In #RatedG3, get to know Sonny Calvento and how he took the country by storm as the first Filipino short film maker at the Sundance Film Festival.
The prestigious Sundance Film Festival is an annual film festival held in Park City, Utah, Salt Lake City in the US. Sitting on the land purchased by Hollywood legend Robert Redford, he named it “Sundance” after his role in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Since then, Sundance has become the largest independent film festival that features full and short-length films in both drama and documentary.
With the kind of talent we have in the Philippines, particularly in independent cinema, it was only a matter of time before a Filipino filmmaker would make his way into Sundance. And it happened this year, in 2021, to my friend and former colleague Sonny Calvento.
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How It All Began
I first met Sonny at ABS-CBN when they were assigning new writers for us to mentor under our programs. Back then, I headed the Concept Development Group Think Tank. I remembered scanning the group of new writers and when I saw Sonny, I thought to myself: “’Yan na ‘yung pinaka-cute. Sana sa akin mapunta ‘yan!” And true enough, Sonny became one of my writers. We worked on several concepts together but we ultimately pursued different projects. Sonny would, later on, try his hand in directing and has since then become a very well-respected name in the local indie industry.
“I’m really proud of all the three movie projects I’ve been a part of so far,” he shares. “My first film, Nabubulok (The Decaying)—a 2017 Cinemalaya finalist—was my first and last directing project that my father saw. He was so proud of the output that during his final days at the hospital, he was telling me that seeing me direct my first film is probably the best gift I ever gave him.”
As the younger son of infamous media man Tony Calvento, Sonny explains the importance of sharing his success with his beloved father. “I also heard him calling his friends who happen to be big bosses in TV networks, despite being at the hospital and feeling weak, to ask them to give me an opportunity to direct because he saw the film and he was so proud of it. For a son, no award or international film festival inclusion can ever beat that moment.”
Nabubulok or The Decaying is loosely based on a 2002 case in Panay wherein a Filipina’s disappearance prompted a small town to suspect her American husband of murder. Sonny also shares his pride in his second film, but this time as a producer. His award-winning film, John Denver Trending, is about a young boy mistakenly accused of theft on social media, which led to his tragic suicide.
“I’m also proud to be a co-producer of John Denver Trending because I’ve witnessed how the film moved viewers and how it opened a lot of conversations about cyber-bullying and responsible social media usage during our school-to-school screenings,” he explains.
The Story of Success
But ultimately, it would be Sonny’s social satire about the plight of contractual workers in the Philippines that would earn him a spot in Sundance.
Excuse Me, Miss, Miss, Miss—the film we made out of me wanting to find my voice as a filmmaker—became the first-ever Filipino short film in Sundance. And it became my ticket to a lot of opportunities not just in film, digital, and television, but also in the advertising world,” Sonny tells me.
And yes, he has come a long way from when I first met him. But even so, he never fails to look back at how he started and the people he started with.
“I started directing in 2017 and I am still in the process of growing and discovering myself as a director, but I’d like to think that I resonate more towards materials that find humor and satire in dark situations,” Sonny confesses. “There’s something about my childhood—being exposed to crime stories at a young age and living with a crime show host—that gave me a different perspective in looking at dark circumstances.”
“My former bosses are definitely mentors who helped (in) shaping my voice as a storyteller. In terms of writing, I had the opportunity to be mentored by two of the most prolific film writers in our country—Sir Ricky Lee and Sir Armando Lao. Being with ABS-CBN as a writer for seven years also gave me the chance to learn from Creative Managers Henry King Quitain, Mel Mendoza-del Rosario, and all the head writers I have worked with—you (G3 San Diego), Denise O’Hara, Arden Rod Condez, and Arah Jell Badayos. All of my former head writers have distinctive voices and I’d like to believe that a certain part of my creative voice is actually a fusion of learnings from all of my former bosses and how they give importance to creative integrity.”
“With my limited years of experience in directing, I usually get people who are more experienced than me—from producers, cinematographers, editors, sound designers, and production designers—I consider them mentors too,” Sonny adds.
A Shot at Sundance
Achieving success in the Philippines, especially when you’re an independent filmmaker, is quite tricky because there’s hardly a guarantee of commercial success. That’s why writers, directors, and producers look towards options abroad or to film festivals in order to get their films noticed, win awards, and earn money from them.
Sonny generously shares with me his experience in entering international film festivals. “Sometimes, the film gets invited to (be) submitted to international film festivals. Being a part of globally recognized local film festivals like Cinemalaya and QCinema is like your ticket to getting invited to submit to international festivals.”
“But most of the time, you get to international film festivals through submitting your work for consideration online. Most A-list festivals require world premiere status—your film should not have screened locally or internationally in order to be programmed to their festival, but luckily that’s not the case with Sundance Film Festival.”
