Serbis: Interview with Filipino Director Brillante Ma. Mendoza

Cannes Film Fest 2008–Serbis World Premiere

Film's Dual Theme—Service and Family

“SERBIS” may be viewed from several levels.  That the film, as you say, has a dual theme, it is intentional.  Specifically, “SERBIS” refers to the rent boys, including the minors, who ply their trades inside the movie houses.  As such, the question of morality comes into play, not to mention the legality of the whole proceedings.  In these parts, rules and laws are more often observed in the breaches.  But what is morality, or legality for the matter, in a society wallowing in abject poverty, and the struggle for survival stares at you in the face Indeed, the whole thing boils down to a question of economics.

In the true story from which the film was based upon, the family that owns the movie house resides in the same establishment.  It is not coincidental that the movie house or cinema is named “FAMILY.”  And the camera catches the story of a family, dysfunctional and extended, as it unfolds to mirror a country in continuous decay.

In a broad sense, “SERBIS” can mean “SERVICE” of any kind: one’s service to one’s family; the family’s service to its members; the cinema owner’s service to their customers.  Or the cinema’s service to moviegoers and others; citizen’s service to society or country; society’s or country’s service to its citizens; men and women’s service to humanity, humanity’s service to man/woman; and so on and so forth.

Strong Matriarchal Household

Most of my films are inhabited by strong women.  In “SERBIS,” the dominant and domineering matriarch, played by Gina Pareño, reflects the typical Filipino family where women actually reign and hold thing together.  The family from which I cam from is similar in many respects.  The Philippines is basically a matriarchal society with men at the forefront, especially in most of our political and economic affairs.  But behind almost every family lurks a powerful woman.

The power wielded by our two female presidents (Cory Cojuangco Aquino, 1986-1992, and Gloria Macapagal Aroyo, 2001-2010) demonstrates their strength against all odd.  They have weathered many storms, so to speak, including military coup d’états and other uprisings.  And yet they have prevailed.

Alan's Boil on his Buttocks

The boil on Alan’s buttocks is literally a “pain in the ass.”  It causes discomfort as many troubles in life do. Symbolically, Alan’s boil point to the unexpected – that nagging thing that sometimes one has to deal with no matter how one tries to avoid it.  It happens for whatever reason, but it is a party of us that we have to take on or live with or rid of in time.

The painful swelling causes Alan to limp, and a glimpse into his real character is made obvious.  He has impregnated his girlfriend but the weakling in him is not ready to face the responsibility that the situation entails.  Still, Alan goes through the motions of the whole charade and mimics what passes for romance by the bedding his woman in the confines of his congested and chaotic space one more time.

In the end, after getting rid of his troublesome boil, with a folk bottle-on-buttock ritual, Alan finally decides to abandon everything – his family (relatives), the movie house, his job, his girlfriend and their scheduled engagement.  He packs his belongings in one bag and quietly leaves, walking against the flow of a sea of religious believers in a seemingly funeral procession.  Perhaps he is the usual heel who leaves his country in despair of disgust to look for greener pastures, and he is hailed as a new “Global Hero” when he returns after a life of virtual servitude in a foreign land

Camera's Approach

It has become a trademark, in a manner of speaking, in all my films that the camera almost always follows the characters.  We saw that in “Masahista” (THE MASSEUR), “Kaleldo” (SUMMER HEAT) and “Manoro” (THE AETA TEACHER).  We also walked the same walk in “Foster Child” (JOHN JOHN) with the characters as they go to their final destination, which all a day’s journey.  And “Tirador” (SLINGSHOT), with its various vignettes intertwining, has opened all roads, taken or not taken, by people from all walks of life on and off-screen.

In SERBIS, the small journeys that the camera travels, trailing the varied characters to the nooks and crannies of the four-story cinema, are deliberate and integral to the film’s storytelling.  The different levels of the cinema transcend its physical layout as they manifest the many facets of the structure as characters.  People and layers are views and interpreted in accordance to one’s nature, culture, education, experience, vibration or other variables.

See Review of Serbis