Sheron Dayoc: “We don’t have to be starving artists to create compelling and important films”

Ngoc Thuy 2024/07/01 14:21

by Trung Dam – HIFF

Sheron is one of the pioneering voices in regional cinema in the Philippines, an alumnus of the 2011 Sundance Institute, Next Master Tokyo Filmex 2010 and Asian Academy 2008. His first full-length documentary, “The Crescent Rising” won the best documentary at the 2016 Busan International Film Festival. Starting his film career with documentary works has allowed Sharon to gain a genuine perspective on the people and society of the Philippines. This is vividly portrayed in his latest film, “The Gospel of the Beast”.

“The Gospel of the Beast” is a visceral allegory confronting the profound social and political inequalities and injustices that have defined its history, exploring the depths of human nature and its capacity for darkness and light. The film was screened at prestigious film festivals such as the Tokyo International Film Festival before appearing at Ho Chi Minh City International Film Festival (HIFF).

The owner of the Golden Star Award had an intimate conversation with us after winning the top prize in the Southeast Asian Film category at HIFF.

HIFF: How did you feel after receiving the Best Feature Film Award at HIFF 2024?

Sheron: Given the high caliber of films in the Southeast Asian Competition, I was surprised and very happy to receive this recognition. It is always humbling to have our hard work, passion, and sacrifices acknowledged, as it validates the creativity of the entire team behind the film. As they say, it takes a village to make a film, which is very much true. I am honored to share this award with everyone involved.

HIFF: What do you feel about Ho Chi Minh City?

Sheron: This is my first time visiting Ho Chi Minh City, and I always tell my friends that I’ve long wanted to come here. The city has exceeded my expectations, and I’ve grown to appreciate and love the city and its people. As a fan of Vietnamese cuisine, I found the food to be an absolute delight. Vietnamese food has always been my go-to for healthy and comforting meals in the Philippines.

I once said that Ho Chi Minh City feels like the Tokyo of Southeast Asia with its vibrant energy and the strong presence of youth, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Experiencing the city’s beauty has been a mix of happiness and sadness for me. I’m happy to see how Ho Chi Minh City, despite being younger than Manila, has become such a powerhouse economy while preserving its culture and vibrancy. However, it also makes me sad because it feels like the Philippines is lagging, especially considering we were a powerhouse decades ago. I hope that both our people and government can draw inspiration from Ho Chi Minh City’s evolution into the wonderful place it is today.

HIFF: Can you share your journey to filmmaking?

Sheron: After graduating with a degree in Philosophy and originally planning to pursue law school, life led me down a different path into the world of independent filmmaking. After completing a film certificate workshop, I immediately delved into documentary filmmaking, focusing on narratives in the southern Philippines and collaborating with various international agencies and NGOs. This work exposed me to a different reality, inspiring me to tell the stories of the marginalized.

I was born and raised in Mindanao, located in the Southern Philippines. That’s where I witnessed the ongoing conflict between the government and Moro rebels, rooted in historical grievances dating back to the Spanish era. What began as a distant reality in my childhood became a palpable truth as I grew older and gained social and political awareness. I experienced numerous incidents connected to this seemingly perpetual war. In fifth grade, my school was bombed. In 2013, my hometown of Zamboanga City endured a siege by local rebels, resulting in the burning of five villages and paralyzing the city for three weeks. This was the reality I grew up with—the truth of living in the shadow of war.

After gaining perspective and experience from directing documentaries, I ventured into narrative filmmaking with my debut film, Halaw/Ways of the Sea, in 2010. Since then, themes of violence have been central to my films, including Halaw/Ways of the Sea (NETPAC Special Mention at Berlinale), The Crescent Rising (Best Documentary at Busan International Film Festival), and Women of the Weeping River (Best Film at Gawad Urian, Philippine Critics Awards, and Toronto Reel Asia), a project supported by the Sundance Institute. Now, my latest film, The Gospel of the Beast, continues to explore these critical themes.

HIFF: Where did the idea for “The Gospel of the Beast” come from?

Sheron: It happened when I went back home to Zamboanga on a vacation and casually met with my friends and relatives. Surprisingly, someone close to my family shared his deep dark secret one afternoon. He candidly shared with me that until he started working for our family, he used to be a hired killer for a vigilante group in my hometown. According to him, it all started when he accidentally killed his high school classmate during a fight. He was able to run away – only to be eventually trapped in the world of the syndicate. I was startled to hear of this. I have known this man all my life as someone caring and loving. I never would have thought that he’d experienced such things.  After that long conversation, we never spoke about it again.

I asked myself then and there why he suddenly entrusted his story to me. But one thing for sure is that his life story is as important as those of the iconic people that we have gotten to know in books or TV. His story inspired me to write and develop THE GOSPEL OF THE BEAST,  a coming-of-age film about a young boy’s journey into BEASTHOOD.

HIFF: The film talks about the tragedy of youth in a harsh society. Does this reflect the current state of society in the Philippines?

Sheron: I love my country. I love the Philippines. But sometimes it is really hard to love one’s country, which, like a confused and troubled youth, succumbs so easily to the Machiavellian political power of the few, destroying its own moral identity.

