Pinoy indie in competition at Asian-American Film Festival
MANILA STANDARD , January 19, 2006
By Iskho F. Lopez

Film director Sari Lluch Dalena informs us that the movie Rigodon, which she and husband Keith Sicat co-directed, will be in competition at the 24th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF) in March. “Rigodon will be included in the Narrative Feature Competition and is eligible for the festival’s Audience Award, too,” wrote Sari in an e-mail. Likewise, Rigodon will be shown at the Fribourg International Film Festival, according to Keith in a second e-mail, which signals the film’s tour of international film festivals.

A Fulbright scholar, Sari is currently pursuing her Master’s degree in Film Production at the New York University graduate film program, while Keith does some editing work for verité-style long-format documentaries. The movie, Rigodon, which the two produced, wrote, and directed, may well have been their first “baby,” although they had their five-month-old baby boy named Datu Joaquin tugging along with them when they visited last December to host the premiere of Rigodon at the Cultural Center of the Philippines.

Apparently, Keith and Sari has opted to present their first full-length feature to a more discerning film community like the international film festival circuit, ahead of its local release. The 90-minute film on 16mm, as its synopsis goes, “follows the spiritual journeys of three Filipino immigrants in New York City whose lives intertwine in the age of racial profiling and government crackdowns.” The subject matter is current; its narrative style while closely adhering to traditional filmic standards is akin to lyrical poetry, lending the story space and time that is both now and then, here and there, or an experience that happened or will happen to its characters or the viewers.

Spiritual journeys

The title Rigodon hints on the material that the film explores, which is “the spiritual journeys of three Filipino immigrants in New York City whose lives intertwine in their individual pursuit of the American dream.” With the current concern for terrorist activities, the film underscores racial profiling and government crackdowns and leads its characters to experience the anxieties that are common to immigrants to the US.

The three main characters are Amado (Arthus Acuña), a former boxer who brings with him to the US his dreams of the family he left behind; Salome (Chin Chin Gutierrez), who has been wed to her American husband for 10 years and haunted by visions as she pursues her American dream; and Dante, a rebel-poet who has been helping his fellow immigrants for over a decade and is now confronted by the consequences of his illicit activities.

Keith and Sari see the rigodon dance as an appropriate metaphor to “the various colonial partnerships of the Philippines as well as the current ‘dance’ of political spheres of influence, social groups, and the individuals that immigrate to far away lands in search of better lives who all continue to go around in circles.”

“The Philippines has been ‘partnered’ with numerous Colonial forces, from the 300-year rule of the Spanish, its purchase by the United States, to the occupation by the Japanese,” explains Keith. “This complexity is compounded by the fact that Filipinos are one of the fastest growing immigrant populations in the United States.”

Rigodon is evidence of Sari’s and Keith’s passion for film, the medium they have chosen for artistic expression. It would seem that the production process from the actual shoot to final editing took all of two years, not counting the process of conceptualization to the writing of the screenplay.

Rigodon is certifiably an art film, from a concept that was carefully studied and its filming that involved mentoring from the likes of film director Spike Lee (Malcom X), writer/producer Hampton Fancher (Blade Runner), and Filipino-American film director David Maquiling (Too Much Sleep), the first Fil-Am director to be nominated for an Independent Spirit Award.

Actors Joel Torre and Chin-Chin Gutierez lead the cast that include New York-based theater actors Arthur Acuña, Ching Valdez-Aran, and Joseph Pe, among others.

Cinematographer is Korean Eun-ah Lee, also a painter and award-winning filmmaker (her short film Hanaya won Best Middle Asian Film at the Chicago Asian American Film Festival).

The original soundtrack was composed by Syrian musician Kinan Azmen, who has the distinction of being the first Arab to win the first prize at the Nicolay Rubenstein international youth competition in Moscow, Russia (1997), at age 21.

Solid film credentials

Sari and Keith come with solid credentials as filmmakers. Sari has won twice at the Urian Film Awards for two short films, Church Dogs and Little Crosses, which have been screened internationally along with her third short film, White Funeral. Her experimental documentary films Memories of a Forgotten War and From Asia With Love are being distributed internationally through Third World Newsreel. While her short film Kamikaze was selected at the Clermont Ferrand Short Film Market.

Likewise, Memories of a Forgotten War, a documentary on the Philippine-American War of 1899, had the honor of being the closing film at the Documentary Fortnight in New York City’s Museum of Modern Art.

Sari Dalena, the daughter of two prominent Filipino artists (painter Danilo Dalena and sculptor Julie Lluch), has expanded her family’s artistic tradition into the world of cinema and is a recipient of the Fulbright-Hayes scholarship, Asian Cultural Council Fellowship, Starr Foundation Award, Clive Davis Award, NYU Tisch Fellowship and the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ 13 Artists Award.

For his part, Keith acquired a double major in Philosophy and Literature from the University of Sussex in Brighton, England before venturing to painting and photography, and eventually going into filmmaking. He had exhibited in various group shows held in the Smithsonian Institute and The World Bank (Washington, DC), World Trade Center (Baltimore), and solo exhibits in the Washington DC area and in Manila.

Introspectres, his film on coping with the tragedy of 9-11, was recently screened at the Anthology Film Archives in New York City as well as the Cinema and Society Film Festival in Manila. His first short film, The Trickle Down Effect, was awarded Best Experimental Short in the CCP Alternative and Film and Video Awards in 1999. He has two others to date, Solo Cadenza and Third Party, which won third place for best short Feature in the CCP Alternative Film and Video Awards of 2000.

After the screening of Rigodon, one ventured to inquire whether the two were prepared to meet that challenge of mainstream moviemaking and they answered in the affirmative. Of course, they said with confidence and much enthusiasm. Yet there’s no rush. In the meantime, they have a series of film festivals to look forward to as they set out to make their presence known in the world of cinema.