At age 100, Elena Bautista became a movie star. For a woman who doesn’t even have a physical memento or photograph of her own mother, it’s significant that Bautista, now 101, is the subject of her filmmaker granddaughter’s documentary directorial debut, Kuna Ni Nanang (My Mother Said).
The film was born when Jessica Sison’s family asked her in August 2006 to put together a slideshow for her grandmother’s 100th birthday the following April. She answered no. “Anyone can put together a slideshow,” Sison said to me outside of the Village East Cinema Theater in New York before the film’s final screening at the Tribeca Film Festival on Sunday, May 4. “I’m a filmmaker, and I have to do better.”
Sixteen film festivals later, the five-minute documentary has become an international success, from screenings at the San Francisco Independent Film Festival to the Women in Film Festival in Vancouver. “I wasn’t going to submit it,” Sison revealed, “Then my friends and other filmmakers said I should.”
Most recently, Sison’s tour of the film stopped in New York, where I had the great opportunity of seeing it for myself. The Tribeca Film Festival sorted through some 2,500 short films. Sison’s film was one of the 79 shorts picked. Sison admitted that she had no idea it was that competitive. “This film was only supposed to be for her birthday,” the 35-year-old filmmaker said.
Made on Final Cut Pro and using Bautista’s own voice to narrate the story, from her arranged marriage and emigration from the Philippines to her present life in California, the film covers Bautista life in a fraction of time. Sison’s blending of party scenes with her family and Bautista singing a short cadence in Ilocano (a dialect from the northern Philippines) strikes an emotional chord in the viewer’s heart. (You will want to call your own grandmother at the end of this movie. I certainly did.) One doesn’t see a frail 100-year-old woman. Instead, Bautista is strong and fearless, saying in the film that she doesn’t fear death, “because it happens to everybody.”
The film will have a few more screenings this summer, namely in Texas, Colorado and back in New York in July for the Asian American International Film Festival. Since it’s a five-minute film, DVD might not be the ideal wide-release venue, but Sison might release the film for purchase online.
“The whole online thing is really new,” the Filipina director said, “There are so many competing distribution companies that are startups. I don’t want to go with one until they are established.” She would be interested in releasing it on Apple’s iTunes, which releases and sells numerous short films, but acknowledged that they‘re extremely selective.
Sison might be selling herself a little short. For a film that stemmed from the idea of a slideshow and made its way to the Tribeca Film Festival, it seems to me that anything could be possible.