“Sundance does not require any premiere status—so I took my chances and submitted the film online, but the idea of getting programmed against films that premiered in Cannes, Berlin, Venice never crossed my mind. I was just so surprised I got a congratulatory e-mail from Sundance a couple of months before the festival for being chosen to be one of the 50 selections out of 9800 submissions,” Sonny happily remembers.
“(The) Sundance Film Festival is unlike any other film festivals because (its) main focus is to build a supportive community that gives opportunities to independent filmmakers. Your participation in the institute does not end once your film gets chosen. Even after the festival, the institute set Zoom meet-ups to learn your next projects and how they can help you develop your project and find granting for it.”
Giving a Voice for the Voiceless Through Film
“I’m very proud to be one of the only three Asian directors in their line-up this year, and the most exciting part is when Filipinos living in the US send me emails or direct messages through Instagram or Twitter to let me know that they are proud to watch a Filipino film in the Sundance lineup,” he adds.
Yes, it is truly admirable when a Filipino makes it in the international arena of filmmaking and I’m just so proud of Sonny for being the first at Sundance.
But Sonny is just getting started. In the time that I’ve known him, I know that there is still a wealth of stories he wants to tell and can tell. I then ask him about his process so that maybe future filmmakers can learn from him.
“One of the most important considerations for me is (that) it should always be about a topic that people don’t give enough attention to. Films should open conversations and it should always give voice to the voiceless,” Sonny firmly stresses his purpose of selecting subjects for his films. That’s why for his Sundance feature, Sonny made sure that the short film’s identity was very Filipino.
“I think what makes me a Filipino filmmaker is because my films are always reflective of the psyche of a common Filipino and how I intend to challenge those norms. (For example,) Excuse Me, Miss, Miss, Miss is a satire about a woman who is about to lose her job as a contractual sales lady and the way the story was told is reflective of a Filipino psyche of ‘learning to laugh at your miseries’—which I find toxic and questionable,” he continues. “The film is a comedy that transitioned into a dark ending. Another example is in ‘Nabubulok,’ where it reflects how Filipino people are obsessed with the ‘tsismis culture’ (or gossiping culture) and how it tends to make them judge a situation without knowing the whole story.”
The Shift to Digital
Now that he received praise for his films, I asked him if that is what he wanted more than the commercial success of his films. Surprisingly, Sonny takes the realistic approach.
“I prefer both, but if I have to choose just one, it (has to be) commercial success. I want my works to reach the more local and international audience,” Sonny admits with a laugh thrown in for good measure. “It’s really hard to make a living out of being a director, specifically for independent film directors like me who get paid per project. I earn money through doing directing and producing works outside the industry. I think that’s how most directors in our country survive.”
In the migration to digital, and in light of the ongoing pandemic, one of the most affected industries is ours—the film industry. Because even I don’t know if we will ever go back to theatrical releases. I ask Sonny how he feels about the world losing this kind of cinematic experience.
“I think our industry is currently struggling to shift (to) digital, because the bulk of our audience is really on free television and/or traditional cinema, so a shift on (a different) platform also means a shift on (the) audience and/or audience habits,” he answers. “It’s hard because we are competing against hundreds of high-budgeted content from Korea and Hollywood. It is (also) definitely more challenging for us because our government does not see producing films as an integral part of our Filipino culture and as an opportunity to promote tourism in our country.
“Plus, we have very slow internet. I think we are really not ready for (this) shift. All of us are still studying how to adjust the way we tell stories in order to fit the digital mold and (learning) how the audience consumes digital content. I am still (in) a hopeful state that this pandemic will be over soon and we get to experience cinema the way we are used to,” Sonny finishes on an optimistic note.
Of Success and Wise Words of Advice
With his recent and current success, Sonny is still all about telling the story—using his art as a platform for the voiceless and unseen, and creating an image of the quality of film from the Philippines to the world. And he works hard to do all this.
“Be kind and appreciative to everyone you work with,” he advises, as he fondly remembers what he learned from his father. “My father would always tell me that his biggest regret is not being able to be appreciative enough to everyone who worked so hard to make his show a big hit.”
And for all aspiring filmmakers, Sonny has this to say: “Now is an important time to be a filmmaker. Films can somehow help people who are experiencing depression because of this pandemic. Never believe that filmmaking is not essential. Films have the power to influence people and it’s your responsibility to fight for your dream no matter how hard the circumstances are right now.”
And Sonny is right. For decades, Filipino filmmakers have been fighting for their dreams to be seen. And every opportunity for these works to be showcased here and abroad is proof of how talented we really are as storytellers. Even in the midst of a pandemic, Sonny has proved that films serve a purpose. And he will continue to drive this bravado even if it takes one film fest at a time.
And that’s what truly makes him a Filipino filmmaker, proudly. But for me? I’m pretty sure his father is even more proud of him.
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