Filmmaker Ara Chawdhury weaves a life story that’s worthy of indie cinema
By Fiona Patricia S. Escandor
A SHORT film about thieves attempting to steal the image of the Santo Nino was an audience favorite in this year’s Sinulog Film Festival. With humor fueled by the two anti-heroes’ antics, and a story that ended in a heartwarming twist — the film, Operation Prutas, eventually went on to garner the following awards: best editing, best supporting actress for Chai Fonacier, best short film, and best direction for its 25-year-old director, writer and producer Ara Chawdhury.
Ara said it was her fascination with folklore that conceived it, tales that have traces of fantasy, and are passed on from one generation to the next. In her case, though, it was an old roommate of hers who shared to her of what eventually became the basis for the winning short. “(She) loved to discuss the supposed pagan roots of our beloved Niño — that before the Spaniards came, we already had a small mischievous boy-deity who ran around playing pranks on evil-doers,” Ara said.
Ara fiddled with the idea, of the Santo Niño as a superhero who fights crime, except she did it from the bad guys’ perspective — a modification that gave the film its subtle and unconventional approach on redemption.
“I’m a slave to the story, and stories don’t ever stop developing,” Ara shared. “I often can’t tell what genre it’s going to be until we’re about to shoot. At the moment, my scripts tend to veer towards fantasy and horror with comic twists, but I don’t want to define myself this early on. I’m still learning.”
Ara has been active in the local film industry since 2007, starting out by acting in some student films at the International Academy of Film & Television. “I’d already done a little theater, so I observed how production worked, and bothered a lot of people on set with questions. I found out much later that you’re not supposed to do that,” she said.
Ara had her hands full working on several productions over the years, from acting to behind-the-scenes jobs. She was coordinator for Damgo ni Eleuteria and then assistant director for My Paranormal Romance, both of which are award-winning features. She then played the role of Guada in the short, Dia ug Guada, which was part of the Biyernes, Biyernes compilation.
Doing away with film school, Ara had her training through actual practice. She had inherent curiosity, and got by hanging out with those who she shared the same interest with, observing them and learning however way she can. “I couldn’t afford film school and even if I had the money, I’d probably end up shooting,” she said. “I tried to get into workshops in exchange for jobs, like Bing Lao’s found story workshop and Surf Reyes’ film gym. I attend every free lecture within reach, even from drunk filmmakers at film fest parties. My eyes and ears are always watching and listening. Also, the Internet is my friend.”
Becoming a filmmaker was never what Ara had in mind at first — all she knew was that she enjoyed stories and she enjoyed writing. She eventually pursued mass communication at the University of the Philippines Cebu. “I grew up wanting to be several different things that all required you to tell stories,” she said. “Filmmaking to me was an impossible feat, and therefore too ambitious. I wanted to be a cartoonist, but didn’t know how to make my drawings move. And then I moved on to making up stories and playing them out with my brother. And then I moved to school plays. And then film.”
Ara wrote her first short Tami-is in 2011, and her first full-length Aberya with Christian Linaban the following year — the latter their entry to the Cinemaone Originals. She then produced Rated R: A Story About Geeks and Sex that won best film in UPelikula. Operation Prutas is her first film after taking a hiatus from filmmaking the year her and Christian’s son, Malaya, was born.
Truly an interesting protagonist herself, Ara’s tryst with motherhood is a compelling story in its own right, with her unconventional viewpoints on child-rearing, starting day one, with her decision to do a water birth — an experience well-documented in her blog. Her little boy now shares the spotlight with filmmaking atop her list of priorities. Outside the set, she spends time with him playing, watching percussion videos online, “keeping him away from the cats and changing (his) diapers. We’re also mastering phonetics and colors.”
These days Ara is working on Superpsychocebu, a film she’s co-producing with Christian under Panumduman Pictures. On the side she’s also handling the production outfit’s marketing and communications.
The young filmmaker admits that local industry has a long way to go, yet she remains optimistic. “It’s getting larger by the day. There are several different groups now, more than the handful I knew when I was starting out,” she said, “The trouble is that we don’t have market value yet, so it’s still really hard to make a real living out of filmmaking, and we lose and have lost a lot of talented, experienced people to greener pastures.”
Despite the industry’s inherent challenges, many wonder what keeps her going? Straightforwardly, Ara said, “the voices in my head” — the stories she hears from others and the stories she makes up, and appeasing their need to be told.
Photos: Alfred Gregory E. Bartolome | Make-up Artist: Carlo Damolo
Hair Stylist: Jerwin Bastatas