Emir--'First Filipino movie musical'--tackles OFW phenomenon

"First Filipino movie musical" tackles OFW phenomenon
By Walter Ang
May 3, 2010
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Audiences will soon be able to watch the first Filipino movie musical. "Emir" tells the story of Amelia, an Ilocana who grows up in the sand dunes of Paoay and ends up as a nanny in a royal household of a fictional emirate in the deserts of the Middle East.

Chito Roño, known for directing movies like "Sukob" and "Caregiver," is helming the project. The obvious first question is, of course, "Why a musical?" Roño laughs and says, "That's what I asked myself, too!" He'd been approached by executive producer Rolando Atienza, chair of the Film Development Council of the Philippines, last year to take on a project. "I wanted to commit to what no one else would dare do," Roño says.

With a filmography that spans genres and topics that deal with social issues ("Bata bata paano ka ginawa"), women and society ("Curacha: Ang babaeng walang pahinga"), fantasy ("Spirit Warriors") and horror ("Feng Shui"), to name a few, it would seem that a musical would be the next in line for the multi-awarded director.

"I didn't want to compete with the mainstream movie industry, I wanted to do something that they weren't about to do," he says. He expresses disdain at the run-of-the-mill love stories that are churned out, noting a lack of "connection with real life."

"We've had many movies that had production numbers in them," he says. "But never ever in my memory did we have a movie musical before. So why not a musical?"

He recounts how amazed he was when he encountered his nieces and nephews singing all the songs from "High School Musical." "They had all the songs memorized! Really, Filipinos love to sing and everybody loves a musical."

The decision to anchor the musical on the story of an OFW was deliberate. "I always want to include something about or of society, no matter how minor," he says. "I wanted to create a movie with a story that audiences can relate to. And who doesn't know an OFW?"

Roño is cognizant of the limitations of the conventions of a movie musical. "Nobody bursts into song in mid-sentence in real life, that's the fantasy of it," he says. "Therefore it's important to establish elements of reality that lets the audience connect with the material. For example, you see the dirt of old London in the musical `Oliver.'"

He points out that tragedy is also an important part of the mix. "In `Miss Saigon,' one person dies; in `Sweeny Todd,' a million people die," he says with a laugh. "The point is that a musical is really a mix of fantasy and reality." (After all, "Emir" ends with a musical number featuring the Filipina yayas all over the world.)

Therefore, for "Emir," Roño has been working hard to make sure that "Filipinos will find it accessible and there will be an emotional connection."

To achieve his vision, Roño assembled a group of collaborators who "were willing to join the project and had the guts to carry it through."

The Cultural Center of the Philippines came in as an industrial partner through the aegis of co-executive producer Nestor Jardin. Having been involved in the development and production of Philippine independent cinema as former Artistic Director of the CCP, former board member of the FDCP and as current president of the Cinemalay Foundation, Jardin says, "We are thrilled to have an outstanding artistic team."

There is Palanca award winner Jerry Gracio for the screenplay, Neil Daza for cinematography, Digo Rico for production design, and Jerrold Tarog for editing. Choreography is by Douglas Nierras.

For composers, Roño got Gary Granada and Diwa de Leon. When Vin Dancel of Peryodiko and Ebe Dancel of Sugarfree found out about the project, they were game, too. Gracio, Granada and playwright Rody Vera worked on the lyrics.

Musical direction is by Chino Toledo in Dolby 5.1 Digital Surround Sound. "The movie will have a mix of music genres. There's going to be Pinoy pop, ballads, rock, folk rock, novelty songs, among others," says Rono. "It really depends on what a particular scene needs."

The cast is headed by Frencheska Farr, winner of "Who Will Be The Next Big Star," as Amelia. Joining her are movie and theater veterans like Dulce, Bodjie Pascua, Julia Clarete, Bayang Barrios, Gigi Escalante, Beverly Salviejo, and 2009 Philstage Gawad Buhay for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Musical, Leizel Batucan. "I also cast non-singing actors who can sing to round things out like Jhong HIlario and Sid Lucero."

"Emir" has shot on-location in Ilocos Norte, Ifugao province and the Morrocan cities of Marrakech, Ourzazate and Essaouira. "We used the same sets and locations of movies like `Prince of Persia,' `The Mummy,' `Sex and the City 2,' and `Star Wars,'" says Roño. "In fact, I had to keep moving around because I didn't want audiences to see the same stuff they've seen in these other movies."

Executive producer Atienza says, "Excellent collaborators, top-notch talents, exotic locales, larger-than-life sets, all of these elements raise the bar for Philippine filmmaking. This unconventional film will be a landmark movie that will extend the frontiers of Philippine cinema. It's also a way of paying tribute to our OFWs, saluting them in a way that's very Filipino?through music, songs and dances that capture the heart of the Filipino."

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