EXCLUSIVE: Dissecting YCC’s Historic Best Film Citation for Thop Nazareno’s ‘Edward’

In a historic first, over the weekend, movie critics group Young Critics Circle Film Desk hailed Thop Nazareno‘s Edward as the best film of 2019. This serves as the first time in the group’s 30-year-tradition to announce their annual citations online, given the pressing situation brought by the global pandemic.

Edward is a film that chronicles the coming-of-age tale of its titular character (played by Louise Abuel), as he navigates his transition from innocence to adulthood while attending to an estranged and ailing father (Dido dela Paz). Interestingly, the poignant narrative was set in a bleak, undisclosed public hospital that not only served as a backdrop to the characters’ stories of love, friendship, family, and survival, but ultimately an impetus for dialogue on the harsh conditions of the country’s healthcare system since it first screened at the 2019 Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival.

Louise Abuel and Dido dela Paz. Production Still courtesy of Thop Nazareno

The film was an early fan favorite, having easily filled up screening venues at the Cultural Center of the Philippines from the esteemed festival’s diverse audiences before taking home the Special Jury Prize and the Best Supporting Actress trophy for Ella Cruz. Edward also serves as Nazareno’s follow-up to his critically-acclaimed first feature, Kiko Boksingero, which then received the YCC prize for Best First Feature of 2017.

This year, during the announcement of nominations, the film ran away with the most nods in all categories, namely, Best Editing, Best Cinematography and Visual Design, Best Sound and Aural Orchestration, and Best Performance for its lead actor, 16-year-old Abuel. Apart from the top film plum, Edward also took home the Best Screenplay award for John Bedia, Denise O’Hara and Nazareno.

Thop Nazareno. Photographed by Jan Mayo

“It still hasn’t sunk in, yet. For one, I didn’t really expect that they are already going to announce winners earlier than usual, let alone, an awarding given our situation. But it feels so overwhelming to get this kind of response, because when we were making the film, going through all the cramming and the deadlines, my only goal was to show something that we would not be embarrassed with,” Nazareno jests, in an interview with Rank Magazine.

“As a filmmaker, you want to make films like this that shows real situations and you want to prove that there’s a market for stories like this,” he says. “In the case of Edward, we want to show the state of public hospitals, where the doctors and those working in it are not necessarily the villains, but the system that put them there.”

Transcending the medium

Louise Abuel and Ella Cruz. Production Still Courtesy of Thop Nazareno

He then highlights the value of authenticity in telling Edward’s story, laced with clear depictions of the conditions in which people surrounding him are thrust in. Steering his production team, Nazareno had to recreate a public hospital based on research and first-hand experiences of vital members of the team.

He shares, “It was very important for us to portray harsh realities in our hospitals the way we have seen and experienced it. The good thing about it is that we didn’t have to magnify and scream about those conditions in order to get a reaction, but it still made an impact. To do that, we made sure that we are accurate–from our research, the script, the production design, and down to the smallest details we had to be very careful. During our shoot, we had a consultant to make sure that we are as factual as possible. That’s what makes me feel proud about the film, because the immersion for the actors, down to our production team is really something else.”

With the success of the film in 2019, Nazareno notes that the relevance of the film, almost a year after it was first screened, still rings to be true, especially in light of recent events. He comments, “The time frame of Edward’s story was set when everything was ‘normal’. Knowing those conditions then, and understanding our needs now, in a pandemic, is hard to think about.”

Abuel and Elijah Canlas. Production still courtesy of Thop Nazareno

YCC member and University of Santo Tomas alumni and instructor, Tito Quiling, talks about the merits of the film. “There is a sense of grit throughout the narrative [of Edward] but does not bombard the viewer with misery in their attempt to get out of the situation. Rendering this misery are the dismal conditions within the hospital as portrayed onscreen: patients lying in bed along the hallways, inadequate supply of water, unprocessed tests, lack of medical personnel, among others.”

He points out, “It makes one think, does the namelessness of the hospital stand for the hundreds of healthcare institutions that lack proper facilities to treat people across classes, especially in a country that has no efficient healthcare system?”

Established in 1990, YCC, is a diverse group of film critics from the academe. As the group defines it, its members are comprised of academics who, “through the years, have become attentive observers of Philippine cinema” to “bring into the analysis of film an in interdisciplinary approach.” Along with Quiling, for the 2019 annual citations deliberations, members include Aristotle Atienza (Ateneo de Manila University), John Bengan (University of the Philippines Mindanao), Emerald Flaviano (UP Diliman), Patrick Flores (UP Diliman), Tessa Maria Guazon (UP Diliman), Skilty Labastilla (AdMU), Janus Nolasco (UP Diliman), Jaime Oscar Salazar (UP Diliman), Cristian Tablazon (Philippine High School for the Arts), and Andrea Anne Trinidad (AdMU), led by chair Christian Jil Benitez (AdMU).

Form, Message, and Argumentation

Behind the scenes image courtesy of Thop Nazareno

In an interview, Benitez articulates the group’s decision, “Edward won because of its deft handling of filmic techniques that creates an argument that is most timely for the Philippine condition. In the narrative, for instance, the hospital as a particular time-space becomes neither a mere set-up for another coming-of-age, nor a violent imposition to the life of the characters; instead it becomes a life of its own, an ecology that interacts with characters such as Edward (played by Louise Abuel, whose charming and awkward embodiment is another argument of its own).”

He continues, “Through such integration of techniques, I think, the film makes it possible to argue for, say, a boyhood that imagines other masculinities beyond those that terrorize us daily now in our television screens. Perhaps, this is one way (among many others, of course) to articulate the significance of Edward to our times.”

