ABOUT THE FILMCelebrated with prestigious awards and numerous film festival selections, THE MOUNTAIN THIEF is a powerful and a touching motion picture that is not only a film, but also an agent of philanthropy and a plea for change!
Julio and his blind son Ingo confront their ultimate survival as they seek refuge and redemption from war and hunger in a garbage-collecting town called "Little Hope." Together, they navigate territorial rivalries in a slum community in which people's lives revolve around sifting through the mountains of trash they live in.
There is piousness steeped in blind faith as they try to survive and in Ingo's unseeing eyes, even something beautiful atop the mountains. But as a newcomer to an established fiefdom, their uneasy foothold in the village collapses when Julio is involved in a murder incident. The one witness, an outcast thief, holds the key to Julio's ultimate fate.
ABOUT THE FILM:
The film placed the task of dramatizing slum life into the hands of those who know it best: the actual scavengers of a garbage-collecting town. Trained in an acting workshop, the actors bring to life a sensational tale of murder, love and survival and the fact that they are portraying characters not far removed from their own real-life situations adds an overwhelming power to their performances.
A positive change has already affected the actors directly as the filmmakers created THE MOUNT HOPE PROJECT. This effort is intended to raise funds for the scavengers who acted in the film and also help give them options outside of scavenging for trash. It is in this call for benevolence that this film's impact will be felt.
A project of sincere intention and great passion, THE MOUNTAIN THIEF is a startling insight into a nightmarish world made more remarkable because of the glimpse of the ever-enduring human spirit.
WRITING THE SCREENPLAY:
I wrote a draft of the screenplay for THE MOUNTAIN THIEF in the spring of 2002. The story is inspired by people living in dumpsite towns and their ability to endure the most horrific living conditions they live in. The script is about the different realities of the characters living in Little Hope, a fictional town that I based on the garbage-collecting town of Payatas.
To effectively show the different realities of the characters, I put in scenes showing only parts of the truth or parts of an event, only to reveal the entire truth on the later pages. While writing, I referenced the works of the great non-linear filmmakers before me; like Kurosawa's Rashomon, Meirelles' City Of God, Tarantino's Reservoir Dog and Pulp Fiction and Innaritu's Amores Perros among others.
After writing the screenplay, there were a few critical decisions I had to make. First question was-- How and should I try to raise funds from investors to shoot this film? or Do I believe in the project enough to fund it on my own with my own savings and credit cards? My answer was yes to both. I set up a timeline of two years up to 2004 to get investors in, and if nothing happens, I decided to take the project in my own hands, and fund it myself.
Not having any background in producing and fund raising back then, I just couldn't get the project off the ground, so as most filmmakers did before me, I decided to use my savings and my credit cards to fund. A good thing that came out of this process was the long, detailed 5 years of pre- production phase. I knew back then, at least if I start preparation early, I will be ready to go when and if ever funds come in. I was able to get my DP friend Francisco Valdez, to agree to do the Cinematography work for the film. My mom, Nina Balasta who travels back and forth from Manila to NY was very moved with what I was doing and she agreed to give her all to help me produce this film if no funds comes in. So the three of us formed the core of the production crew.
We live in a time where technology can make things happen for you if you really want something done. First with storyboards, unable to draw well, I bought the Storyboard Artist software and it helped me a lot in visualizing the entire film--- from scenes 1 to 124, every cut and shot is in storyboard and can be played in quicktime (I will post here later). Francisco and I worked, discussed all the transitional and difficult scenes and by the end of 2005, we were ready to go with the storyboards.
With my mom in Manila, she was able to get connected to the dumpsite town in Payatas and the Operation Group involved in managing the dumpsite. This connections were very critical in location scouting and pre-production, using the internet we communicated by e-mail, text and IM to meet all the production needs of the film while I'm in NY. I continue to work as an Occupational Therapist working double time, 10-12 hour work days to save money for the shoot and do pre-production work at night usually until dawn and entire weekends.
In December 2004, I went to Manila and instituted the acting workshop and started hiring key crew members. A few more trips to Manila leading up to my February 2007 trip and I assembled my key crew- Line Producer, AD, Soundman, AC, Gaffer and a Production-Community coordinator which is very critical to this kind of work.
In February 2007, I quit my job, gave up my apartment in the Village and went to Manila so I can prepare for the shoot, full time. Everyday up to the day of the shoot, I held acting workshops,rehearsals,auditions, location scouting, crewing, production planning and budgeting.
I had a very good AD and line producer and my producer- mother really delivered on all the aspects of producing. The Cinematographer went to Manila in March 2007 and was the final piece of the puzzle. As outside of e mails and long distance calls, he was finally able to personally talk to his Camera Department Crew and do pre-production work in person.
I also was able to do casting and auditions for all the parts and by April 2007 the cast was well rehearsed and ready. We were able to put together a full production crew of 40 and the scavenger-actor participated in the Art Department duties of the film. A decision I made based on my discussion with them on how they can contribute in providing the authenticity needed for the film---they all want to play a big part in telling this story.
A typical day shoot started with a call time of 4 AM, right before dawn, as the camera crew sets up and I work with the AD, continuity director and the actors. At the same time, alternating responsibilities were provided to the Art Department and wardrobe. A night shoot starts later in the day as we stay on until 2 AM for the night scenes.
The most challenging part of the shoot is the environment. Just imagine, 12-14 stories of trash piled up in front of you and in most times under you as well, and navigating all of this with all the production equipment. The stench was initially a challenge, but after the first day of shoot, we all got used to it and it was not even a factor after the first day.
It was a very exciting time for me as I witness how everything came together very well---the shoot, the performances and the collaboration. The scavenger-actors blended in very well with the professional crew and they acted like seasoned professionals. As all production goes through we ran across some problems as well, mostly in the area of security---but all were minor as we functioned like a well oiled machine.
The most exciting part of the process is seeing the actors' ability to act well and put life into the characters. The shoot went on from April 8 to April 29, with scheduled day breaks and I must say, the years of preparation paid off, and when we wrapped, these were very exciting times for all of us.