How did you meet Florante? What about his story captured your interest and encouraged you to make a movie?
Well I actually saw a trailer of the film from my other director friend, and at the time he was the one supposedly crafting the vision of the story. Immediately I got drawn to Florante’s disconnection with his homeland, his renewed consciousness upon his return to visit his ailing father, and later on championing the harana and kundiman songs, and of course Forante’s amazing mastery of the classical guitar. I knew from my friend’s trailer that this story deserves to be global because of its universal connection to music and vanishing cultures. I wished that I was the director of this film.
Then about a couple of weeks later, I met Florante and Fides (the co-producer) at a screening of my film The Gift of Barong: A Journey From Within. We had meetings after that and as destiny plays its part, I became the director of Harana. I talked to Florante and Fides every chance I got to discuss their objective, their personal history with harana and Florante’s definitive intention of capturing and recording the old harana songs for the world to hear. The serious work of crafting the structure and developing the creative organization commenced right after that.
What things did you find in the harana that you thought were worth preserving?
I asked a young Filipino-American in San Francisco if he knows the harana, and he answered firmly, “I think it is a Japanese restaurant.” You see the disconnection from our culture will seriously widen in the future, that’s why I feel we need to record and express our vanishing culture. Florante wanted to capture and record old harana songs and so this is the first thing we wanted to preserve. I am pretty sure that there are still plenty of unpublished and unrecorded harana songs but we just did not have the resources to capture, record and express at this time. I also wanted to preserve the visuals of our stunning landscape, the warmth of our smile, the cultural nuances of the rural regions, the beauty of our skin tone and the enduring handsomeness and grace of our aging Filipinos for future generations to see and experience even at least in cinema.
Tell me about your experience working with the haranistas. What is your current relationship now?
I did not know how to distinguish the master haranistas from the common practitioners of harana, I do now. Florante was the one auditioning them and I learned from him. The haranistas we found are invisible commoners of our society and they are naturally shy but when it comes to the discussion and performance of harana, they are game. They are such a lively bunch with distinct eccentricities and temperaments. My favorite is the mild mannered Mang Felipe, but of course I love all of them. I still talk to them and as a matter of fact I saw them in San Francisco and Los Angeles. But it is always an ethical dilemma for a documentary filmmaker to either bring your discoveries or leave them the same way you found them. I try to expose to the world stories about real issues and found characters and in this case Florante Aguilar and the haranistas (now The Harana Kings) and I let the world decide on what to do with them. The world will respond and might care for them, herald them, assist them or discard them as unimportant. I believe my job as a filmmaker has an ethical boundary and it is to present and preserve the truthfulness in all discoveries and not to solve them or let myself in too much as it will affect my balance. I will always remain friends with the Harana Kings.
Do you think that in some ways, the recording and staging of these haranas commodifies this artform and turns it into a spectacle that ultimately reduces its value?
Well like I mentioned before, any discovery whether it is an artifact, a soon to be extinct tribe, a secret surf spot or an art form close to vanishing will ultimately face exposition (local or universal) and before you know it will have its value to the world. In the case of the harana we staged in Vigan, it was actually real. A real suitor named Brian who saw the haranistas in the Vigan concert wanted to court his love interest and asked Florante and the masters to do a real harana. The girl did not know that she will be serenaded by a master guitar player from San Francisco, California and the found master haranistas. That harana experience in the film is probably the first and the last recorded actual harana captured on film and it was never intended to be a comedic relief or a fake rendition of the truth.
Coming off the success of Boundary, how is documentary filmmaking different? Which type of filmmaking do you prefer?
I like the challenge of not knowing how a story will eventually make sense in documentary filmmaking. And I like the control that I have as a filmmaker in crafting narrative films. I love them both and so I always take time in figuring out if a story is better told as a documentary or a narrative.
Catch Benito Bautista’s Harana The Movie in its Cinemalaya premiere. It is also an official entry in this year’s Busan International Film Festival in the Wide Angle Documentary Competition this October.