On Their Own Time: An Interview with the Strangelovers

Photos by Mariel Urbiztondo, illustration by Sophia Isip and CJ Silva for Splice

It’s hard to come by authenticity these days. In an age when the Internet, with its technology of duplicity, is not even considered revolutionary anymore but natural, there is a certain pride in being called “original.” For the same reason, writers take extra care in using the word, lest it be used lightly or too often. But for the 2015 breakthrough short Oda sa Mga Nangangarap, no other word could fully encapsulate the film’s essence and vision.

The film, a nonlinear narrative of how a comedian comes to terms with his tragic and anything-but-laughable life through a dreamcatcher-like machine, stylistically defied norms and was a fresh entry in an industry tired and replete with more or less the same kinds of films.

It’s a strong start for director JM Jamisola and artistic and real life partner CJ Silva (said to be the “director of the director”), whose film debuted at UPFI’s Likha Adarna Student Film Festival in 2015 and won the special citation award. But that was just the beginning of a wildly successful year for the two.

Shortly after, Oda competed at the Indie Un-Film Festival and bagged the People’s Choice, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Director and Best Feature Film awards and screened at the Salamindanaw, Pelikultura in UPLB and FACINE/23 film fest in San Francisco. The couple also debuted Shrimp Struggles, an animated short that follows the creative process — and inevitable trail-offs — of two struggling artists in 2015 at a Salad Days gig; after a year, the film became a finalist and Philippine representative in an international video challenge based in Singapore. The production of Shrimp was entirely credited to The Strangelovers, the couple’s artistic alter ego.

“Parehas kami ng wavelength,” said JM of their relationship, adding that this works both romantically and creatively. The two have been working even before 2015, but it was in this year they decided to give their duo an identity. “Ako yung mag e-edit o mag vi-visualize, si JM sa writing,” shared CJ. “Nag ba-balance out kami.” While JM is more extroverted and able to deal more with people, CJ said she was less so and preferred to work behind the scenes.

Foremost an animation artist, CJ also co-animated the music video for local indie darling BP Valenzuela’s single Building Too. “Pinakamabigat at pinakamatagal na animation na ginawa ko so far, and in collaboration with other people,” CJ said in an annual video report the two posted in Vimeo.

Like most artists, CJ knew from an early age what she wanted to do. CJ grew up drawing all the time, copying sometimes what she saw in her favorite anime shows until she had developed her own style. In her sophomore year of college, she decided to pursue this dream further when she transferred from UP Manila to Diliman to take up film, but much to her dismay the course had yet to offer an animation class. Disappointed, CJ applied for a leave of absence in 2012 to practice the craft which she loved on her own.

By that time, she was already close friends with JM whom she had met through the film org UP Cineastes’ Studio where they applied (Batch 2010A) and became members together. The two started as just that — friends. But JM admitted he had always admired her. He was further impressed, albeit a bit saddened, when CJ left in 2012; he thought feelings inspired by CJ as she took control of her own pace and time in her art. The two officially became a couple after helping out orgmate Sari Estrada in her thesis film Asan si Lolo Mê? in 2013, he as actor, she as BTS director. JM told her how he felt and the rest was history.

Despite Oda’s strong, auteurist vision, JM did not begin as a self-aware filmmaker. In between chuckles, he shared that he took (and often slept through) the basic subject Film 100 thrice under the same professor, Mr. Campos, who also, amusingly, eventually became JM’s thesis adviser. It wasn’t until much later in a production design class he would encounter Stanley Kubrick whose innovative style proved influential to the budding director.

“Si JM — Kubrick,” said CJ of JM’s main film inspiration. “Si CJ — Ghibli,” JM said of CJ’s, referring to Hayao Miyazaki’s anime classics known as Studio Ghibli films. The two know each other so well, they answer for the other and complete each other’s sentences. When asked about which film they think should be required viewing, they take time to discuss, whispering to each other, before answering Kidlat Tahimik’s 1977 classic Mababangong Bangungot. “Unconventional kasi tapos Filipino pa. It’s a heavy piece of work but not in an alienating way.” The two add Iranian director Jafar Panahi’s This is Not a Film to the list.

The couple isn’t sure if they could ever replicate their success. “Feeling namin, baka naabot na namin prime namin,” JM said. Their 2015 was, after all, hard to beat. Currently, CJ is finishing her film degree at UPFI, which now has an animation class (she shares: “Nakakatawa kasi yung prof namin tatanungin niya ako ‘O ikaw, kailangan mo pa ba pumasok dito?”), while JM works at TV UP, the new and experimental production arm of the university.

Their fear of not being as successful as they were in the past years is coupled by their philosophy on time. The two don’t believe in deadlines; instead, a premium is placed on personal pace and well-being. It took JM more than a year, for example, to plan and shoot Oda. “Nireason out ko na this deserves a long gestation and development period so I allowed myself to be consumed by it,” he said in the round-up video. CJ too, who unexpectedly became in charge of VFX on top of looking after for the whole film, almost broke down due to the pressure and stress. “We consider Oda as one of our best works, pero ‘di siya worth it ulitin kung dadaan kami sa ganung burnout ulit,” JM said.

While the Strangelovers have been working on something new, the industry they share is not as keen on welcoming strange works as it initially seemed. “Kahit sa indie [kasi], may limits. Parang pa rin siyang mainstream,” JM said. The duo said they feel like “outsiders,” their taste and style not welcome in the narrative-driven stories of the industry, and point out the dangers of film fests. “Merong festival mindset na cinu-cultivate mula palang sa film school, prestigious ang tingin, tapos dito na sinusukat yung galing ng filmmaker. Bago nga mag Black Beret ‘di naman big deal ang directing finals, ngayon may mga nade-delay pa dahil dun,” he said, referring to a UPFI student film festival. “For every 10 [films] na nakakapasok sa Cinemalaya, may 20 na hindi makakapasok. Sa QCinema din yung mga tinatangap [na filmmaker] yung accomplished na’t maraming nang nagawa. So kayo-kayo lang din magkakasama [at] nagiging for portfolio na lang siya.” This “festival culture” as they call it, makes it difficult for genre-busting films such as theirs to reach wider audiences.

But for the two, film fest spots or the number of awards won aren’t necessarily indicators of a good film. “Basta malinaw yung principles, logical, self-aware at may paninindigan sa creation, yun ang successful film,” said JM. “Yung tanong naman lagi sa lahat ng ginagawa ay ‘para kanino?’” he added, a question he had learned as a Cineaste. “Ano pang point na maganda yung film mo kung hindi naman altruistic?” said CJ.

Despite struggling with being the outsider, deadlines, and financial costs among others, the Strangelovers don’t seem worried about creating more work. In an ideal world, the two said they won’t have to worry about all these, but “for now patuloy lang ang pag-produce at create. Basta, on our own time,” shared the two.

This story first appeared on December 2017 in Splice Magazine, the official publication of the U.P. Cineastes’ Studio.