet there are less than 10 women film makers, and the majority will not do so-called ‘sexy’ films.

I understand the requirements of a movement, analytical frameworks in studying and presenting issues. But in cultivating artists, freedom of expression is primary. Yes, expose them to all theories but let them filter it themselves and let them express it in their own way. ‘Politically correct lines’ should only be used in commissioned works as in advertisements or company’s audio-visual presentations or instructional materials.

I’ve always believed that directing films requires boldness and bravery because it means putting your soul on the line. And women starting from childhood have always been more constrained from expressing themselves; among school-age children, teachers would always say how difficult boys are unlike the girls who are obedient. Women’s organisations generally put up women’s film festivals to further their cause, but most times, I think, they forget to take care of the artistes and their target audience. They get too focussed on furthering the correct line when the theoreticians among them are actually arguing among themselves. And they end up marginalising themselves from the majority.

Meanwhile, there are hardly any women film makers, and hardly any materials, especially on sexuality as this is male territory. I think there is a serious problem.

Stray Cats would later get into a lot of gay festivals abroad but hardly any women’s festivals. We did apply in some but hesitated in many others because fees could not be waived, or if we were accepted, the filmmaker would have to shoulder the shipping fees and her airfare. And there are no cash awards either.

Researching festivals through the internet, I would find, correct me if I’m wrong, that most women’s film festivals worldwide have difficulty sustaining themselves because they hardly get an audience. This is really disturbing and needs serious reflection.

I believe the first agenda of women’s film festivals is to get more women to use this medium to speak-up and to reach out to as many women. Let a thousand flowers bloom and let us have a discourse.

And how did the gay groups react?

Ellen: We opened the Pink Film Festival in Manila in June 2005 to full audiences who laughed and embraced the film. The gays, yes, they owned up. Often, they would say how they kept on laughing but that inside, it was quite painful.

It would move on to receive the first feature award at Frameline 30, the San Francisco LGBT film festival, the oldest of its kind at 30 years, and the most attended, at 70,000 audience last year. It also received a $10,000 cash reward.

It is presently going around various festivals, mostly LGBT. It inked a contract with a U.S based distributor specializing in LGBT films.

In the Philippines, gays embraced me and said they were so happy to finally see their stories told, although there were others who said, they are no longer like my character. They are now executives!

Overall, it was great to be embraced by the LGBT community.

Do you feel the need to develop a network to support your work? How do you go about it?

Ellen: Definitely, who doesn’t need a network? Especially an independent filmmaker like me whose resources are very limited compared to the whole infrastructure set-up of major studios. There are various networks to work on – from like-minded colleagues in cinema to co-advocates of a cause. Unfortunately, cinema , as it is, cannot be dictated upon by causes, issues, political lines or ideologies. Organisations working on gender issues on the other hand have their own political or ideological lines.

I was very happy with the FOD festival-conference because this kind of gathering which embraces quite a large perspective sets great possibility for networking. Imagine organising that into one whole theatre circuit! That would be a great service to both parties – the film maker-advocate and the organised groups. But of course, at this point, as was mentioned in one of the panels at Films of Desire, it still is a struggle for some to see the power of film – to fund it and yet not completely dictate on it! I like the dictum at Frameline. ‘To change the world one movie at a time!’ It is the same for networking.

What are the kinds of challenges that you face as a filmmaker?

Ellen: The main challenges are around content, funding and distribution.

Content – In my previous work, I had always attempted to situate my story within the broader socio-political context in my country – the poverty, the political bankruptcy. Stray Cats, however was strictly middle class and very urban. That makes it seemingly limited but I did not try to make it otherwise because I believe, the male-female-gay-divide is first among all conflicts – even before class and racial conflicts. That position, of course, is an issue of contention even among women’s organisations where issues of poverty, lack of education, health care, work opportunities more often than not take greater concern. In any case, this would have its consequence, in terms of ‘Filipino-ness’ and maybe even box-office returns. Content is a major concern specially considering the expense – even digital technology is not cheap – and the effort. As an independent filmmaker, my challenge is to go where the audience are, to look for materials where I can meet them halfway.

Funding – Though cheaper than 35mm film, digital filmmaking is still expensive. Where do you get funds and yet not be dictated to? With mainstream producers, box-office rules, dominant ideology rules, generally. With cause-oriented organisations, the organisations’ ideologies prevail, generally. With film grants, art rules, generally. Stray Cats was possible because I asked my cast and staff who represented all genders, to take part in the business through equity-sharing. This way, not much cash was needed. It was a labour of love and majority owned the film in various percentages. I believe that in any attempt at liberation, the business organisation behind the production must be reviewed and revised.

Distribution – This is the greatest challenge because definitely, mainstream business rules here. So, one always plays a balancing act to fulfill mainstream requirements somehow. One may believe there are many like-minded people like oneself but are they organised in this level?

Films of Desire is one event where these organisations see the importance of this medium. It is a good start, a great possibility. The challenge for independent filmmakers with the help of cultural and educational organisations and institutions is to set up these alternative circuits.

What are your views on censorship? Have you had problems with the censors?

Ellen: In the play, the female lead, during sex, would shout ‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph’ during orgasm. I censored this myself in the film. I did not want to court the Church’s ire, so I opted to sacrifice that nuance. Religion, indeed, plays a dominant role and it is always a constraint, a challenge, to find ways to go around its powers to reach a wider audience.

At the time that the film had its commercial run, the ‘bold’ films were no longer in. Previously, these films were either given an X or labelled R-18 by the MTRCB (Movie and Television’s Regulation and Classification Board). But more than government intervention, it was private business intervention that did them in. The owners of the biggest chain of malls where 50% of cinema houses are located banned R-18 films from their cinemas. They claim this move was welcomed by their clientele.

Woe to us who wanted to handle more mature subject matter or else risk your money and allow yourself to be limited in audience reach. And so I opted to make my cuts to get an R-13 rating. In defence I said sexuality is most important during the adolescent years when they are conscious of sexual identification and love, sex, and romance become a major concern. It took a lot of convincing.

Pornography and censorship is a contentious issue. Airtime spots would not be so expensive if it were not effective in influencing consciousness and behaviour. The problem with censorship is whose values will dominate? What age is mature enough?

This is a matter of struggle for every society.

What are some of the things you have learned that can help other film makers use film as a tool for intervention into social problems?

Ellen: To intervene means: To see the problem and offer a different perspective; to go where the people are and meet them halfway; to give people the access to these tools for communication; to allow those who take up the tool, the film makers, to express themselves from their inner truths; and, to aid in discourse and not just impose ideas. A film that can touch hearts and minds and provoke discussion as well, is the best tool for intervention.



Ellen Ongkeko-Marfil

115 min / Filipino, Tagalog & English with English subtitles / 2005 / Philippines.

Stray Cats is an imaginative parody on adult romantic relationships. Gay Boyet and straight Marta are neighbours. Boyet writes romance novels inspired by Marta’s idiosyncratic anxieties about Steve, her noncommittal boyfriend. Marta is quietly envious of Boyet’s ‘family’ — his adopted son, Jojo, a 15-year-old pickpocket, and Dom, his financially dependent lover. The film depicts how these two hopelessly romantic friends negotiate for fair and equal treatment by their respective lovers, and how eventually they both liberate themselves from their ‘romantic traps’.