Difference and sameness: Representation matters in a film like ‘Isa Pa, With Feelings’

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REPRESENTATION. Carlo Aquino and Maine Mendoza star in this Black Sheep production. Still from the movie trailer

REPRESENTATION. Carlo Aquino and Maine Mendoza star in this Black Sheep production. Still from the movie trailer

MANILA, Philippines – There is at least one scene from Black Sheep’s Isa Pa, With Feelings that the director counts as among the more memorable ones. There he was, in the throes of directing a rom-com that’s almost sure to be a hit, when he noticed the people around him were crying.

Isa Pa, With Feelings, hastily summarized, reads like every other rom-com ever produced. There’s a meet-cute, girl and boy share intimate and kilig moments together, and all seems well until reality catches up (“Sana bigyan mo naman ako ng pagkakataon. Mahal na mahal kita eh,” a crying Maine Mendoza tells Carlo Aquino). Then, the big question: how will love prevail?

But there’s at least 3 atypical things about the Black Sheep movie. It stars Maine Mendoza, among GMA’s biggest stars, in a film produced by rival network ABS-CBN’s film arm. It co-stars Carlo Aquino, the teen heartthrob from the ’90s who has managed to find a niche in 2019.

And then the heartthrob in this movie also happens to be deaf.

“Meron kaming isang scene doon na nakatingin ako sa monitor. Pagtingin ko sa mga deaf consultants, umiiyak sila,” director Prime Cruz recalled during the media conference for the film.

(We were shooting this scene and I was looking at the monitor. When I looked around me, our deaf consultants were crying.)

Prime is first to remind everyone that Isa Pa, With Feelings is one of many films that have made efforts to give big-screen representation to a sector that’s typically unseen and literally, unheard.

“We interviewed deaf people so we really got a glimpse of their community. While we were making the movie, we always wondered: How would they feel if they saw this scene? How would they feel if they saw the movie?” Jen Chuansu, one of the movie’s writers, told Rappler on the sidelines of the same press conference, held weeks before the premiere.

The idea – and need – to be seen is among the movie’s biggest themes. To be heard and listened to, after all, is a need everyone has, whether deaf or of hearing.

Acting, and then some

That Isa Pa, With Feelings is bankable is obvious. All of its promos before the premiere trended on social media – thanks primarily to Maine’s army of loyal fans. But don’t think, even for a single minute, that it’s all the team is banking on.

Maine and Carlo went through workshops beforehand – for acting, understanding the realities of those who are deaf, and even dancing – before the shoot even started. The movie is a huge leap for Maine, whose comfort zone has always been in the realm of comedy. That sign language is an integral part of the movie only makes it harder.

“Kaya kahit walang dialogue talagang nakaka-drain. Isipin mo, ako wala pang dialogue. Paano pa pinagdadaanan ni Maine? Siya nagmememorize ng dialogue, minememorize ang lahat,” Carlo said of Maine during the press conference.

(So even without dialogue, it’s draining. Think about it – I don’t have dialogue. So how much more difficult was it for Maine? She had to memorize dialogue, sign language, everything.)

Carlo’s challenge, meanwhile, was to act sans words.

About 70% of the movie, its writers estimate, is without spoken language.

It’s both refreshing and unnerving, in a day and age of oversharing and information overload, that Isa Pa, With Feelings is generous but terse in its dialogue.

Director Cruz and writers Chuansu and Kookai Labayan then point out: that’s exactly why Carlo and Maine were cast for the roles. The two actors, even and especially in real life, sometimes need no words to express what they want to say.

And, unsurprisingly, it works. Maine’s Mara has both a lightness and depth to her, while Carlo’s Gali is both pained and hopeful. Maine’s deliberate actions and actuations are the perfect foil to Carlo’s subtlety.

Stories that need to be told

The idea and inspiration for Isa Pa, With Feelings wasn’t that fancy. Prime had chanced upon a group of friends at a mall in Quezon City. They all happened to be deaf. He began to wonder what “their” world was like.

To say “their,” of course, is an acknowledgment that it’s different – a theme Prime, Jen, and Kookai don’t shy away from in the movie.

Prime and Jen admitted they weren’t quite sure if the ABS-CBN-backed studio would go for the idea, especially since it was a tad bit “risky.”

But Kookai, who is from Black Sheep, said she’s glad it was this pitch out of two that got the green light.

“Wala pang casting during that time, ‘yung pinagdadaanan ng characters sa story talaga. Deaf or hearing, ano talaga siya eh, sobra siyang emotional. Sobra siyang masarap ikuwento,” she said.

(Even before we started casting, what the characters went through is something else. Deaf or hearing, it’s really emotional. I enjoyed telling this story.)

To be sure, an ambitious project has its unique difficulties. In the case of Isa Pa, With Feelings, it was being mindful of how to write and shoot scenes with minimal spoken dialogue.

“It’s difficult in the sense that, you know, the editing points. It’s sign language. It’s not like spoken language where you can just cut the scene,” said Kookai.

“You’re used to dialogue, banter – but it’s hard to do that [in this movie] because you can’t have kilometric dialogue…because that also means kilometric signing. So we have to condense it and come up with scenes that aren’t reliant on two people talking, bantering,” said Jen.

“[We had to] come up with scenes that were visual – how they’d communicate beyond just words,” added Jen.

And anyone who’s seen the Black Sheep flick will understand just what Prime, Jen, and Kookai mean.

Just like any good love story, it’s easy to project one’s self onto any of the characters. What isn’t always easy, particularly for specific segments of society, is the ability to be seen – or heard – in mainstream cinema.

It wasn’t the particular poignance of the scene that moved their deaf consultants, after all. “Excited sila sa scene kasi nakikita nila ang mga sarili nila [doon] (They were excited to see the scene because they see themselves in the character),” said Prime. – Rappler.com

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