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Shedding Light on the Dark Side

Minori Takao

Jul. 6, 2016

Award-winning film director Brillante Mendoza has made it his mission to put the problems of the Philippines on the big screen.

Over the past years, his country has seen major economic growth. But that's caused the darker side of society to fall into the shadows.

Mendoza's latest movie was released in theaters across the country on Wednesday.

“Ma’ Rosa” is set in a Manila slum. A couple runs a small shop but tries to make ends meet by selling drugs on the side. It's the only way they can raise their children, until the police charge in.

They're not making the arrest for justice though. The authorities take the couple as hostages, for ransom.

"No matter how hard, no matter how gritty, no matter how dark, yeah, because I think as a filmmaker, and the film being a medium, is very, very strong -- it could connect, it could really affect the audience," Mendoza says.

He's one of the most famous Filipino film directors, winning high acclaim at international film festivals. "Ma' Rosa" was nominated for competition at Cannes this year.

Rosa, the wife, gets cornered by the police to give up the name of her drug dealer. After taking the drugs for themselves, the cops demand a payout for freedom.

The couple’s only hope is their children, who reach out to relatives in a desperate attempt to round up the money.

Poverty looms like a loop of no escape. The son even resorts to prostitution.

"I developed the story because I was indirectly in contact with this person who is my reference on this story. It was based on a real life story. It's a bit disturbing, and I found out during my research that it's an open secret, it's a thing that this family being done, and it's alarming, and something has to be done," Mendoza says.

Recently, the Philippines has seen yearly economic growth of around 6 percent. Condominiums and skyscrapers are popping up in city centers. But just next door is the stark reality of the slums. The gap between rich and poor is widening.

Just last week, the country inaugurated Rodrigo Duterte as president. Voters supported the controversial politician who came to power after pledging to eradicate corruption and crime, a sign of growing discontent with the status quo.

Mendoza had been working in advertising, until 11 years ago. He wasn't born into poverty himself, but he saw the suffering in the neighborhoods around him.

At the age of 45, he decided to address them through film.

"I'm glad I didn't do films when I was much younger because I have a different set of intentions... when I was much younger about filmmaking," he says. "I think I am more prepared. I'm more mature in my choice of stories."

As an independent filmmaker, Mendoza has worked on limited budgets and small productions. It's his desire to see things for himself that helps him understand the true hardships of those who fall through society's cracks.

After 2013's devastating Typhoon Haiyan, Mendoza filmed in an area that was flattened, to learn from survivors.

His 2009 movie, "Kinatay," meaning "massacre," is also based on a true incident. In the film, a young police trainee needs money for his family. But when he takes a part-time job he ends up at a murder scene, where he is forced to get rid of the body.

The story illustrates how far one can fall after only one misstep.

"My films cannot change the world, but I think it is a start, you know, it is something that we can discuss. Not everyone would agree, not everyone would love what they see in my film," Mendoza says. "I think a wake-up call for us, to get out our shelter and realize that such things happening out there."

Change can only come from the people, says Mendoza. And he hopes that seeing his movies gives people a medium to address the problems that face society.