Benitez brings the discussion of the new normal coming into play in this year’s deliberations among members and how the present situation inevitably played a part in considering a film that resonates with the times. He writes, “Deliberations for last year’s films took longer than usual, and unsurprisingly so; after all, we all had to, and still have to, confront the tricky business of surviving in the first place. If anything, the virtuality that YCC had to come to terms with, in both the process of deliberations and announcement, left us more space than usual and a different sense of urgency in considering, and even reconsidering, films. Inevitably, time, its very historicity, intervened, revealing which among the films have the most potent of significance. Edward, as we all know now, is one of those films, and I, for one, look forward to encountering the endurance of its arguments in the future.”

Behind the scenes image courtesy of Thop Nazareno

It is easy to regard, however, that the biggest proponent to Edward‘s win lies on the timeliness of the subject matter and its relevance to the present health crisis. YCC, through Benitez, notes that this, in great lengths, is hardly the case. It’s in the impressive and seamless marriage of the film’s form and message that Edward transcends from being just another coming-of-age film and a protest to the sorry state of the country’s public health system, but a potent artistic achievement. To constrain one’s view of the film in just one convenient box is a great injustice to the wholeness and multidimensionality of the material.

“A film, for me, is an argument. However, just so this would not be mistaken as a reduction of the art to what it says (as if that what can even be ascertained in the first place), it is important to understand this being argument of film to be inextricable from its very form: the medium is the message, we already know this, and it holds true, I think, even with the critical pursuit of the Film Desk of YCC. This is then all to say, Nazareno’s Edward won Best Film of the Year 2019 for its elegant argumentation, that is, in its intelligent process of showcasing a narrative particularly adapted to the form of film,” he adds.

Behind the scenes image courtesy of Thop Nazareno

“It is critical for me to emphasize the crucial role of form in understanding the potency in Edward. For while the film does reveal a dimension in the precarious condition of our country’s health care system, to cite this concern as the film’s primary ‘edge’ would be unfair to both the film and the life itself that we all have to endure in these difficult times. To reduce one through the other by means of convenient ideations of representation, I think, is dangerous, as it can easily discount the material differences between filmmaking and living in the present Philippines,” Benitez highlights.

“In Edward, for instance, the protagonist, although struggling, enjoys the luxury of being placed in a mise en scène modified by colors and sounds: the character somehow becomes less alone precisely because the worlding of the film sympathizes with him. The same is rarely true, if ever possible, for many of us.”

In Limbo

Louise Abuel. Photographed by Jan Mayo.

Other citations awarded during the online announcement were given to Lingua Franca for Best Achievement in Cinematography and Visual Design, Verdict for Best Editing, and Cleaners for Best Achievement in Sound and Aural Orchestration. Cleaners and Verdict were also hailed Best First Feature, along with Cinemalaya 2019’s Best Film, John Denver Trending.

The Best Performance award then went to Cebu-born filmmaker Isabel Sandoval, for portraying an undocumented trans caregiver in New York. Joining Sandoval in the category, are single and duo performances of Jansen Magpusao for John Denver Trending, Kokoy De Santos and Royce Cabrera for Fuccbois, Max Eigenmann and Kristoffer King for Verdict, Gio Gahol for Sila-Sila, and Abuel.

Early this year, the 16-year-old actor received the Best Actor trophy at the Dhaka International Film Festival (DIFF) in Bangladesh. For Nazareno, the YCC nomination comes at the right time, for the actor to get recognized in his own turf for Edward.

Abuel and Nazareno. Photographed by Jan Mayo

“Of course, it would’ve been great for the ensemble to be recognized or even just be nominated, but I can’t help but be really proud of Louise for what he has done, especially with everything that he had to go through to become Edward,” Nazareno shares.

Abuel, who lands the role for Edward when his acting career was in limbo–particularly during his awkward, pubescent stage–admits to almost not choosing to go to the auditions. After Cinemalaya 2019, he tells Rank Magazine, “I actually did not want to go, because I felt at that time that chances are, I would not get the part. And it wouldn’t be a role that I can do. It took me a long time to realize that this is a role that I can handle and with the trust between Direk Thop and I, it became easier to play this role the best way I can.”

After Edward, Abuel went on to venture to television, snagging a role in ABS-CBN’s Kadenang Ginto. He was then slated to appear in a reunion project with Nazareno for ABS-CBN’s streaming service, iWant, for an ambitious dark, action film that talks about a group of young trained killers in Boys Don’t Cry, opposite his Edward co-star, Elijah Canlas, and top young actor Joshua Garcia.

Image via Dreamscape Entertainment

However, in light of the rising threats brought by the pandemic, the project was presently put to a halt in compliance to the community quarantine guidelines. Nazareno, along with other film and television workers affected by the over two-month lockdown in the region, are currently assessing industry-wide guidelines and protocols that are currently being shaped and put in place in the face of the new normal.

The crippling impact of the pandemic, of course, have been felt around the globe and across industries. For instance, in the film circuit, cancellations of the biggest annual film festivals have already been announced. In fact, Nazareno was supposed to fly to the United States for a festival invitation. Similarly, the YCC awarding ceremony was also postponed until next year, to coincide with the announcement of the 2020 citations. On the other hand Udine’s Far East Film Festival, where Edward was also invited to take part in, was set to bring the festival online, adapting to the new normal.

Image courtesy of Thop Nazareno

As he gears himself ready to roll up his sleeves for the new practices in filmmaking, Nazareno says, “Right now, I have already made revisions to Boys Don’t Cry to meet the protocols. It is sad because the guidelines are very limiting but at the same time, it challenges me. It brings me back to the time when I made my very first short for Cinemalaya, with two actors and very limited team to work on it. It is an uncertain time, yes, but it is a reality we sure have to face.”