‘Mulat’ filmmaker Maria Diane Ventura: “Who would’ve thought an immigrant woman could have her films distributed globally?”

The Filipino director on her debut feature, toxic relationships and how streaming has levelled the playing field

There are difficult movies, and there are movies that feel like a chore. There are hardworking films, too, and films that simply belabour the point. For all their flirtations with form and dalliances with structure, the works of New York-based Filipino filmmaker Maria Diane Ventura have always stirred the pot. They’re mood pieces where semantics take a backseat in deference to flavour and temperament, like ideas wrapped in a narrative shell.

This quality was present in her 2013 short, the Cherie Gil-starring TheRapist, and further honed in her debut feature Mulat (Filipino for Awaken), which since its global release in 2014 has secured nods from New York (International Film Festival Manhattan), Brazil (World Cinema Festival) and Manila (through an “A” grading from the Cinema Evaluation Board).

In Mulat, starry-eyed Sam (Loren Burgos) is set to take the big leap with her volatile fiancé Vince (Ryan Eigenmann). But a car crash, an ensuing dream and the beginnings of a strange mental affliction throw her into the arms of Jake (Jake Cuenca) – part-phantasm, part-idealised projection – and the new life she is tempted to leave everything behind for.

The film is propelled by thoughtful editing and a curious script that, for better or for worse, exists in a self-contained universe. The film premiered on iflix on July 15 and, more recently, Amazon Prime a few weeks ago, on August 12.

NME catches up with Ventura from Berlin, where she found herself – after an unexpected but welcome delay in Manila that took all of five months – doing pre-production work on a yet-unnamed new project.

“I’m still a bit culture-shocked, actually. After five months of stringent incarceration, and then, here, it’s like nothing happened – except for people wearing masks on public transport,” she says of the German capital.

When I first saw Mulat, the male characters – to me – appeared like they were there as paper dolls who “acted out” Sam’s fictions.

“That’s a very interesting perspective. To be honest, when I was writing the script, it wasn’t a conscious decision. I would say Jake fits into the paper-doll metaphor more. But then again, the story is told from Sam’s head. She is an unreliable narrator; we are left questioning which events or interactions were real or fiction. But as the writer – or maybe because it’s been a while – even I don’t know for certain. I mean, aren’t human memories notoriously unreliable anyway?”

Yeah, memory renders everything as fantasy. Mulat qualifies as psych thriller that way, but is it also an allegory for how ‘lost’ people get when they’re in a suffocating romance?

“That’s right. The real nightmare for Sam was losing herself in her relationship, and finding out that leaving that toxic union doesn’t necessarily mean she’s out of the woods – and that there’s never really going to be a ‘fresh start’ for her. Her lifelong dream of finding peace basically turns out to be just that: a dream.”

You’ve got very strong, imposing male figures in Jake and Vince. They’re almost like two different versions of the same jerk.

“Why do you consider Jake to be a jerk? I actually wrote him to be the quintessential ‘dream man’ that I assumed women generally want.”

Maybe I’m just suspicious of lurkers who sniff out vulnerability in people.

“That’s interesting, because personally, I find myself wary of vulnerable people without any evident flaws.”

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‘Mulat’. Credit: Courtesy of Maria Diane Ventura

But since we’re seeing everything through the lens of Sam, we take generosity at face value. Or maybe we’re fatalistic and not used to anything good happening?

“I assume unconditional acts of generosity have ulterior motives. I’m still fighting my own cynicism and general mistrust in men.”

One critic said Mulat was all babble, that the characters weren’t grounded in any culture or history. Was this nowhere-ness and everywhere-ness by design?

“I remember having written the screenplay in under a week and shot in four days. It was practically a student feature; I made it while I was still studying film. It was years ago, so I also don’t remember how much was engineered and what was organic. But I think, conceptually, given that [the material] is slightly metaphysical, that this aspect of ‘nowhere-ness’ and ‘everywhere-ness’ fits. Everything happens in Sam’s psyche and told from her memory.

“But, yes, I’m aware that the characters lack grounding somehow. And I understand the critic’s sentiments, given that we’re so used to films that have socio-cultural elements everyone expects them to have in order to be deemed meaningful. Not to justify my work or anything, but in this particular case, it’s within context. Each film is received differently depending on [the audience’s] state of mind, so there’s no right or wrong opinion, at the end of the day.”

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Maria Diane Ventura at the World Cinema Fest in Brazil, where ‘Mulat’ picked up two awards. Credit: Maria Diane Ventura Instagram page

There’s a long history of films happening almost entirely in people’s heads. Like a good chunk of David Lynch’s filmography and Charlie Kaufman’s scripts. What was in your viewing diet when you were writing and sequencing the scenes for Mulat?

“Man, you’ve mentioned my idols; I’m not worthy! [laughs] I absolutely adore Mulholland Drive and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. However, it would disappoint you to know that the concept for Mulat came from an acutely banal discourse.

“I was talking to my friend about her ailing mother-in-law, who was suffering from dementia. She couldn’t fully control her motor senses, and it was difficult for her to communicate, but she eventually learned to understand people’s gestures. Like, when she points to the stove, she’s asking if she’s already eaten something like it. And I thought how, sometimes, in my dreams, I want to punch someone but end up hugging them instead. Maybe it’s the same thing? Maybe she was just more ‘conscious’ in her subconscious state. I guess I was trying to find a better, more acceptable [explanation] for this. I was resisting reality.

“But then again, I watched something on the Discovery Channel once, about how gazelles have the capability of detaching themselves from their bodies to calmly watch themselves being devoured by a lion. And I thought, if animals are capable of this otherworldly function, what are we as humans capable of? Anything, really. At least in my imagination.”

All your films go the festival route, then digital. How do you feel about the current milieu for distribution, especially in light of the pandemic?

“Like any filmmaker, my dream was to share the experience of watching my films with an audience in the theater. But of course, given the current circumstances – and the fact that I’m just an independent filmmaker still trying to navigate her way into this world – that’s not an easy task. And now the pandemic has made that practically unattainable.

“I admit that I was originally resistant to this evolution, because it meant that I can no longer achieve that dream. But I guess I just failed to see the bigger picture. And anyway, I was still able to experience this during festivals, like when my last film Deine Farbe premiered at HOF Filmtage in Germany. So I’m quite happy going the festival route.

“Regarding the current trend of distribution, now thousands of movies of diverse genres are given better potential to be seen, and to stay out there, and to be accessed and found. This was unthinkable before. You’d have to be a Martin Scorsese to get distributed and have a platform worldwide. But now everyone gets this chance. So I think we should see this evolution as something positive, because it evens out the playing field and allows people like me to still have the chance to be discovered, or to at least monetise our artistic endeavours.

“Who would have thought back then that an immigrant woman coming from a marginalised background would now be in a position where she could have her films distributed on a global scale? Technology has made that possible, and I’m grateful.”

Mulat is streaming now on Amazon Prime Video

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