It disheartens me that violence is becoming an acceptable human behavior that threatens to destroy the just and humane society our forefathers died for. It is haunting that Filipinos applaud such violent acts, believing them to be justifiable norms. I always ask myself how this nation reached this point. Is there someone truly to be blamed for the country’s sordid state? Why does my nation choose to be blind now of all times?

The film endeavors to dissect the anatomy of a man’s evolution into a beast: Act 1 – The man isn’t aware that he is in a state of despair; Act 2 – The man is aware that he is in a state of despair but doesn’t know how to get out of it, and Act 3 – The man has no escape and is left to embrace despair to experience freedom.

I believe it is important to continue discussing violence in cinema as it mirrors the current social environment of many countries, including the Philippines. Violence is my country’s current truth. However, some might not be very welcoming to the idea of creating discourse over despair manifested through violence. By suppressing the current social truth, we allow such acts of violence to be normalized. Rather than denying it, we should admit and recognize that this is what is happening now. In doing so, it may even help shed light on why such a culture of violence persists and why it is embraced.

Regrettably, the source of these violent acts is none other than the rich and powerful of our society. For the sole purpose of maintaining their power, innocent lives are at their disposal. Because of their positions, they can define what is “just” and what is “wrong.” They use the vulnerability of the poor and the weak as their gambit for this orchestrated “Game of the Generals.”

I believe that the journey of MATEO is everyone’s journey, regardless of age, culture, or social background. Violence is a universal truth shared by every human in history.

The film may not have your typical happily-ever-after ending but I hope that through it, the audience will gain a deeper understanding of the growing culture of hate and violence in society now. Through the emotional impact of the story, I hope this film will help the audience transcend into a greater consciousness of the terrible consequences of tolerating or being silent towards the growing acts of violence around us.

My country’s violent narrative is no longer a distant reality to me, but it will always be an endless pursuit of that unattainable understanding of the complexities of humankind.

HIFF: Did you encounter any difficulties or advantages during the process of making the film?     

Sheron: The filmmaking process generally went smoothly. The primary challenge, as anticipated from the development stage, was managing budget concerns typical of independent and non-commercial films. However, assembling the right production team and cast was a significant advantage, making the journey meaningful and enjoyable. All the actors are from the region and speak the local language, and thankfully, there were no diva-like attitudes to deal with.

HIFF: Can you share your perspective on filmmaking? What is the most important factor for you when making a film?

Sheron: As a storyteller blessed with the rare opportunity to depict human experiences through cinema, it is crucial to create films that reflect truth and inspire conversations about the human condition. These conversations can address problems and create meaningful impact. Personally, I don’t hold lofty promises of creating immediate change, as cinema is just one part of a larger effort to effect meaningful changes in our society. Through our work, we question, challenge, dissect, and spark conversations around issues that undermine human dignity.

I advocate for sustainable filmmaking, firmly believing that we don’t have to be starving artists to create compelling and important films. As filmmakers, we must strike a balance where our profession provides financial freedom and security, ensuring that we can consistently tell our stories through film. While filmmaking is important to me, life is more than just filmmaking. It involves existing with and caring for the people around us.

Finally, making a film is also about inspiring future generations of filmmakers to continue our mission: to create a humane society through cinema while ensuring sustainable filmmaking practices. Even when we are no longer in this world, our legacy can live on through our films and the new generations of storytellers we inspire.

HIFF: Are you influenced by any particular director and why?

Sheron: Certainly, I have been influenced by many directors whose cinema I have studied to understand how and why their work impacted me and their audiences. Just as filmmaking is a journey, being influenced by directors I look up to is also a journey. These directors’ work captivates me due to the strength of their cinema, regardless of whether people agree with their social, political, and philosophical discourse.

When I was a budding filmmaker, I was first introduced to Filipino filmmakers who opened my eyes to cinema, such as Lino Brocka, Ishmael Bernal, and Mike de Leon. During this time, I was still learning the basics of making films. However, my true love and deep passion for cinema were ignited by Iranian cinema, which I consider my first teacher in filmmaking. I am self-taught, with no formal degree in filmmaking, having only attended a few workshops before debuting my full feature film, “Halaw/Ways of the Sea,” in 2010. Iranian filmmakers like Abbas Kiarostami, Bahman Ghobadi, and Mohsen Makhmalbaf had a profound impact on me because their truth and experiences strongly resemble those of my homeland, the Southern Philippines, Mindanao—a land with a long history of political conflict and war.

Eventually, I began to study European films and was inspired by directors such as Béla Tarr, Lars von Trier, and Michael Haneke. These directors deepened my understanding and appreciation of philosophical discourse in cinema, which resonates with me due to my college degree in Philosophy. As a graduate of Philosophy, exploring the philosophical dimensions in cinema was like Disneyland for me, offering a rich terrain of intellectual exploration and insight.

As I grow older, I continue to study directors who create films for wider audiences. Currently, I am at a stage where I strive to balance creative expression with creating films that appeal to a broader audience. This balance is essential as I aim to reach more people while maintaining the artistic integrity of my work.

Indeed, learning is an ever-evolving and continuous process. I see both cinema and life as avenues for perpetual learning until my final breath. This journey, influenced by a myriad of filmmakers, shapes my path as a filmmaker and my understanding of the world around me.